Virtualizing Office Hours in CS 50

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Virtualizing Office Hours in CS 50

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Title: Virtualizing Office Hours in CS 50
Author: Malan, David J.
Citation: Malan, David J. 2009. Virtualizing Office Hours in CS50. ACM SIGCSE Bulletin 41(3). Paper presented at the 14th Annual ACM Conference on Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education, July 2009, in Paris, France.
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Abstract: In Fall 2007, we introduced “virtual office hours” into Harvard College’s introductory computer science course, CS 50, so that students could meet with teaching fellows (TFs) online to discuss problem sets at any hour from anywhere. Our goals were to lower the bar to interaction among TFs and students and to improve the efficiency and convenience of the same. Rather than rely on email and online forums alone, we experimented with Elluminate, third-party software that not only allowed students and TFs to chat via IM and VOIP, it also enabled the latter to see and even share control of the former’s screens (e.g., code in students’ terminal windows). Students, in turn, were able to troubleshoot bugs with TFs by their (virtual) side. We surveyed our nearly 300 students on their experiences with office hours, both physical and virtual. Although most students responded positively to the idea of virtual office hours, only 55% logged in at least once. However, nearly the same number (62%) attended the physical. We ultimately judged our virtual office hours a net positive, with 14% of students attending the virtual (and 21% the physical) “often.” But our experiment was not without some unexpected results. We found that wait times online sometimes matched or exceeded those in the physical lab, partly the result of the software’s own shortcomings and students’ habits online. Ultimately, the audience for these virtual office hours was entirely self-selecting. Those students who liked the experience online opted in, whereas those who preferred more traditional help opted out.
Published Version: doi:10.1145/1595496.1562969
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