For students in Harvard University's Introduction to Computer Science  class, coming to office hours has long been part of the routine. The course, which typically enrolls more than 100 students, combines lectures and sections and has, according to the Web site, "a reputation that, each year, does scare some humans away."
Be afraid of a novel experiment in the history of Harvard education: virtual office hours.
As reported in The Harvard Crimson on Monday, teaching fellows (Harvard parlance for TAs) for the course this semester will begin holding real-time, online help sessions for students this week. Using free, Java-based software, students can log on , chat with each other (via text or microphone) and even "raise their hands" with the click of a button, which adds them to a queue on the teaching fellow's computer.
After connecting, students find themselves in a program resembling a traditional chat room, but with a window that can show what the instructor is seeing on his or her own computer. To demonstrate programming concepts or debug an assignment, a teaching fellow even has the option to take control of a student's computer and operate it remotely, much like an IT specialist at a corporate help desk.
Despite the queue system, the solution isn't necessarily linear: Teaching fellows can toggle between multiple windows, helping some students while others try to make progress on their work on their own.
The idea isn't to revolutionize education, necessarily, but to make it easier for some students to get the help they need. "The motivations ... were quite honestly as simple as convenience and efficiency," said David J. Malan, the course's instructor. Office hours have often had long lines, and the idea of holding them virtually potentially allows for "higher throughput in helping students," he added.
Regular office hours will still be held, so the option of face-to-face interaction remains. But for some students, the prospect of carrying a laptop to Sever Hall at designated hours (or logging on to a university machine) might not be as attractive as staying in the dorm, the library or a café while remotely asking questions about a problem set.
The course's organizers plan to adapt the office hours to students' needs, depending on how popular the virtual sessions are compared with those in real life. "In that sense it should be a win-win," Malan said.
But could the concept work for other classes and other disciplines? "I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is a compelling technology for most classes or any classes," Malan said. The key, he believes, is that the computer science course "is largely keyboard-based" as opposed to, say, a more paper-and-pencil-oriented math class.
The idea came out of a pilot this summer in which Malan used the Elluminate software, which allows the real-time online collaborations, while co-teaching an introductory distance learning course for the Harvard University Summer School. In a way, those origins are fitting: Virtual office hours were used at online universities well before Harvard and are slowly being adopted by some brick-and-morter institutions, just as some traditional colleges are starting to offer courses online for students on campus.
"I would say that certainly, many institutions have seen it work in situations where the students are rather distant from campus," said Carolyn G. Jarmon, a senior associate at the National Center for Academic Transformation. "But as most students ... have access to online materials, online resources, online software, interactive learning experiences," the technology becomes another "tool in the toolbox."
And whether that tool is right for a student depends on the problem, how complex it is and what type of help is needed. Jarmon sees the potential for an increasing individualization of education, making it more accessible: "I think that it is leveraging the technology to do what it does well, and that’s a very good thing."
Other potential uses of software like Elluminate, she pointed out, include online review sessions the night before an exam. But it's not just students who stand to benefit: "[S]ome faculty might hold their office hours from home at 7 o’clock at night because they don’t have to be in the office either," she added.
It may boil down to a balance between human interaction and the ease of doing work online. But many students come to college precisely for those interactions, suggested Diana G. Oblinger, a vice president for Educause.
"Although students may make significant use of online communication, it may not be what they want at this level, in this subject, or at this time in their educational career," she wrote in an e-mail. "They want the convenience of doing things online, but don’t want to sacrifice the personal connections."