Planning for Instructional Contingencies

Tools for Synchronous Discussion and Digital Office Hours

Note– As of Fall 2021, some of the tools referenced in this guide (BBCU among them) are no longer supported at UW. We will be updating this page to reflect the most current campus resources shortly. We enthusiastically encourage you to explore the up-to-date campus guides and student-facing resources available on UW-Madison’s Fall 2021 Instruction page for more information.

Synchronous Discussion Tools

A good first place to go for information about discussion tools is UW’s growing set of resources around instructional continuity, specifically the page “Transitioning Course Content Online.” Please revisit this website regularly, as more resources will be added over time.

This page contains supplemental resources in response to specific questions that MTLE fellows have asked us. This is also where we will highlight tools and language fellows have shared with us as being helpful in their own teaching.

Web conferencing connects two or more individuals in different locations via text, audio, and video. This grants individuals the ability to interact with each other when they cannot physically meet. Web conferencing allows online instructors to have the types of in-depth conversations with students that are otherwise difficult to conduct via email, such as online office hours, or a pre-test study session.

UW-Madison supports a series of web conferencing tools.

Due to FERPA and other privacy issues, UW-Madison recommends that you do not use other, non-sanctioned web conferencing software such as Skype or Zoom for any academic or university business.

Equity in Online Instruction

Communicate all of the connection options to students. Not all students have access to laptops or tablets with functioning microphones. Many of UW’s approved tools for synchronous discussion enable students to dial into a conference using a phone. Include this information in your announcements about the technology.

Brainstorm alternative modes of contact and keep lines of communication with your students open. Even though many tools allow students to dial into communication tools using a phone, some students may still find it difficult to access these meetings via telephone if they have intermittent access to a telephone off-campus. Make sure that students know that you’re invested in working with them to identify an alternative strategy if there are any barriers to communication that they can anticipate.

The following two videos will introduce you to Ultra and Google Meet.

To learn more about Blackboard Ultra Conference, check out the UW-Madison Knowledgebase resources page, Blackboard Ultra in Canvas.


To learn more about Google Meet, check out UW-Madison’s KB.doc resources on Google Hangouts Meet.

Holding Virtual Office Hours

It is good practice in an online course to offer your students an opportunity to interact with you directly, such as in an ‘office hours’ or ‘study session’ setting. Face-to-face office hours or study sessions may be impractical in some circumstances, and for in-depth conversations, emails can be unwieldy and time-consuming. Therefore, consider another alternative for your students.

Scheduling regular times for live interactions builds your online persona, reinforces your presence as an instructor, and offers students:

  • an approximation of the interaction achieved in class
  • an opportunity to learn as a group
  • a chance to build a community of practice within the course

Many instructors hold virtual office hours through a conferencing service such as Blackboard Collaborate Ultra or Google Hangouts Meet (described above).

Coordinating Virtual Office Hours

  • Some instructors use a combination of a Google Doc sign-up sheet and email communication to coordinate the timing of office hours conversations.
    • Many video conferencing platforms enable you to share a link or phone number with students so that they can access the meeting directly. Once students sign up for a time slot, you can follow up with them by email with the direct link they can use to access the meeting.
    • If you do use a Google Doc sign-up, keep FERPA considerations in mind! Consider inviting students to sign up using a non-identifying name and to follow up with you individually via email so that their privacy needs are taken into account.
  • Canvas’s Scheduler Tool can help you set up appointment groups. It allows students to sign up for individual timeslots. This can be an excellent tool (and it’s FERPA-compliant). As the UW-Madison Active Teaching Lab encourages, if you use this tool, it’s a good idea to make sure your own instructor notifications settings are up-to-date and to provide students with information about how to sign up for appointments.
  • YouCanBookMe is a paid option for coordinating appointments (with a free trial available) that many instructors use to facilitate automatic student booking of office hours conversations. An advantage of this platform is that you can map out a series of automatic email responses to help students know how to access you after they claim an appointment slot. You can also sync YouCanBookMe with your campus Outlook calendar so that it auto-populates appointments into your schedule within pre-specified timeframes. 



Creative Commons License
This guide includes content adapted from a TA Training in Online Instruction course Naomi facilitated while working with UW-Madison’s LSS-Learning Support Services.

Like the original resources we adapted this guide from, work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This means that you should feel free to adopt and adapt content from this page for your own teaching, but we ask that you observe the terms of the license (linked above) and that you provide attribution to UW-Madison Learning Support Services and Sue Bauer, John Raible, and Jessica Tojo of UCF.  Elements of this page are adapted from the University of Central Florida (UCF) TOPKit Sample Course (CC-BY-4.0).





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MTLE Resources Copyright © by Christian Castro; Naomi Salmon; and Madison Teaching and Learning Excellence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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