Update on recording office hours: It seems to be working!

Over the summer, I wrote a post thinking about how to make office hours more accessible, specifically wondering about whether I should be calling them “student hours” instead of “office hours” and whether I should record them. This post is an update on that. The short version is:

  • I decided to stick with “office hours”, but also explained on the first day of class and in the syllabus what office hours are and who they are for (everyone!)
  • I have been recording office hours and think this has worked well, though it was harder to set up than I anticipated.

The rest of this post will focus particularly on the recordings, since I’ve had a few people ask me for more information about that. As I wrote about in my earlier post, this idea came from my UMich colleague John Montgomery, who records his office hours (which he calls “Open Discussion”) and who reported that student feedback on it was really positive.

At first, it seemed like it would be easy to record them. My lectures are recorded through a university system, so I thought that I would just be able to do the same with office hours. But no rooms with lecture recording capability were available for me to reserve for office hours. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll just figure out another way.” And I did…eventually. A couple of people have asked me for more info about how I’ve been doing this, so I figured I’d share it in a blog post. I’ll also talk about the response to the recordings & things that could be improved.

The set up
Recording device & program: My colleague Cindee Giffen got me started down the right path by suggesting BlueJeans, a video conferencing program that UMich has a license for and which has recording capability. The setup I use involves bringing my iPad Pro in addition to my laptop. I use my laptop to access course materials during office hours, and I use the iPad to record them.

  • Pros: It gets the job done well enough
  • Cons: My iPad is an extra thing to lug in on office hours days, the angle of the recording is awkward, and I have to remember to check that I’m staying in the right part of the white board. None of those is huge, but it would be nice to improve these.
  • Other: I’m fortunate in that I have a device that I can use for this and institutional access to BlueJeans!

Mic: The audio without an external mic was bad, so I bought this mic. (Thanks to Emilio Bruna for pointing me in that direction!)

  • Pros: Inexpensive, decent sound
  • Cons: It’s a bit awkward to be wired (I get my ankles tangled in the wire at least once per office hour session), but it’s good enough for my purposes.

The sessions
I get there a bit earlier than I would otherwise to set everything up. At first, I also was livestreaming the office hours (posting the link to the course webpage, including on the discussion thread where students could submit topics for office hours ahead of time). But then a student who was livestreaming accidentally shared her video during the session, meaning that I then had to edit the recording so she wasn’t in it, which meant the middle part of office hours wasn’t available on the recording that week. (To be clear: I’m not blaming the student! I had no idea it would be possible for that to happen, nor did she.) Since then, I haven’t livestreamed the session. There might be a way to set up the session so that a student can’t share their video, but I haven’t had time to look into that. Many more students are accessing the recording later (as compared to the number who watched the livestream), so figuring out the livestream hasn’t been a high priority for me.

I set it up so that the iPad is at the front of the room facing the whiteboard. With that angle, I’m the only person recorded unless someone volunteers to come up to the board (and, if they do, I remind them that they will be recorded). I actually view it as a feature that the mic is really only recording what I say, since then I don’t have to worry as much about how students feel about being recorded. I emphasized to the class multiple times that they will not be recorded if they come to office hours – I didn’t want someone to be afraid to come!

A good thing has been that the BlueJeans recording system seems pretty fool proof. One week I forgot to end the recording. Another week I forgot to end the call. In both cases, the recording still came through fine. A link to the recording appears in my inbox about 30ish minutes after the session ends – the longer the session, the longer it takes for it to appear, but I think it’s always been there within an hour. I then share the link on the course Canvas page.

The response
Most weeks, a couple of dozen people or so watch the recording. (There are over 600 students in my class.) But the session the day before the exam usually has at least twice as many views, and the session the day before exam 2 had over 200 views. In comparison, office hours on a typical week have about 20 people at them, and office hours the day before the exam usually have 50ish people at them. So, in general, it seems like more people watch the recordings than come in person (but usually not vastly more).

I’ve heard from multiple athletes that they use the recordings because they can’t make my regular office hours because it overlaps with their practice. I’ve also heard from students who can’t make it because they have a class at the same time. John Montgomery (my colleague in Chemistry who gave me the idea) said that he’s also heard from students with jobs that they use the recordings of his office hours.

Other uses of recordings
Right before exam 2, I got feedback from the GSIs (the UMich term for TAs) that students in their sections were really hoping to see a particular phylogeny. I had given them a specific set of species and told them they should know the relationships between them. I didn’t want to just share the phylogeny I had drawn, because then many of them would memorize it without realizing that, if you understand the general relationships between groups, you could construct it based on that knowledge. But then they were really hoping their GSIs would email the phylogeny to them. So, I told the GSIs that I would be sure to go over it in office hours, and they could share that recording with their sections. They did that, which meant that the students got to see the logic behind drawing the phylogeny, and hopefully some of them then continued watching and got some other useful review out of that.

Another hope I had was that a student who watched a recording would then get a better idea of what office hours are like and how useful they can be, and then decide to start coming in person. I know that has been the case for at least one student, which made me happy.

