March 29, 2024

From Students to Staff

At Penn Engineering Online, community collaboration is valued and vital. The synergetic online community brings together ambitious graduate students from around the world, Penn’s accomplished Ivy League faculty, and an innovative team of dedicated staff members.

Penn Engineering is especially proud of the fact that several graduates of the online Master of Computer and Information Technology (MCIT Online) degree program had such positive experiences as students, that they decided to join the staff. This integration of alumni means that program leadership can more easily incorporate the student perspective as the staff and faculty work to shape the future of the online programs. 

We spoke recently with four staff members – three MCIT Online alumni and one current MCIT Online student – about how they are uniquely positioned to approach their jobs on the Penn Engineering Online team from both the student and the staff perspective. Our wide-ranging conversation touched on everything from Penn Engineering’s supportive online community; to the flexible, accessible graduate degree experience; to how the course content they studied in class now helps them succeed in their professional roles.

Like most MCIT Online students, all four of these staff members had somewhat limited experience with computer science before enrolling in the program. When the MCIT Online degree first launched in 2019, making Ivy League academics both flexible and accessible, the program attracted a wide range of students spanning a variety of geographic locations, academic backgrounds and professional industries.

Colin McLaughlin ’21, who was teaching English in Korea before enrolling, came to the program in search of a career change. “MCIT Online seemed like the perfect way to get into the computer space,” said McLaughlin, who now works on the program team as an Application Developer. “I started right when the program did, which felt trailblazing.” 

Headshot of young adult male framed in blue with text reading: 
Colin McLaughlin
Application Developer
MCIT Online ‘21
Headshot of young adult female framed in blue with text reading: 
Ammarah Aftab
Instructional Technologist
Current MCIT Online Student

Current student Ammarah Aftab joined the Penn Engineering Online staff as an Instructional Technologist, after coming to Penn for a degree in education. She then enrolled in MCIT Online to support the work she does facilitating effective teaching and learning, including the integration of digital tools and educational strategies.

For Diane Hoffstetter ’22, MCIT Online offered the fundamental skills she needed to transition from a career in electrical engineering to software engineering. “I came across MCIT Online, and it was reasonably priced,” said Hoffstetter, who eventually joined the program staff as a Learning Experience Engineer after graduating. “Most of the programs I looked at were three to four times the cost.”

Headshot of adult female framed in blue with text reading: 
Diane Hoffstetter
Learning Experience Engineer
MCIT Online ‘22
Headshot of young adult male framed in blue with text reading: 
Brendan Massey
Instructional Technologist
Current MCIT Online Student

“When I started in the program, I thought the experience was going to be more isolated than it was,” said Brendan Massey ’22, who joined the staff as an Instructional Technologist after graduating. “But I ended up meeting a lot of people on Slack, and we helped each other through the courses.”

Staff members agreed that the program fosters exceptionally strong bonds among students. For her part, Hoffstetter said she was surprised by the number of friends she made while she was a student — an experience that influenced her to apply for a staff role when a position became available. “As a student, I loved the sense of community at Penn,” she said. “And it’s the same thing with the job. Even though I’m a remote employee, I have always felt very much a part of the team.” 

Aftab noted that the MCIT Online learning environment is enriched by this inclusive and expansive community. “My class is a bunch of very smart, qualified people from a lot of different industries. It’s great to be able to converse with them and learn about their diverse backgrounds,” she said.

Another major strength of the program that staff members pointed to was the high quality of teaching. “The professors are phenomenal, not only in their academic record but they are so open to talking with students. You can even work with them on research, which is unusual for an online program,” noted Massey.

“We strive to have a 15-to-1 TA-to-student ratio, which I don’t think is true for many other programs out there. Our advisors take the personal touch very seriously,” said McLaughlin.

Now that these employees have had the opportunity to experience Penn Engineering’s online graduate degree programs as both students and staff; they all seemed to agree that the technical knowledge they honed during their time in MCIT Online has enhanced their day-to-day work in many ways. Aftab noted that she’s already taking on coding projects in her Instructional Technology role, even though she’s still only a few courses into the program. McLaughlin related, saying, “The program provides a very good foundation of technical knowledge and software development. In my job I work with relational databases, and having that background was a great asset when I jumped into this new role as an Application Developer.”

The employees all also noted that experiencing the student journey firsthand has helped them to be able to support student outcomes as members of the program staff, by tailoring courses and learning activities to better meet students’ needs.

“A lot of my work as an Instructional Technologist involves interacting with students, so understanding the student’s perspective is very useful,” said Massey. “For example, if a student requests an extension on an assignment, I know how that’s going to affect them for the rest of the semester. I can advise them how to make it work.” Massey now manages courses for the MCIT Online, MSE-DS Online and undergraduate Computer Science programs.

Aftab, also an Instructional Technologist, added that experiencing the courses and content delivery platforms from the student point of view gives her valuable insights to be able to guide course design more effectively.

MCIT Online offers the same world-class academic material and the same Ivy League degree as its on-campus counterpart — but the online courses are specifically tailored for an online, international student body composed of virtual learners. The Instructional Design team develops content for each class, filming interactive lectures with professors in a dedicated studio and utilizing innovative digital platforms to deliver the curriculum to students.

 “When we develop courses, we adapt the content specifically to meet the needs of career changers and people with families and full-time jobs,” noted Hoffstetter.

“For example, the Instructional Design team is always looking for ways to make the videos more engaging and more interactive, like flashcards, quizzes or interviews with people in the industry.” 

Staff members noted that the program takes student feedback seriously, too. “Every course has weekly check-ins and mid-semester reviews, and students have the opportunity to provide us with feedback at the end of every module,” Aftab said. “We discuss the feedback as a team and try to incorporate it in the courses.”

McLaughlin added that this responsive approach extends across all programs at Penn Engineering Online. “For example, the MCIT Online and the MSE-DS Online program used to have two separate Slack channels, but a lot of students wanted them to be consolidated into one,” he noted. “Our program staff took it seriously and set it up so that everyone’s in the same Slack space.”

Penn Engineering prides itself on this collaborative approach to online learning. The program hopes to continue to improve and flourish by placing value on the unique perspectives offered by students, faculty, and staff. This approach allows Penn Engineering to uphold its commitment to meet the evolving needs of online learners who seek access to world-class engineering education.

These four employees are just a few examples of the many students who have utilized the strong and versatile foundational skills provided by the MCIT Online degree to successfully advance their careers. Now, they’re leveraging their student experience to “pay it forward” by working to enhance and evolve the learner experience for the future students who follow in their footsteps.

Tags: MCIT Online