Open Office Hours bring faculty to Facebook

Feb. 20, 2013, 11:42 p.m.

Rob Dunbar, professor of environmental earth system science, recently hosted office hours from an unusual location — the top of an icebreaker at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

Dunbar was just the most recent participant in Stanford’s Open Office Hours, a program that allows faculty members and guest speakers to film video responses to questions from the University’s growing Facebook fan base. The program — conceived by Ian Hsu ’98 M.S. ’01, the University’s former director of Internet media outreach — was created in 2009. Since then, almost 30 speakers have hosted installments, with a total of 64 videos posted.

According to Director of Digital Media John Stafford M.A. ’06, the purpose of the program has remained the same throughout its four-year duration.

“We want to offer another vehicle in which we can share Stanford knowledge and research with audiences on the social web,” Stafford said. “People are by and large excited to have an opportunity to interact with all these great minds at Stanford.”

Although Facebook doesn’t provide a view count for videos, the most popular installments, as ranked by comments made, were hosted by Professor Emeritus of Psychology Philip Zimbardo, whose videos received approximately 110 comments, and former Dean of Undergraduate Admission Richard Shaw, whose videos received about 60 comments.

Videos range in length from two minutes to over 15, and topics vary widely depending on the speaker’s area of expertise. Zimbardo discussed the psychology of heroism in his videos, while Shaw spoke about admissions and student life at Stanford.

Director of Media Initiatives Melinda Sacks ’74, who is responsible for recruiting professors and guests for Open Office Hours, said that she often finds potential speakers by simply “being nosy and curious.”

“I really just keep my ears open for what I think would be interesting,” she said. “I try to have as much diversity as possible in terms of the topics and the schools that are represented.”

In the past, Sacks focused on finding interesting speakers and subsequently allowing them to determine their speaking topics. For recent installments, she has identified trends or breaking news stories that would attract viewers, and then found professors who could provide commentary.

Sacks recruited Professor of Communication Cliff Nass, who hosted two Open Office Hour sessions in Dec. 2012, to discuss how new technologies such as smart phones are influencing human behavior.

Nass noted that participating in the program took little effort on his part, as he was not responsible for filming, editing or posting the videos.

“One of the big issues in online learning is how much work it takes,” Nass said. “For me this took nothing. That low barrier to entry is really key to this, it was so easy for me to do.”

According to Nass, one of the fundamental differences between Open Office Hours and normal office hours is that the Facebook program allows viewers to determine the curriculum through their questions.

“The goal is really to give people what they want rather than intellectually deciding what they should learn,” Nass said. “Whether it is what I consider the most important thing or not, it is their time, their opportunity to find out whatever they want to know.”

Helen Stacy, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, posted three installments of Open Office Hours in Jan. and Feb. 2012. She emphasized that, while she knew Stanford students and alumni were analytical and well read, she was impressed by how “probing and cutting edge” the questions were.

Photo courtesy of Helen Stacy.
Photo courtesy of Helen Stacy.

“It really showed me how up to date and linked in to current affairs and contemporary debates the Stanford online community is,” Stacy said.

Open Office Hours has also featured public figures affiliated with Stanford, including Bill Gates, Kevin Bacon and James Franco, whose mother Betsy graduated in 1969.

“Stanford is lucky because we have lots of very interesting visitors to campus, ranging from celebrities to government people to people in public policy,” Sacks said. “I think it’s great to have a combination of people everybody knows and maybe celebrities, and also those that haven’t already had a lot of visibility that we can bring out through Open Office Hours.”

While neither Sacks nor Stafford had specific plans for expanding Open Office Hours, both anticipate building on the program in the future with the goal of producing one or two installments every month.

“It really works well for most topics, even if all it does is open the door and show people, ‘Here’s an area you might not have thought about, or here is a person you might not have heard about who is doing fantastic work,’” Sacks said. “It serves a real purpose for the University.”


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