I am planning to do "online office hours" for students in math courses (undergrad level). My motivation is:

  • To give the students the possibility to ask questions remotely
  • To give the students the possibility to ask questions anonymously
  • To give feedback in realtime

Hence, I am looking for a software with the following features:

  • I can create a chat room that I can open to a specific group of people (e.g. by sharing a link)
  • chat rooms can handle about 100 people
  • chat rooms are not public
  • students can enter anonymously (e.g. with a self chosen user name)
  • simple LaTeX can be rendered
  • it has a smartphone app and a browser interface.

If you don't know of a software that fulfills all criteria, I would also like recommendations for tools that only fulfill some of them.

  • $\begingroup$ Might I also suggest a virtual whiteboard as a feature? $\endgroup$ – Steven Gubkin Jun 29 '17 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ maybe: piazza.com $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook Jun 29 '17 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ @JamesS.Cook That should be expanded into an answer. $\endgroup$ – Tommi Jun 29 '17 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ The only environment that I've used for live time online interactions around math/math education was Adobe Connect. (This is a comment because, from the look of things, it is wildly unsuitable for the sort of chat room that you seek...) $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Dickman Jun 29 '17 at 19:46
  • $\begingroup$ Better off to use some normal webconferencing method that allows drawing (e.g. GoToMeeting). Expecting the students to use LaTEX is unwise. You place a barrier to learning. $\endgroup$ – guest May 24 '18 at 9:54

There aren't many choices that hit all the bullet points you listed, but there are some approximations that are quite good:

  • Piazza (mentioned in another answer) is good. I've used it several times for classes. It does handle LaTeX very well. However, it's a threaded discussion board and not chat software -- i.e. it does not do things in real time (unless you count refreshing the browser).
  • Slack is a group messaging app that was designed for software development teams. I have also used this for a class before. Messages are posted in real time, and stored in channels so they can serve as asynchronous discussions. You can have office hours chats with individuals or groups either in a public channel or through private direct messages. I am not sure of the upper limit on how many people can be included in one of those. Drawbacks for you: There's no anonymous posting and no LaTeX. (There is a plugin that is supposed to handle LaTeX but IMO it's not good.)
  • A third option is Gitter which is a chat/networking tool related to GitHub (Gitter = "GitHub" + "Twitter"). It's a very simple chat environment that handles LaTeX and Markdown syntax very nicely. But, you cannot separate out discussions into groups or private channels, and users need a GitHub or Twitter account to log in.

Of these three, I think Slack is the best -- there is a bit of a learning curve but my students really liked using it, and to work around the LaTeX issue we just agreed to enter math syntax using "Wolfram|Alpha speak", i.e. $\sqrt{x^2 + y^2}$ was entered sqrt(x^2 + y^2) and that worked well enough.

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  • $\begingroup$ another realtime environment which allows LaTeX is www.overleaf.com. I'm not sure how it would handle many users, but, it's a reasonable platform for a couple reasonably mature users. $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook Jul 2 '17 at 13:29

One of my students recommended using https://piazza.com/ for my classes. Basically, it gives you a way of holding online office hours and harnesses some of the utility of the stack exchange model without being public. I haven't personally used it, but, I think it might do pretty much everything you want and then some. Check it out.

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  • $\begingroup$ (I don't mean a current student, it was a student who has left us to teach elsewhere and he uses it for his teaching... I already have too many irons in the fire for such added frivolity) $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook Jun 29 '17 at 21:04
  • $\begingroup$ Definitely I recommend Piazza. $\endgroup$ – user52817 Jun 29 '17 at 21:30

At my institution, some profs use Adobe Connect. Here is a Johns Hopkins University link explaining its use for online office hours, and here is a similar link from University of Washington. I have experimented with it, but not used it in a course myself. (I use piazza in all my classes, but not for live online office hours.) I doubt Adobe Connect satisfies all your criteria; certainly not LaTeX.

One prof here who does use it regularly (in Organic Chemistry, ~75 students) says it works great, once you master the technical ideosyncracies. He likes that it off-loads some daytime pressure to past his children's bedtime.

One aspect I found interesting is that, apparently, many students would join the office hours and then only kinda half-listen. They didn't have specific questions or confusions, but they wanted to hear whatever was explained to those who did. So they "lurked." This is not necessarily bad, just interesting.

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