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«Technology and Instructional Communication: Student Usage and Perceptions of Virtual Office Hours Jennifer T. Edwards Tarleton State University ...»

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MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 6, No. 1, March 2010

Technology and Instructional Communication: Student Usage

and Perceptions of Virtual Office Hours

Jennifer T. Edwards

Tarleton State University

Stephenville, TX 76402 USA


Lora Helvie-Mason

Southern University New Orleans

New Orleans, LA 70126 USA


This study examines 81 undergraduate students' perceptions of virtual office hours

(VOHs). VOHs enable students to interact with their professors through Yahoo Instant Messenger from on-campus and off-campus locations. The purpose of this study is to examine college students’ perceptions and usage of virtual office hours in four undergraduate courses. These students’ perceptions and VOH usage were examined by focusing on the following research question, "What are undergraduate students' perceptions of virtual office hours (VOHs)?" A majority (70 percent) of the students contributed favorable responses towards VOHs. However, only 12 percent of the students in this study actually used the VOH feature. Through this study, the authors present undergraduate college students’ perceptions and usage of VOHs to communicate with faculty.

Keywords: virtual advising, office hours, online teaching, synchronous communication, instant messaging, hybrid courses, college students instructor interactivity, online technology, online communication Introduction Current undergraduate students will continue to gravitate toward informational technologies that simplify their educational needs (Howe & Strauss, 2007). These authors predict present and future college students will be more focused on new educational technologies and less focused on traditional educational methods, leading them to recommend colleges and universities continue to monitor these individuals to see how institutions of higher education can further meet the needs of their students. As they continue to monitor students’ usage of innovative technologies, colleges and universities will be able to further enhance their traditional curriculum and extend course offerings beyond the college campus (Li & Pitts, 2009).

The faculty is usually available to their students outside of the classroom during the professor’s weekly office hours (Acitelli, Black, & Axelson, 2003). Despite the professor’s availability during their office hours, students rarely seek help during these times(Bippus, Kearney, Plax, & Brooks, 2003; Kuh & Hu, 2001;

Nadler & Nadler, 2000). Since studies indicate students are not seeking help during face-to-face office hours, then faculty, staff, and administrators may want to explore other communication methods to facilitate the communication process. Innovative (web-based) technologies (such as Yahoo Instant Messenger) are predicted to have a substantial ability to enhance the way in which faculty and students communicate with one another (Li & Pitts, 2009). VOHs provide faculty and students another way to converse with each other outside of traditional office hours. The professor decided to utilize Yahoo Instant messenger to communicate with her students during VOHs because the software is available in webbased (does not require a download) and face-to-face formats (requires a download). Many students use the campus computers and software downloads are usually prohibited, therefore the web-based Yahoo Messenger would be a better option for these students.

The purpose of this study is to examine college students’ perceptions and usage of virtual office hours in four undergraduate courses. The authors explore the use of communication technology (virtual office MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 6, No. 1, March 2010 hours, instant messaging, and email) as it pertains to pedagogical approach within the basic communication courses. The authors felt the need to examine the students' perspectives on the newer communication technology which is becoming more routinely offered as part of the educational environment. To delve into the purpose of the study, the authors examined the following research question, "What are undergraduate students' perceptions of virtual office hours (VOHs)?" Literature Survey The role of new technology as a communication medium between professor and student has been noted (Li & Pitts, 2009), but instructional communication has not been applied to examine the use and impact of such technologies.

Instructional communication The study of communication within the educational environment has increasingly shaped pedagogical literature. This study relies on a teacher-centered rhetorical framework, which acknowledges that the main difference between knowing and teaching is communication (Lane, 2008; Hurt, Scott, & McCroskey,

1978) Instructional communication, the process by which educators and students stimulate meanings in the minds of each other using verbal and nonverbal messages (McCroskey, 1968; Mottet, Richmond, & McCroskey, 2006), is changing as the landscape of higher education changes. New technological advancements within educational forums may be altering the way communication transpires between educators and students. From email to instant messaging, texts, blogs, wikis, blackboard, and social networking sites; instructional communication has moved beyond the walls of higher education.

Examining this new direction in the process of communication between the educator and the student looks at the heart of the educational process and informs pedagogy and practice. Instructional communication, then, impacts the learning environment, the student/educator relationship, and the climate of the overall educational experience.

The Changing Face of Higher Education Education was once constrained by the walls of a classroom. Instructional communication was held to the verbal message punctuated by the nonverbal delivery. Students who engaged with their professors outside of the classroom met face-to-face. The common practice of holding office hours emerged for individualized student attention outside of the classroom, including enhanced student learning, and academic advising (Wang & Beasley, 2006). However, traditional office hours are limited by location and time based on the professor’s schedule (Wallace & Wallace, 2001). This can often leave students who need assistance unable to connect with their professor.

Distance education, formerly known as correspondence courses, began with the development of the postal service in the 1840s in the U.S. (Hansen, 2001). Since then, distance education morphed from mailed-in test papers, to videos, live tele-conference sessions, and then experienced an explosion with the incorporation of the internet in the 1990s.

Throughout the history of distance education, the role of instructional communication remained important.

It related to all educational settings and crossed disciplinary boundaries by exploring the communication skills necessary to effectively teach. When education gained a new address beginning with www, the dynamics and scope of instructional communication shifted.

