By Joe Camacho
The School of Arts and Sciences is now requiring adjunct professors to hold office hours.
The part-time Arts and Sciences professors are required to hold virtual office hours using Centra, an online web conferencing software that is licensed to the Texas A&M-University System.
Head of School of Arts and Sciences Mirley Balasubramanya said that the idea is to provide students with face-to-face time with the instructors outside of the classroom and also give the instructors another avenue of communication besides Blackboard and email.
“It’s very important for students to have one-on-one with professors regarding various course related issues,” Balasubramanya said. “Right now, the time that students get with instructors is strictly in the classroom.”
Besides email or Blackboard, professors have opened up other ways of communicating with students, Balasubramanya explained.
“Some professors have been generous enough to give students their cell phone numbers which we don’t recommend,” Balasubramanya said.
The amount of virtual office hours required of instructors must equal half of their teaching hours.
With limited campus space available, Arts and Sciences had to decide whether Blackboard or Centra would fulfill the departments needs.
“Our instructional technology services made an assessment of which one is a better tool for virtual office hours and they recommended Centra,” Balasubramanya said. “It’s pretty user-friendly.”
“What this technology does is not require two people to be in the same place,” he said.
The online tool allows communication through several formats which include voice, video, text and handwritten.
Senior Instructional Designer Sherita Love explained some of the features of Centra.
The whiteboard is a function of Centra where the student or the instructor can handwrite with a mouse, stylus or with a finger on a touch screen which is good for working on math or formulas, she explained.
Using the whiteboard allows the instructor to give a handwritten example of a formula or math problem.
“The whiteboard was the key part,” Love said.
Centra also allows users to share each other’s screens online and in real-time.
“They could actually share their desktop so they could actually see whatever’s on their desktop,” she explained, which would be good, for example, in situations where an instructor is using an online reference or a document.
With screen sharing the professor does not have to send the student a link or email the document because the student would be able to see the instructors screen in real-time, Love explained.
Centra’s user interface is user friendly, she said, with no additional training needed by the student.
The professor handles the Centra account and nothing needs to be set up by the student.
When an instructor sets up a virtual office they are given a link that would invite the students to text or video chat, review lectures or get help on an assignment during office hours.
“It’s a static link. It stays the same throughout the semester,” Love said.
Love also recommended using Chrome or Firefox as web browser options for Centra.
“Some students may also be asked to update JAVA on their computer,” she said
This being the first semester using Centra, she explained, that IT services is keeping an eye out for any problems they might find with the system.
This is my first time back in almost a year and half inside a classroom,” said criminology senior Bianca Mares.
Mares explained that all of her classes with A&M-San Antonio have been online and that she’s never had any problems when contacting an instructor.
“They’re usually pretty good about responding to emails or phone calls,” she said.
Centra may be good for someone out-of-state or across the state who is taking classes with the university, she explained, but she doesn’t believe many traditional students will find the tools useful.
Communication junior Joshua Russell said he has never had a problem when trying to contact an instructor through email.
“I usually get a response within 10 or 15 minutes,” Russell said.
He added that virtual office hours may only help in certain circumstances.
“I guess it might be helpful to someone who has kids,” he said.
Human resources junior Alfonso Jaimes offered his take on virtual office hours and said, “I think office hours should be more … like one-on-one.”
Jaimes said that last semester he noticed some professors said they would hold office hours before class but then on many occasions he would see a professor walking from the parking lot right before class time.
“I’ve never needed to use them[office hours] but maybe some of my classmates did,” Jaimes said. Making office hours a requirement,even if the hours are virtual, is a step in the right direction, he added.
Centra is being implemented at minimal cost to the university and is used across the Texas A&M-System.
One adjunct who wished to remain anonymous said, “I think it’s just weird sitting there staring at a computer screen waiting for someone to get online.”
The adjunct added that he would prefer to meet in person with a student before or after class but will hold the required virtual office hours.
Another adjunct professor, contacted by email to set up an interview replied with an apology for her late response explaining that “Since I do not have a place to call home on campus, I can’t check email before class,” inadvertently stressing the need for an updated communication strategy.
Currently, there are no plans to provide adjuncts with office space. Balasubramanya explained that with the employed faculty and staff and incoming full-time faculty, the university would not have enough office spaces to accommodate adjunct professors but that they would provide equipment such as a microphone or a webcam to the instructor if needed for virtual office hours.
Video training on Centra was distributed to Arts and Sciences adjunct professors on Jan. 16 and virtual office hours are required to be posted on syllabi.
Currently, Arts and Sciences is the only school to require adjunct professors to hold office hours. School of Business and School of Education and Kinesiology recommend using email as a primary means of communication outside of the classroom to students and adjunct faculty.