Things that could be improved
Ideally, there would be a better system for this, that does not require the faculty member have an extra device that they can use for this and that is a bit less of a kludge.

Given that my goal is to make the office hours more accessible, it particularly bothers me that, with one exception, the office hour recordings have not been captioned. I tried to get the captioning service to caption the videos. They did the first week, then stopped. I have some students who have notetakers in class as an accommodation, but since there was no particular student who clearly needed captioned office hour recordings, I think it was a low priority for the captioning folks. All of the videos that I show in class are captioned — I captioned many of them myself — but I do not have the time to caption all of the office hour sessions myself. In some ways, a change in the model we use for accommodations would help: right now, it’s based on knowing that there is one student in a class who needs something, rather than saying, hey, there are over 600 students in this class, surely some would benefit from captions on this resource.

Other considerations
I think it does somewhat change the dynamic in the office hours – I’m more hesitant to ask a student to come up to the board, and a little less likely to wander around while students work on a problem (because I have to unclip from the mic). But I don’t think it’s changed it a ton from how I normally run office hours: I still try to have students answer each others’ questions first, and then I summarize what they said and elaborate. That all works pretty well on the recording. It did make it a little awkward at one office hour where a student came up to the board to explain something and then made a mistake – since then, I’ve mainly asked them to talk me through the problem with me at the board, rather than having them up there themselves, so they can stay anonymous to the larger class.

Request for ideas
If people have ideas for programs other than BlueJeans that might work for this, please share that in the comments! BlueJeans has worked really well for my purposes, but I know not everyone will have access to that.

Overall, I’ve been really happy with the way recording office hours has gone. I plan on doing it again next fall. Things about it could be improved, but I think it’s better than not having it at all.

I realize not everyone will have access to the technology needed for this. But, if you do, I strongly recommend that you consider recording your office hours! If you use this approach, I’d love to hear about how it works!

I forgot to state in the post that I also have one-on-one appointments available for students who want to discuss more personal things (e.g., a health issue). I’ve been using youcanbookme to manage those. It also involved some learning to figure out how to get that system to work well in a course this size, but I’m also happy with the way that part has worked in the end. Perhaps that’s a topic for a future post?

5 thoughts on “Update on recording office hours: It seems to be working!

  1. Sounds like a great idea, Meghan! At UWyo, we have an institutional license for Zoom, which seems to work pretty much like BlueJeans. So, if folks are at a university or college, it’s probably worth asking institutional IT whether their school has _some_ kind of video call/recording program. Also, there are a few Meeting Owl devices available in our department (someone bought them with start up funds and is willing to share them). These have made a lot of live, remote sessions (guest speakers, workshops, big meetings, etc.) far more interactive and meaningful. In your case, you want students to be able to remain anonymous, but if you do want to bring everyone’s audio/visual into the recording, the Owl works great. The short story is that it’s a 360-degree camera that rotates to focus on the place where the primary sound is coming from. Meanwhile, it continues to display a panorama/fish-eye sort of view of the entire space. Here’s a link to it online: https://www.owllabs.com/meeting-owl. Something like the Owl might reduce the need for a wired lapel mic (and the pesky wire), because it has really good sound capturing capacity and it’s a camera. I just plug it into my USB port and Zoom recognizes it as the camera and mic to use for live conversations and recording. It would still be an extra device, in addition to your laptop, but… 🙂

  2. This post accidentally answers the question I had from your earlier post. I had been wondering why you’d want to go to all the trouble of recording office hours, but hadn’t realized that by “office hours” you meant what I’d call a “review session”. When I think “office hours”, I think “at most one or two students coming to my actual office to ask a couple of questions”. Not “20-50 students at a time, with a whole bunch of questions, so that I have to book a larger room to hold them all”! 🙂 It’s eye-opening to me to learn how many students you get coming to your office hours!

  3. Question for Meghan and anyone else who wants to chime in: what are the other ways to solve the same problem that recording office hours solves for this very large class? Namely, giving every student the chance to hear what questions other students are asking, giving students the opportunity to answer one another’s questions, and allowing all students to hear the instructor’s answers. I ask not because I think recording office hours is bad–it sure sounds like it works well for Meghan!–but just because different strokes for different folks.

    One thing we tried once in our intro biostats course (~130 students) was a Stack Overflow-style online Q&A system. Can’t recall what website we used to set it up, but I’m pretty sure it was free to anyone (as opposed to being free to us bc the uni had a site license). Students could post questions and discuss the answers publicly, and the instructor could chime in as needed. It was limited in some ways-there was no equivalent of a white board for the instructor to use. And I felt like it sometimes did more harm than good because it was asynchronous–students would sometimes propagate confusion or outright wrong answers before I had the chance to check in.

  4. Pingback: Some ideas for better office hours | Small Pond Science

  5. Pingback: Recording lectures is good for students, good for instructors, and good for public health | Dynamic Ecology

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