After an entire school year of being online, we are slowly and cautiously returning to where we left off in March 2020. Students are figuring out bus routes, navigating campus and adjusting to life beyond the comfort of their own homes. One of the many benefits that came from the online school structure was the ability to attend office hours virtually.
As with many public institutions, Virginia Tech’s campus is considerably large and holds roughly 36,000 students. Having the luxury of being able to meet with professors and advisors over Zoom was not only convenient for students, but more seemed to be willing to attend. Virtual office hours allowed people to schedule visits around their daily tasks and social lives while eliminating the intimidation of direct contact with whoever they wanted to speak to.
Office hours are fixed around the schedule of the professor who assigns them; professors schedule a 2-to-3-hour window a few times a week for students to ask any questions they might have about class material, assignments or to seek advice about their future careers. They were designed to be an optimal opportunity for one-on-one instruction, but with a campus as spacious as Virginia Tech’s, timeliness is a priority. If students are in 15 or more credit hours while committing to other clubs and organizations, it’s not easy to find the time or energy to walk across campus for what might be a five-minute conversation.
“I always have at least one professor that schedules their office hours during another class I’m in,” said Grace Wohlford, a senior majoring in civil engineering. “Thankfully, a couple of my professors adopted Zoom (office hours) this year — it’s better for me to just schedule a Zoom with them because of classes and my job.”
The COVID-19 pandemic kept all students inside, and Virginia Tech made accommodations to allow for a successful school year, but the standard of responsibility has changed now that there is not unlimited access to school resources from the comfort of one’s bed. After a full school year of being online, the expectations from students are different now that they're back on campus, and transitioning back to the in-person school structure isn’t something many people have experienced before. Going to classes, practices and meetings day after day is physically and mentally taxing after 18 months of being cooped up in our rooms.
“If you’re sitting in your dorm room or apartment with a question that I can answer, but you don’t want to come because my office is on the other side of campus, that’s not good,” said Jared Woolly, an instructor in the School of Communication.
Having an in-person office hour structure would be essential for certain studies that involve hands-on practice or anything that involves an intricate visual demonstration, but not every question a student might have needs to be answered in a physical setting. Once professors provide both virtual and in-person meeting opportunities, students can then coordinate around what works best with their schedules and still be able to get the support they need.
Virtual office hours have many advantages for both students and professors when it comes to efficiency and satisfaction. Professors want students to show up, and students want the process of going to office hours to be as effortless as possible. It would be beneficial to offer a Zoom option to those who have a schedule conflict or live far away from the office. This would support student engagement at office hours and increase students’ overall willingness to reach out to their professors when necessary.
“Office hour attendance isn’t something that is necessarily measured,” Woolly said. “Once we meet some guidelines, we’re able to do things that are best for the students and if that means meeting on Zoom, so be it.”
When students are struggling in class, it’s important they can get the help they need without setting aside the large chunk of time required to get to campus only to ask a professor a few questions. It’s unreasonable for professors to insist on operating the same way they did before the COVID-19 pandemic when the practicality of a virtual meeting can work in both the student’s and professor’s favor. Zoom has become the primary means of communication for the virtual school experience, and it is only logical to continue to utilize it for something like office hours.
The relationship between students and their instructors at school takes effort on both sides, but at a collegiate level, students are trusted to make extra time for necessary academic assistance. The flexibility of being able to meet with professors plays a crucial role in a student’s academic success, and we’ve learned through the COVID-19 pandemic that Zoom is a more attainable way to make that happen. Students are still making time for their academic needs and doing the best they can to stay on top of their in-person workload. With a platform like Zoom, the travel back and forth between a professor’s office isn’t necessary.
Zoom office hours worked well for many students and professors during our virtual learning period, and course instructors continue to offer the option for one-on-one virtual meetings after the in-person transition. Virginia Tech should embrace this new way of offering and receiving academic help because it caters to everyone in terms of convenience, satisfaction and privacy. Virtual office hours were helpful for the time of online learning and should still be accessible for all in-person semesters in the future.