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Why Boon Thau Loo Says Teaching Online is the Opportunity of a Lifetime

Dr Boon

July 22, 2019 by Whitney Stewart

Dr. Boon Thau Loo is non-stop.

When he’s not managing a research team of six PhD students and one post-doc, he is teaching two computer science courses of over 100 students, pursuing entrepreneurial ventures, and serving as principle investigator (PI) on a number of Department of Defense and National Science Foundation departmental grants.

Oh, and he oversees 18 Masters programs as Penn’s Associate Dean for the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Needless to say, time is a precious commodity for Boon. So, when he says developing an online course was the opportunity of a lifetime, we should all take notice.

“Teaching online allows faculty members to be at the forefront of a revolution in education.”

Dr Boon
Dr. Loo is Associate Dean of Master’s and Professional Programs for the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

For context, Boon did not anticipate teaching online when he did. In fact, he often jokes that he ventured into the online space accidentally. When another faculty member slated to develop a core course for the Online Master of Computer and Information Technology (MCIT) realized they would be unable to teach it as planned, Loo assumed the responsibility. That pivotal decision quickly revealed itself to be an opportunity to enhance his pedagogical approach to teaching both online and on-campus.

And, quite frankly, the numbers don’t lie. Dr. Loo’s on-campus computer science course ratings typically straddle around 2.9 out of 4.0. After developing an online operating systems course during Spring 2019, however, his rating for the same on-campus course jumped to 3.66 out of 4.0.

“My teaching rating jumped to 3.66 out of 4.0. I have never come close to that in my Penn career. Frankly, I thought it was a typo. I realized then how much the experience of building the same class online benefited my on-campus teaching.”

Dr Boon

So how did he do it?

Collaborating with a team of instructional designers hired by Penn and a cohort of TAs was Dr. Loo’s key to success. Together, they paced the development of the online course to be concurrent with the natural progression of Dr. Loo’s on-campus lectures. In doing so, Loo was able to achieve rapid iteration by testing the new course material on his 100+ on-campus students.

“I didn’t go into the development of this course with the intent of improving my on-campus class. It happened by accident, by virtue of developing both concurrently.”

The instructional designers helped him think holistically about the learning objectives for the operating systems class and the presentation of his course material. For example, they encouraged him to take the in-video questions that were originally tailored for his online audience and adapt them for his on-campus class. “I found that my on-campus students started engaging with me a lot more as a result,” Dr. Loo shares.

Dr. Loo’s teaching assistants, for their part, helped him build out an auto-grading infrastructure to facilitate large programming assignments online. This was directly transferrable to the benefit of his on-campus class. “It used to be very time consuming for my TAs to grade. We had to answer a lot of clarification questions on Piazza. After developing the demo videos and auto-grader, the amount of regrade requests dropped substantially,” Dr. Loo explains.

As part of the development of the course, Loo was even able to reconnect with former students who had gone on to successful careers at tech companies like Google and Facebook. Reflecting on a recent interview with two of his former TA’s he shares, “I had two generations of students sitting together on camera, talking about why this class matters in the real world. It doesn’t get better than that.”

At the end of the day, Dr. Loo’s main takeaway is this: teaching online is the opportunity of a lifetime.

“We’re now at a point where the educational landscape is changing. If you involve yourself in this, you will be at the forefront of a revolution in education,” he beams.

Q: What do you perceive to be the main reason why faculty members hesitate to teach online? How can they overcome these challenges?

A: The biggest hurdle is always time. From on-campus teaching and research, to advising, there are many demands for your time. And, these concerns are well-founded. My advice is to not view teaching online as completely different from your on-campus teaching. Try to develop an online course that you are already teaching on-campus. This will make the process less time consuming. More importantly, it can directly benefit your on-campus teaching.