Office Hours

Office Hours

Blog

I was lucky enough to attend the HERDSA (Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia) Conference 2019. At this conference I learnt a great deal which I could not possibly capture in a single blog post. However, there was one thing that hit home during the questions following Professor Peter Felten’s keynote: “Relationships matter: Moving relationship-rich experiences from the periphery to the center of undergraduate education.” That was about office hours.

A fellow delegate mentioned a study which found that a large number of students do not know what an office hour was for. Additionally, several students were under the impression that office hours were for academics only and that students should not approach academic staff during this time.

In his keynote, Professor Felten encouraged us to reflect on the research which indicates that many students “do not routinely experience educationally meaningful relationships with peers and academic staff,” and consider how we can move to ensuring that “our institutions are places of relentless welcome, deep learning, and whanaungatanga for all students.” The impact of two words, one term, on student’s access to a valuable student support structure, and a way of building meaningful relationships with academic staff, truly shocked me. 

Easy solutions were readily found – altering to the term “student hours” rather than “office hours” was suggested to place an emphasis on the student and the relationship, not the location. But this little worm had firmly embedded itself into my head. As I am part of the team that runs the Ako Aronui: Pathway to HEA Fellowship, problems with office hours weren’t a new concern. Although our participants are familiar with the purpose of the concept, we very rarely have attendees to our virtual office hour.

So, when I opened my RSS feed reader later on the next week and found the article Two Tips to Increase Students’ Use of Office Hours by Jennie M. Carr, sitting near the top of the list, I knew I had to have a read.

Despite the title, I found three useful tips in the article:

  • offering a virtual office hour, by skype, zoom or similar, for students that might not be able to come to their office physically;
  • scheduling office hours when their students can attend;
  • and using an online scheduler for booking appointments.

As a result, we have just started exploring a few booking systems, including Qualtrics and Microsoft Bookings, to see what works well with Outlook and what is embeddable within Blackboard. Switching toward an appointment-based system should encourage productivity and allow for relationships to flourish – watch this space!

If you are thinking about giving this a go with your students, consider the Blackboard Booking System (found under Course Tools).

Emily Whitehead

Five tips to make your online learning space more inviting for your learners

Five tips to make your online learning space more inviting for your learners

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If I were being formal, I would start with explaining that my approach to designing online learning spaces is from a user experience perspective, drawing from The Universal Design for Learning Guidelines and is contextualised within the Aotearoa New Zealand context. What I really mean by this is that I want my online spaces to be ones that learners want to occupy.

Digital tools are reasonably ubiquitous, with the majority of courses having some online presence. However, frequently online spaces are a filing cabinet rather than a learning space. I like to conceptualise the online space as its own learning environment and therefore, ask myself some of the questions I ask when I am designing face-to-face learning environments, in particular in this case:

  • How am I practising manaaki (hospitality, care and kindness)?
  • How am I welcoming my learners?
  • Is the space inviting from a learner perspective?

It is more straightforward to know how to welcome and create an inviting environment in a face-to-face context as opposed to an online one. I don’t have the answer to making the perfect online learning space – if I did, I would be writing a patent application rather than a blog post. So here are just five simple things I have picked up on developing more inviting online learning spaces:

1. Always check your content from the student perspective

This first one might seem really simple, but it is often forgotten. As you are building something for your learners, it is important to see it through their eyes. It has saved me several times when I have forgotten to make a piece of content visible! On Blackboard, use the student preview feature, perhaps go one step further and see what your content looks like on the devices your students might have using the “Inspect” tool on Chrome. The Blackboard student preview tool is particularly useful as it starts you from the home screen – what the students first see when they arrive. As you can see from the test course I used in the video below, my test home screen isn’t very inviting or welcoming at the moment.

2. A stitch in time saves nine – plan your space in advance!

This planning falls into two parts – planning the overall structure of what content, activities and interactions you want your students to have, usually based on the existing course structure (e.g. lecture topics and the weeks of the semester) and then the planning of how you are going to layout this content. I do this through creating a wireframe or a storyboard –with the very high-tech paper and pencil method! Here is a quick sketch wireframe which I did to plan a particular section and how it turned out:

3. The three-click rule

The three-click rule is an unofficial rule in web-design that every piece of information should be within three clicks of arriving at a webpage. While there is criticism of this rule, I find it really helps with creating clean and clear navigation. When you plan the layout of your content, consider how many clicks your students will take to get there – the more clicks it is, the more likely it is for your learners to get lost.

4. Mix your media, but make it accessible

As discussed in the framework for Universal Design for Learning, providing multiple means of representation and communicating using various media types has been proven to be more effective for learning. So, mix your media – include video, audio, text, images – but consider the diverse learning community you are teaching. With videos and audio, captioning and transcripts are essential so that all students have access, and are beneficial for English as an additional language learners. All images should have alt-text (this is called Image Description in Blackboard) for screen reader users. Leicester University has an excellent guide for what makes good alt-text.

5. Evaluate and Reflect

Evaluation of your online learning spaces is critical – ask for feedback, look at the usage stats, and reflect on what these mean. You don’t have to wait to the end of an iteration of a course to seek feedback or evaluate how it is working, or not working as the case may be. However, at the end of an iteration, do take the time to evaluate, reflect and refine – and make a note of what you did, it might be useful for a teaching reflection at a later date!  In this reflection process, I always go back to my three original questions:

  • How am I practising manaaki (hospitality, care and kindness)?
  • How am I welcoming my learners?
  • Is the space inviting from a learner perspective?

– Emily Whitehead