The importance of a virtual office

Virtual Office Info Graphic

In face-to-face courses, students have the luxury of benefiting from questions asked while in the classroom or the ability to stop by your office to discuss an issue they might be having.  In both cases they get the chance to interact with you and possibly some of their fellow classmates.

Sometimes, students find it challenging to find that same connection in an online, hybrid or web-enhanced environment.  The good news is that with Blackboard, you can create a virtual space where your students can experience the same kind of connection and feedback they receive in their brick-and-mortar classes.

Using a virtual office in your online/hybrid/web-enhanced courses provides many benefits. For the purpose of this blog post, we will focus on three.  Using a virtual office:

  • puts the instructor in the course
  • cleans up email inboxes
  • promotes the use of Blackboard (the LMS or Learning Management System)

The virtual office puts the instructor in the course

Placing a photo of yourself, your contact information and a little biographical info can go a long way toward helping your student see you as a person and not some synthetic-robot version of yourself.   If you want to go the extra mile, replace the photo with a quick Intro or Welcome video that can bring out your personality and help the students get to know you.

By subscribing to your own virtual office discussion forum you will receive prompts when questions are posted.  These prompts will help you engage with your students in a timely fashion and make the students feel like you are in the course.

The virtual office cleans up e-mail inboxes

Let’s face it, we all “misplace” e-mail.  For some of us, our inbox receives a hundred new messages or more each day.  Why not make life easier on you and your students by reserving course-oriented email for things of a personal or private nature.  Have your students post general course questions to the virtual office discussion forumWhen you answer questions via e-mail the only people that see that correspondence are you and the student. If a question is answered in a public space like the virtual office, everyone benefits.

You may have to use the first week of the course as a “training week” where you ensure you point your students to the virtual office for answers to course questions.  Make it a requirement in your syllabus, an expectation on your course expectations page and a question on your Syllabus quiz to ensure students know where to go.

BONUS:  The virtual office builds a course FAQ over the course of a semester that you can then use as part of your next semester’s course.

The virtual office promotes the use of Blackboard (the LMS)

The more time a student is spending in your course, the more connected they are to what is happening.  When your students establish the habit of checking the course regularly, they will be more engaged and more successful.

Encouraging your students to check the virtual office daily will get them in your course and connect them to the information and activities they need to conquer course objectives.


  1. I teach quantitative courses, and I definitely recommend using virtual office hours–with one important caveat, which I’ll get to in a moment. I used to just ask students to contact me via email or phone when they had questions, but this can sometimes lead to dozens upon dozens of emails over the course of a day, many asking about the same or about similar concepts. Providing a centralized location where students can ask their own questions and see my answers to others’ questions has greatly cut down on my email workload and stress. My answers are also better, giving more detailed help and context, because I’m only having to write them once. Students are often intimidated by quantitative courses, so I think it’s necessary to allow a forum for students to ask lots of questions. Virtual office hours using discussion boards seem to balance the needs of students and instructors well.

    One major recommendation I have, however, is to NOT allow anonymous posting when setting up the forum. There’s a check box in Blackboard that enables the option for students to post anonymously. Using this option makes the poster’s name anonymous to other students AND the instructor. Although it is technically possible to determine the identities of anonymous posters should you be curious, it is not straightforward and requires Blackboard technical support to painstakingly go through the IP address records for the course individually for each post. It’s a laborious process, and there is no guarantee that Blackboard would have the time or inclination to do this for everyone, since it’s the instructor’s mistake. I got lucky.

    Here’s how I learned about the perils of anonymous posting. In one semester, I enabled anonymous posting in the virtual office hours forum with the intention of encouraging students who would ordinarily shy away from asking questions to participate. Students in quantitative courses often say they feel intimidated when asking questions in class, fearing that they will be judged by others. I wanted to remove that barrier. What I ended up getting, though, was a series of complaints and attacks on the content of the course and how I was teaching it. Students began telling me–the instructor–how to run the course and what content should be in it. Threats were made to bring the course to the attention of higher-ups because the work was, apparently, just too onerous! Students even began arguing among themselves, with one little group defending me. Keeping in mind that I had taught this exact course multiple times online before with the same material, I was flabbergasted. The only difference between the previous years and this semester was the ability of students to anonymously post.

    Fortunately, removing the ability for anonymous posting is simple. Just edit the forum and un-tick the box. Current anonymous posts will remain anonymous, but any new posts will list the student’s name.

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