While a lot of the communication for a course happens in the classroom itself, including through a printed course syllabus and handouts, and in office hours, GSIs and students also have access to an array of 24/7 digital tools.

Course Sites in bCourses
Managing Email Communication
Virtual Office Hours

bCourses Site: Communication Features

Many instructors handle out-of-class communication using a course website. UC Berkeley currently offers a suite of web-based tools in the learning management system (LMS) bCourses, which is Berkeley’s name for its installation of the LMS platform Canvas.

Contact your Instructor of Record (the faculty member in charge of the courses) early to find out how bCourses will be used in your course and to gain access to any other online tools you will be using.

The table below shows some of the communication tools available in bCourses, with links to explanations in the Canvas Instructor Guide.

Announcements Used to post course-related items on the site; triggers message to students (subject to their notification preferences*).
Calendar Can remind students of upcoming class activities and due dates; can synch with Assignments, Syllabus, and Grades tools.
Chat Allows students and teachers to interact remotely in real time.
Conferences Instructors can run synchronous presentations or office hours.
People Lists all the names and email addresses of people enrolled in the site and in any smaller student groups they may be part of (see Groups tool).
Syllabus Displays the course syllabus and integrates with the Assignments tool to list upcoming assignment titles and due dates.
* Note: All users, instructors and students, set their own notification preferences in bCourses. Users can choose the frequency with which they receive notifications from the LMS as well as how the notification comes to them (choice of email account or text message).

For substantial documentation of all of the tools used in bCourses, see the Canvas Instructor Guide (also available using the “Help” tab in the top-right corner of the bCourses screen). Further questions can be directed to Educational Technology Services (ETS). ETS also gives workshops for instructors on using bCourses.

Managing Email Communication

Though bCourses offers other ways to correspond with students, email has been perhaps the most commonly used tool for one-on-one contacts. If GSIs choose to use email, they are well served to think through how they will manage email correspondence in their instructional role. The volume and frequency of student messages can be daunting.

  • Setting an email policy with students at the beginning of the semester makes the flow more manageable. This policy could indicate that the GSI will respond to emails within 24 hours, or that they will only check and respond to emails at set times during the day (at 9 am and 4 pm, for example).
  • Reducing the hours during which you will respond to student emails can relieve pressure to respond as soon as you see a student message. It can also consolidate your work, for example when you find that over a period of hours several students ask the same question. Rather than repeating essentially the same information several times, you might want to respond once and send or post the response to the entire class.
  • While a student may write emails in a very informal way, GSIs as instructors need to maintain a professional tone and professional boundaries in their correspondence.
  • Some GSIs have also found it useful to set up an email account specifically for their GSI responsibilities or to interact with students exclusively in bCourses. This allows GSIs to keep their personal email account private, and it also makes it easier to enforce their email policy.

Whatever medium you may use, be sure to clearly explain your communication policy and how students should contact you at the beginning of the semester and, if applicable, include it in your section syllabus.

Virtual Office Hours

It’s nearly impossible to schedule face-to-face office hours on campus that don’t conflict with any of your students’ schedules, and making individual appointments can be cumbersome. Student questions emailed to an instructor can also take considerable time to answer — far longer than a conventional office-hour conversation, in fact. A virtual office hour can provide a solution that is helpful for a lot of students and instructors. (Please note that you should check with your department to make sure it’s okay to hold some of your office hours remotely.)

bCourses offers a Chat tool, which can be used for office hours. Because a chat is open to the whole class simultaneously, you would not be able to interact confidentially with a student in this medium. However, you could address students’ course content or logistical questions that can be shared with other class members. Some GSIs have found it useful to utilize virtual office hours before an exam or assignment due date, when students often ask very similar types of questions. Since all activity in the chat room is recorded, even those students who were not able to log on during office hours are able to read over the transcript and see which questions were and were not addressed.