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April 9, 2012

eCourses Faculty Evaluation Rubric Now Requires Asynchronous Communication

Last week our eCourses Faculty Facilitator sent out an announcement about a change in the Faculty Evaluation Rubric. The jest of the announcement was that online faculty are now expected to provide synchronous “office hours” in addition to the already required asynchronous communication that may already be provided. Below is an excerpt from the message:

I am sending this email to notify you of a change that has been made to the eCourses Faculty Evaluation Rubric. The modifications were discussed and approved by the eCourses Committee to be in place for Fall ’12. With technology advancements, especially in the area of communication tools, the committee agreed that it was within reason for faculty to be available online (or by phone) to meet with individuals or groups of students in a synchronous setting where real-time discussions could take place. This extends the current asynchronous use of announcements, discussion boards and emails for communication purposes (Lea Neibarger).

I think this is a good move and am surprised that most have not already implemented something to this effect already. As full time faculty, I’m required “to hold a minimum of five (5) scheduled academic support hours reflective of instructors’ teaching schedules;” (RFP). I teach all online and hybrid courses, so I have online office hours for my students. Because most of my students are working adults, I try to have a few hours in the morning and a few in the evening each night. And most of the time in between I’m pretty accessible to my students via email, phone call or text. I permit this because it is easy for me to do and manage. It’s not like I have to sit in my office at school to be accommodating to my students. With technology today, I can spare a few extra hours by simply having my cell phone with me during the scheduled time.

This might seem overwhelming to some, as I’ve heard numerous, “What should I dos?” since the message went out. It’s not as difficult as you might think, especially if you stick to the one hour guideline in the RFP, but I hope you will find that it’s easy enough to include a few more hours each week. Lea even points out in the message:

This does not mean faculty must “be on call 24/7”, but rather have a dedicated time which is announced to students, similar to or in coincidence with face-to-face office hours or have a process where students can ask questions interactively on an as needed basis. This could include office hours where faculty have instant messaging, online conferencing, chat or even a Skype window open and respond immediately to student questions.

What follows is a list of tools I presently use, have used in the past, and plan to use in the future. Hopefully you can find something that works well for you and your students as well.

First, next fall when we officially go live with Canvas (yes, I’m being very optimistic), you will have a built in tool to accommodate your online office hours. The tool is called Tinychat – You can set up your hour time slot and post it on your syllabus letting students know you will be available live to answer questions and discuss anything related to your course. At the designated time, you will need to log into Canvas, go to the Chat tab, and start up a chat session. You can broadcast video or audio, so your students can see or hear you, or you can just use text chat. There is also a whiteboard built in so you can write out information if needed, and you can share a YouTube video if there is a need for that. There is also a way to have private conversations with individual students within the group chat. It’s probably all you would need if you plan to offer an hour a day while sitting in your office each day.

But if you’re like me, and you can’t stand sitting in your office, you can set up some more mobile options for synchronous office hours. Presently I use Google Voice. Basically GV is a free phone number you get from Google that becomes your class number. Students can call or text you on this number, and you can control where and when the number rings. You can set up a window of time where your GV number rings/texts to your cell phone or rings your office phone. When the GV number is not set up to ring to a specific phone, it goes straight to your Google Voice inbox. It’s like an email inbox for phone calls and texts. They are stored up and saved for when you are ready to deal with them. You can set it up to send you an email or text with the message if you like as well. Using GV allows for me to permit my students to call me pretty much all day, but when I don’t want to be bothered, I switch it from sending calls/texts to my cell phone and let them go directly to Voice/Text inbox. Below is an example of a quick text communication with a student that happened on my phone, but was saved in my GV inbox. I have a record of all communications with GV.

Another mobile option is to use Instant Message, but as you all know, there are quite a few options out there. There is AIM, GTalk, MSN, Yahoo!, ICQ, and even Facebook and MySpace have their own IM programs.

You can see the problem here; not every student will be on the same program. In order for you to use this effectively, you’ll need to sign up for an account on several. I would go with at least the four major ones. Then you can use a generic IM – All in One client, like Trillian – or Meebo – What these two clients will do for you is give you an easy way to log into all four or more IM clients using one log in. So you open up Meebo and login. See photo to the right. You are now available to chat on AIM, GTalk, MSN and Yahoo! Students then can use whatever client they like without having to sign up for a new one. And both Trillian and Meebo have mobile apps, so you can log on on your phone and be available for IM chat wherever you are. I just list all my IM usernames on my syllabus, and students can decide for themselves if they want to go that route. They don’t need Meebo to IM with you. Only you need it.  They will use whatever client they already use. I only get about 2-3 IMers these days. Most prefer texting. One added bonus to Meebo is you can embed the chat window into your current LMS and students can chat with you from that window without having an account on any IM client.

One final honorable mention is Google+ Hangout –

Google+ Hangouts with extras offers a sneak preview of new Hangouts features. It’s available for a limited time, so it’s not clear what the long term availability will be. Also Maricopa has yet to switch on this tool in our student Google Apps accounts. Please! But I’m using this with students now using just regular Gmail accounts. They are blogging and “hanging out” as part of the class, but Google+ Hangouts can be used for synchronous communication as well. It makes it easy for students to start a video or audio chat with you or you can schedule a hangout with extras. The extras include: Named hangouts, Shared notes and sketchpad, Google Docs integration and Screensharing. Imagine hanging out with a student who wants to go over an essay with you. You can share a Google Doc with the students essay in it in the hangout, meaning everyone present can view the document, see what you mark on it, and hear what you have to say about in real time. Below you can see Leo is hangout with 10 people (limit) who are all on webcam and are text chatting to the left. It’s similar to Skype, but it’s free. Skype charges for group video chat.

So don’t fret the new guidelines coming down the pike. Embrace change and progress, and utilize the tools available to you to make it work for both you and your students. It’s all good!

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