Today, courses, certificates, and entire degree programs at undergraduate and graduate levels are offered via the internet. As Ravoi, Ponton, and Baker (2008) noted 32% of U.S. adults pursuing higher education between 2004 and 2005 did so through distance courses. Additionally, the 2007 Sloan Consortium claimed 3.94 million U.S. college students were enrolled in at least one online course, an increase of nearly 13% from 2006 and as Allen and Seaman (2008) noted, that translates to 758,000 students.

There are many types of online courses today: hybrid (taught online, but requiring occasional face-to-face meetings), online (internet with no face-to-face meetings required), and enhanced (traditional on-campus course meeting face-to-face, but uses online technology to enhance student assignments, discussions, and access to course materials). The various types of courses may influence the perceptions of students and faculty members on the learning environment.

Educators within the online environment tend to see their role as less of the disseminator of knowledge and more as the facilitator of the learning process (Howell, Saba, Lindsay, & Williams, 2004). The instructor has shifted within online education and is not the sole measure of course effectiveness in the online arena (Kelly, Ponton, & Ravai, 2007), where students rank the course structure, activities, and MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 6, No. 1, March 2010 organization as strong factors in the learning process (Ko & Rossen, 2004; Laurillard, Stratfold, Luckin, Plowman, & Taylor, 2000; Palloff & Pratt, 2001).

Lim, Kim, Chen and Ryder (2008) found that students in online courses ranked the quality of learning and quality of the communication with the instructor higher than a traditional, on-ground course. Additionally, high levels of interaction with the instructor leads to higher levels of student performance and more positive attitudes in online courses (Durrington, Berryhill, & Swafford, 2006). The interaction between educators and students can be greater online than with that of the on-campus class (Gilbert & Moore, 1998; Jarvela & Hakkinen, 2002).

Many studies have examined faculty and their relationship to online instruction (Betts, 1998; Bower, 2001;

Berge & Muilenberg, 2001; Oomen-Early & Murphy, 2009; Shelton & Saltzman, 2005; Schifter, 2002;

2004). Such studies examined the faculty members’ motivation, impact, desire, and feelings about teaching online. As Meloncon (2007) noted, the preparedness of the faculty member bears heavily on the success of an online, hybrid or enhanced course. Developing an online course, for some faculty members, was described as “intimidating, formidable challenges” (Zsohar & Smith, 2008). A large component of online instruction remains the relationship between the educator and the student. Some instructors are employing communication technology in their face-to-face, hybrid, and online classes to further extend the teacher/student relationship.

Communication Technology There are many types of communication technology and a variety of specific programs that exist for

students to interact with instructors:

• Email: Messages sent to one or more users through electronic forums.

• Instant messaging (IM): Synchronous communication carried on through a variety of host sites or programs. Can happen individually or as a group.

• Texting: The use of cell phones to write and send messages to one or more people.

• Video conferencing: The use of webcams or other electronic recording media to conduct a course (Koeber & Wright, 2008).

• Podcasting: Recording voice to audio files which can be downloaded and listened to via portable devices (mp3s) and which can be used in the transmission of course materials (Ormond, 2008).

• Blackboard: University-adopted web framework for courses. Can involve many additional add-on tools which can offer live chats, IM, email, messages, and posting of announcements.

• Social networking sites: Web sites designed to connect people together and through which email messages, IMs, and posts can be used to communicate. Examples include facebook, myspace, linkedin, and twitter.

• Wikis: A web communication/collaboration tool used to engage students within a collaborative environment (Parker & Chao, 2007). Web site content can be simultaneously modified by the site visitors.

The majority of communication tools only requires users to register to gain free access to web sites or is included within the student technology fees (Blackboard). Though some universities restrict social networking sites (myspace, facebook), these communication tools are becoming increasingly accepted and integrated into the higher education community (Boostrom, Kurthakoti, & Summey, 2009; Gainer, 2008; Santovec, 2006; Towner, VanHorn, & Parker, 2007). Such communication tools, recently highlighted in Online Cl@ssroom’s special report, enable instructors to build community amongst students in their classrooms and to foster collaborative learning (Humbert, 2009) and combat isolation in online courses (Shank, 2009).

“When instructors support and actively use the technologies in the classroom, students are much more actively engaged in using the online technologies in and out of the classroom” according to Hugenberg and Hugenberg (2007, p. 9). This presupposes both an instructor’s familiarity with and endorsement of said technology as well as the student’s access, comfort, and desire to utilize that technological tool.

Communication technology, then, plays many roles within a course and can both influence and be influenced by the pedagogical design of the professor.

MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 6, No. 1, March 2010 Theoretical Framework The Social Presence Theory (Short, et al., 1976) was essential when conducting the review of the literature and preparing the surveys. Social presence is defined by Short et al. as “[t]he degree of salience of another person in an interaction and the consequent salience of an interpersonal relationship” (p. 65).

Social presence theorists also assert that each communication media differs in their degree of social presence. These degree variations determine how participants will act. As a result, it seems that as a person learns how to use a particular technology (i.e. – instant messenger), the more likely the person is to participate in frequent interactions with others through that technology.

The theorists also concluded that face-to-face communication is the most “socially present” communication media. Most studies of social presence in online environments focus on participants’ perceptions (Tu, 2002). The study will follow the path of most social presence studies that focus on online technology and will be centered on undergraduate students’ perceptions of communicating with their professor during VOHs (via instant messaging software).

Methods We utilized a phenomenological research design to examine the undergraduate students’ perceptions of virtual office hours to communicate with their professor (through instant messaging software). The participants included 81 undergraduate students from a mid-sized institution in central Texas.

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