September 26, 2007

Office Hours Get New Online Look

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Office hours may be next in line to get a virtual makeover as students in certain classes can interact with professors and T.A.s over the Internet. This additional medium for office hours has become increasingly popular among Cornell faculty members and their teaching staffs. For example, the 12 undergraduate T.A.s for INFO 130: Introduction to Web Design and Programming are available for online office hours through AOL Instant Messenger.
“It’s convenient for the T.A.s, but more importantly, it helps the students learn, since it’s easier for a kid to type in a question online than to walk all the way to the engineering quad to get it answered,” said Phil Adams ’09, a T.A. for INFO 130.
For T.A.s, holding online office hours is simple — they sign-in to a shared screen name at a designated time on a rotational basis, and students instant message their questions. The same trends that apply to regular office hours apply to those online: T.A.s notice an increased amount of online inquiries right before an assignment is due.
“Two Saturdays ago, I had twelve students log-on in one hour to ask me questions about the homework assignment,” Adams said.
Some professors are also using instant messaging to contact students in addition to the usual email and Blackboard. For example, Prof. David Williamson, operations research and information engineering, who taught INFO 130 two years ago, would sometimes instant message a student to answer a question.
“Usually it comes down to some last-minute thing. If the student has questions, it’s far easier for me to IM them rather than to do an exchange of six different emails back and forth. The student can find out what’s going on, and it’s certainly less personally intrusive than me getting their cell phone number and calling them back with an answer,” said Williamson.
Certain companies like Blackboard Inc. are also realizing the power of e-learning. According to its website, Blackboard has 3,400 clients worldwide and millions of active users. Another company, Elluminate, Inc., focuses on real-time interactions and fine-tunes the experience to recreate every aspect of the physical classroom or lecture.
Currently there are forty-six members within the Cornell community using Elluminate’s free product, the vRoom, which provides a single room as opposed to a whole network of “simultaneous rooms,” according to Gary Dietz, solutions marketing manager at Elluminate. The University is also evaluating Elluminate for wider deployment as its products complement systems like Blackboard.
“Blackboard is the asynchronous component of e-learning. It’s the thing you use: you post schedules, you post classes, you post offline discussions. Just like any other object in Blackboard, you can use Elluminate to require that students attend three sets of online office hours before they get the next assignment. So basically, an Elluminate session appears like any other learning object within Blackboard, whether it’s a quiz or another piece of material,” said Dietz.
Online office hours at Cornell, although not widespread, are offered in various classes on campus. While critics think they could take away from face-to-face interactions, companies like Elluminate claim the experience only adds to the real-life learning experience.
“Ultimately, the blend of online and face-to-face interaction works the best. The real answer lies at the borderline between the two,” Dietz said.