Letter: Online office hours are a silver lining of the pandemic

I’ll admit it, I loved running my office hours over Zoom. It’s probably taboo to praise any aspect of online education but it’s been one of the few good things for me as a result of this experiment with an online university.

Last semester was my third year as a TA for Chemistry 100, a class of about 100 students that provides the prerequisites for general first-year chemistry courses and labs. The return to research that began in July has allowed many graduate students to return to campus albeit with heavy restrictions. With few labs and tutorials running in person most graduate students I know have been relegated to lecture positions, moderating Zoom chats and running office hours. Office hours are a regular and integral part of online and in-person teaching, and they let me put names to faces and help struggling students one-on-one. And for most of the semester, it was me sitting alone in an empty room.

Whether students showed up or not, I used to be in a lecture room for an hour a week. Most TAs are fortunate if one person shows up needing help. Then the final approaches, students panic and we try to help students re-learn (or learn) months of material in too few hours. The move to online teaching has obviously been both a technological and administrative struggle on all sides, but running office hours over Zoom has turned out to be a surprising silver lining.

Maybe it’s the loneliness and isolation brought on by the pandemic, but Wednesdays 7 to 8 p.m. when I ran my office hours last semester were a bright spot in my week. Wrapped in a blanket at home, saving money making my own coffee, full of food that wasn’t bought from Triple O’s and surrounded by the tablet, phone and two computers I need to make this all work, I was in no way nostalgic for this pre-pandemic portion of my TA work. I had more students in the first two weeks of digital office hours than I used to see in a whole semester. I could see at least half a dozen students at once, each coming prepared with specific list of questions.

The rewarding thing about this job was getting to help students understand the material. Through online office hours I could reach and help many more people than before. I could annotate over slides or demonstrate equations that everyone in the call could see at once, or let students screen share the question they were stuck on. I wasn’t awkwardly maneuvering around a lecture room that wasn’t built with office hours in mind, trying not to knock over laptops and cups of coffee as I craned my neck to see what was on a student’s laptop.

Despite being at a later time, my office hours were less likely to overlap with existing lectures and didn’t require students to rework their schedules. I like to think the low barrier to entry for students to attend is why numbers were up, but it might also be they needed more help than ever due to the pressures of Zoom university. I’m going to staunchly believe in the former as it validates me as an educator.

So, as we all dream of a day when we return to campus, fill the lecture halls and do away with online learning, I hope that not every technological experiment is thrown out with the bathwater. This has been a true learning experience for students and instructors alike, but I think it’s important we do actually learn from it. Online office hours seem pretty great from this side of the equation.

Taylor Wright is a 4th year PhD candidate in the UBC Chemistry Department focusing on materials research.