Thursday, August 10, 2006

Online Office Hours

Marco Pollanen, a mathematics instructor from Trent University has developed a very interesting tool that he uses for holding online office hours. He allows students to use anonymous logins if they choose to, to help them overcome their fear of asking questions, looking stupid, or whatever. In an effort at clarity, let me point out that the online office hours are offered to students taking traditional facetime courses. He doesn't teach online.

He had a long list of motivations for doing this, but most of them revolve around students' math anxiety and fear (up to 85% of students in some studies) and the fact that few students participate in class or attend traditional office hours for extra help.

Importance of Office Hours: Conventional wisdom says there is a correlation between retention, performance, etc. and visiting with professors during office hours. In other words, it is believed that students should benefit from this out-of-class communication. However, most faculty report that their office hours are mainly a great time to catch up on their reading since they rarely get interupted. Although office hours are dead, 73% of faculty report that student-to-instructor communication has increased due to email, however text-based communications are not very effective with mathematics.

enVision v1.1 software is a chat/whiteboard program for writing mathematical equations (more of a drawing program) as well as just plain text in chat mode. It is a java applet (java 1.1, no plug-in needed) that loads into a standard browser. It is FREE and available at Besides using it for anonymous online office hours, he also uses it for class message boards. It is a quick and easy install (download zip file), although I believe that instructors need to have a file with adminstrator privileges loaded onto a campus web server (check with network administrator).

Instructor observations: (1) up to 40% of class might attend a single office hour period, (2) 1/3 don't ask questions, just watch and read what others are doing (lurkers), (3) many students stay the entire time slot of one hour or more, (4) 1/3 clearly use an alias to login, (5) 1/3 clearly use their real name, (6) 1/3 not always as clear as to identity (using common first name only, etc), (7) greater multi-way dialogue than in class with students often answering questions of other students.

enVision 2.0 is coming soon as open source under a Gnu open public license. He says it will be enhanced with greater functionality. I tried to ask a question but didn't get called on (maybe I should login to his online office hours to ask it) and wanted to know if he was looking into adding an audio chat function in the future. Web-based audio exchange is becoming easier and easier and would definitely increase the usefulness of this tool. My impression from this 30-minute presentation was that he had created a very useful tool and he is a great role model for others by allowing the academic community to use his program for free. Sharing is good!
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