Dawn Elmore-McCrary has taught exclusively online since 2004.
But the faculty senate chair and English professor at San Antonio College still has to schedule 10 office hours on campus each week.
“In a good semester,” she said, “I might see a half-dozen students in my office.”
It's not that her students are incommunicado. She’ll frequently engage them on Skype or through e-mail, though those interactions are more likely to occur in the evenings or over the weekend than at set times in her office.
Elmore-McCrary was among the faculty members pushing for a change to the community college’s office hours requirements at a College Council meeting this month. The College Council includes faculty, staff, students, administrators and department chairs. Elmore-McCrary, who already schedules online availability in addition to the time she is reachable on campus, hopes to allow all professors to schedule half their office hours online. The proposal doesn't differentiate between professors who teach online and those who teach on campus.
“Since we’re doing it anyway, it should be part of we do,” she said. “It serves that population of students that can’t come to campus or don’t want to come to campus.”
The office hours proposal, which was part of a broader policy regarding teaching, was tabled after department chairs and administrators raised concerns. The rest of the broader six-point policy was adopted, including a clause saying professors must maintain a five-day presence on the physical campus, something which Elmore-McCrary said she already does and would continue to do anyway.
No one in San Antonio’s president’s office would speak with Inside Higher Ed, and officials there also refused to release the full text of the proposed rule. Shortly after Inside Higher Ed filed an open-records request, the document  was posted on the website of the student newspaper, The Ranger, which first reported on the proposal .
The debate in Texas frames a larger discussion about how professors’ roles have changed as online courses and advising tools have grown commonplace. At Ohio State University, an online blog for faculty members  encourages them to schedule online office hours. And at San Antonio College and elsewhere, faculty say they frequently check e-mail messages throughout the week and weekend.
Gary Rhoades, a professor of higher education at the University of Arizona, said most instructors already engage students online and that colleges should adopt policies that recognize that work.
But Paul Wilson, San Antonio’s social sciences and humanities department chair, isn’t convinced the answer is taking professors out of their physical offices for five hours. His college is in the midst of transitioning to a faculty-based advising system in which students will have to meet with an instructor before registering for classes. Wilson said any effort to change the current office hour expectations would have to ensure that online faculty are doing the same share of advising work as those on campus.
“I have to see that the advising role, both scheduled and unscheduled, is distributed equitably,” Wilson said. “If they can show me that with an online component, I don’t have a problem with that.
“What gets missed in the conversation is that my face-to-face instructors, if they’re teaching five classes, they’re seeing students for 12-and-a-half hours. That needs to be demonstrated in the online instruction before we talk about office hours.”
It’s not that Wilson is against online education – about 40 percent of his 24 full-time and 70 adjunct charges teach on the Web. But as the proposal stands now, he fears some online faculty will use the online office hours as a way to do less advising work.
For her part, Elmore-McCrary said that wouldn’t be a problem. She expects some students will prefer to be advised over the Internet. “I can advise a student just as well on Skype as I can in person,” she said.
Most large colleges have been offering online courses for years now, and have steadily moved other services to the Web as enrollment grows and more off-campus students sign up . San Antonio already offers online mental health support and library services. Elmore-McCrary sees moving formal office hours to the Web as the next natural step in that digital evolution.
“I think this is the way of the future,” she said. “I think it will be coming one way or another.”