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Digital Office Hours

I’m on campus a lot less this year than I have been in the past. The cause of this is a 120-mile, one-way commute. I arrive at campus at 8:45 am, teach straight from 9:30 am until 3:15 pm, and then hold office hours from 3:30 – 5:00 pm. The result is that I am available to meet individually with students for a total of 3 hours each week. My experience suggests that this amount of office hours is more or less average. But there’s a decided disadvantage in that many of my students aren’t able to meet with me during that time given their other classes or commitments. If I lived closer to my campus, I could follow George’s example and use Jiffle or Doodle to work with students to schedule meetings or other possible office hours. My solution has been to offer digital office hours.

Instant messaging (IM) services like AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, or Windows Live Messenger make it possible for you to chat in real-time with friends, colleagues, and students. Google integrated chat into its email service, Gmail, in 2006, and even Facebook added a chat feature in early 2008. So the chances are good that your students will have accounts on one or more of these services. If you do as well, then you can simply let your students know your account name (so they can find you) and when you will be available to chat with them. Julie indicates that her students have always been respectful of her status when she is logged in, and students only chat with her when it is their designated time.

But do you really want to have all of these different tools open at once? Probably not. In order to cut down on applications or screens that you have open on your desktop, you can use an IM aggregrator. Such a tool allows you to log into multiple IM services at once; students can reach you via any service that they prefer, but you only have one window to deal with. Julie recommends Digsby for such a service. Digsby allows you not only to manage all of your IM streams, but also works as an email manager for web-based mail and as an interface for social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. It is Windows-only at the moment, but is “coming soon” for Mac and Linux. Mac users have their own choices for IM aggregators, such as iChat or the more robust Adium. If you don’t feel like downloading and installing yet another application to your computer(s), you can also use the web-based meebo.

But what if you don’t want to give your students your IM account name? That’s the position I found myself in. I could of course create a new account for just digital office hours, but that seemed like one more thing that I would have to check and thus not especially ProfHacker-ish. I found a solution with Google Talk chatback badges.

The badge is a short snippet of HTML that I can plug into any of my course-related websites, and the result is that anyone who visits the website can click on the chatbox to start a conversation with me–(1) whether they have a Google Talk account or not or (2) whether or not they know my IM account name. (Full disclosure: I got my inspiration to offer digital office hours when I first saw the Google Talk chatback badge on the blog of Tom Scheinfeldt, who is Managing Director of the Center for History and New Media [the home of Zotero!]. Tom has since removed the plug-in from his blog; I think I bothered him chatted with him too much.)

Since I’m a devotee of all things Google, I am frequently logged into my Gmail account, so it’s very convenient for me to use this tool for my digital office hours. And when I’m done with the office hours, I simply set my status to unavailable, and it becomes impossible for anyone to click on the link. The one downside is that Gmail cannot tell me whom I’m chatting with, since my interlocutor isn’t logged in. So I’ve told my students that my first question will always be to ask who I’m speaking with, and that problem is quickly solved.

I’ve found that my students do not frequently take advantage of my scheduled digital office hours. But then again, they don’t stop by my regular office hours all that frequently. I have told them, however, that they can always chat with me if I’m shown to be available, and I will frequently set it as so as I’m doing class preparation at night. I’ve found that I get into conversations with students most frequently after 10pm. That might be too late for many, but since I have control over whether I’m shown as available or not, I don’t mind them chatting with me when I’ve made it clear that I am available.

Do you offer digital office hours? How do you manage them? Do you find that students make use of them?

cc licensed flickr photo by mkosut

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