The death of the office hours…Are we too available for our students?

Providing students with feedback, whether written or verbal, is something that has always seemed difficult to get just right. Pedagogically we know that too much is not a good idea, but too little can cause the student to lose face or confidence in their instructor. Throw cultural values and expectations about ‘normal’ student/teacher interactions into that mix and even replying to a quick question via email can turn into a several hour tango. At the end of the Fall 2015 semester, I took on an extra online course to gain additional experience in CALL(Computer Assisted Language Learning). This course was just getting started while our regular, intensive, 20-week program was approaching finals. For those who were finishing up, classes had ceased to allow time for project completion, and for those just getting started, there was some initial anxiety about taking an online course for the first time.

During this crucial curricular cross-roads, I told my students they could depend on me to help them with anything that they might need,”just email me,” I said. And they did. Some students emailed me 5-6 times a day with very long, often ‘hypothetical’ questions about possible directions that they could take as they either began the course or wrapped up the course. On top of this was I was assessing over 50 final essays and consulting with students and other faculty members on 2 incidents of plagiarism.  While replying to one email, 5 more would ‘ding’ in the lower corner of my browser; each one a new issue to resolve or a question that needed to be answered. For some, I could take the day but others wanted immediate replies. Students were asking for full reviews of very complex topics that stretched all the way back to weeks 2 and 3 of the program. One student, who plagiarized her final paper, emailed me 15 times in 30 minutes with short ‘text messages’ telling me how I had “ruined her life” and “caused her great shame.” Additionally, there was also a technical issue with the embedded quizzes in our Blackboard Collaborate sessions. For many, taking an online class can feel awkward and superficial at first. Despite my best efforts to reassure them that everything was going to be fine, some grew very impatient.

Later that week I attended a promotional session for prospective students to the Spring semester of our program, and when I tried to speak about the courses that I coordinate, I lost my words. I was overwhelmed and exhausted. I stood before a crowd of future students and current colleagues and announced that I ‘wasn’t feeling well’ and nervously walked off the stage.

This was a turning point for me; I realized that something had to be done. I asked a colleague for help with the online course issues and focused only on my final grades. Students asking for long-winded early semester content reviews were concisely advised to review the materials and notes and only email me if they had a specific question about their final paper. I had to get short. I had to get cold, and my student reviews suffered from it.

So where is the happy medium? How can we be available for our students without giving over ourselves (and our personal time) entirely? In the age of online office hours, how can we control our virtual availability in the same way that we used to control our physical one?  One colleague recommended ‘online office hours'(email me during these times), as well as having set guidelines for right questions and topics to avoid lengthy correspondences by email. He also suggested  setting an expectation for response times from the get-go. I tried that but it didn’t work that way I had hoped.

On the other side of this coin, my students come from a cultural background in which even reaching out to their instructors(for help) is not a social norm, so I am delighted to see barriers being challenged. They may not be able to ask me a question in person, due to cultural beliefs, but they can send it in an email.  Every educator’s ultimate dilemma, right? How do I help my students without sacrificing too much of myself?

What do you think? How have you found (or not found) a way to cope with the transition from the ‘office hour’ to the ‘every hour’? I’d love to hear your stories and/or suggestions.