Our Universities: Office Hours

The essence of training is the transfer of skills and abilities.   The essence of education is human interaction between someone ignorant and someone expert in a field of knowledge yielding learner’s transformation.

“Professors usually teach 12 hours, and are also expected to devote around 20 hours per week to student contact.”

Stephen Lehmkuhle, Chancellor, University of Minnesota, Rochester


Last week, Free Exchange on The Economist website carried an assessment of online education economics.  Marginal costs were discussed.  Produce one lecture and sell it to 30 students and the marginal cost is high. Produce the lecture and sell it to 3000 students and the marginal cost is low. A calculus or history course offered hundreds of thousands of times yields an infinitesimally small marginal cost. George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok makes this case clearly on the website Marginal Revolution University.

Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) often record a rock-star expert/lecturer and post him/her in an online course free for learners, and if they pass tests as evidence of successful completion, a mini “degree” is available for a fee.

The History Channel could easily provide a MOOC offering in 20th century history, on JFK for example, that millions could watch as “Edutainment.” If interested, course credit could be secured through assignments and competency testing.

The production values of The History Channel are high. The intellectual content of many of The History Channel shows, call them “posts” so they fit into MOOC parlance, is likely equal to, or better than, similar courses offered at many universities.

In The Hechinger Report, two weeks ago, John Marcus described a Harvard/MIT study suggesting even though completion rates are low, MOOC’s work. And completion is low.  Seventeen edX (the joint MOOC effort of Harvard/MIT) courses tallied completion rates of 5%:  nothing-to-brag-about results and below most community colleges. However, Isaac Chuang of the MIT faculty said 66% of the 900,000 students in those courses learned something. And it’s MIT: They have the data to prove it.  Likewise, so do viewers of The History Channel.

Three weeks ago The Harvard Gazette concurred: the number of completers is low, but student costs besides time are nil and, given the anytime anywhere availability, very attractive.

Office hours may become the distinguishing factor in the educational experience. Intercollegiate athletics is important. Five-star dorms and recreation centers have value. A pretty campus with places to sit on a warm spring day or walk on crunching leaves in the fall all provide context, image, and opportunity, but are devoid of intellectual/educational/entertainment content available elsewhere: Go to a Bears game, the Hilton, Gold’s gym, or a state park.

With disarming regularity, office hours are reduced for ostensibly good reasons: research, scholarly and creative work are central to the university dynamic. However, office hours of effective teachers are at least equal in consequence to other learning activities.

Online dating-like services may develop to allow students, on a pay-per-incident or hourly basis, the opportunity to interact with faculty who have subject matter expertise, professional qualifications, and life experience. An added attractiveness, they could meet at a local coffee shop eliminating the need for state-funded office space for office hours.

At seven universities I’ve never experienced an office-hour requirement above eight hours per week. This is not to say some faculty members don’t spend twice that.  They do.  Online faculty/student interaction occurs but not with the “rock-star’ teachers.

The top 100 universities won’t suffer. Status of attendance and perceived value will allow those institutions to be unaffected by MOOC’s or other marginal cost reducers.  The best MOOC’s come from the same elite institutions that people are willing to pay skyrocketing costs to attend.  And at top universities real teachers have real office hours.  Is there a marginal cost for an office hour?

Our universities should resist pressure to reduce human contact.  The effort should be to increase human contact.  Office hours may be the sweetest juice of the educational orange.

2 thoughts on “Our Universities: Office Hours

  1. Again, I agree with the final paragraph. But even with the mandated SIUC six office hours contact there are problems.
    1. Students are often working or doing other classes during those set times. However, I operate according to a flexible office hours schedule to accommodate those who can not attend official times.
    2. Several students live out of town so SIUC is a “commuter school” for them so can not benefit from the “human contact” aspect here and it is risky to have office hours in virtually deserted buildings for obvious reasons.
    3. This is the major obstacle. According to a report in the DE last year many students do not regard office hours as “cool” as opposed to mature students who realize the benefits of such interactions. Offers to reach students in groups or individually in the Morris Library corporate coffee bar or individually or in the Library study rooms often fall on deaf ears. As the old saying goes, “it takes two to tango” and as long as distance learning is promoted increasingly as the only type of university education, the “educational orange” will become an empty husk.

  2. You are so right TW,
    I can’t get students to come see me even when they aren’t doing well in the class. I typically have one student per semester who realizes the value each semester and does well as a result. I also note they are appalled when an A isn’t handed to them. I recently had about 5 complain to our director without even communicating with me. I was actually approached to change their grades. Once I made it clear it was the students performance and not some lack of skill on my part the students were referred to set up a time to meet with me if they like. I have had 1 of the five contact me. It will be the first time he sat foot in my office after doing poorly all semester. I prompt them to come and see me several times a semester to no avail.
    I also agree about the danger in meeting in an empty building at night. I guess if you are going to do that it would have to be off campus in a public place to be safe.

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