This app helps students get more face time with professors

The Khoury Office Hours app created by Sandbox, a student-led software developed group. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

A student-created web app aimed at cutting wait times for instructors’ remote office hours is quickly gaining traction at Northeastern’s Khoury College of Computer Sciences—helping students avoid heavy online traffic by informing them when virtual queues are shortest.

The free software lists the days and times when professors or teaching assistants are available to meet virtually with students one-on-one. Students can use it to schedule a meeting ahead of time or jump into a virtual line during those hours.

“If they decide to wait in line, the queue updates in real time so students can see how quickly the line is moving,” says Stanley Liu, a third-year computer science major who helped create the app.

Liu is part of a seven-member team who designed and constructed the app last year as part of Sandbox, a student-led software-development club.

“Students here at Northeastern are very motivated entrepreneurially,” says Da-Jin Chu, a recent Northeastern computer science graduate who co-created Sandbox a few years ago. Chu also helped design the office hours app.

“We saw opportunities to make things easier, and we realized we could start to work on those things and provide a real value to the community,” he says.

The app, officially titled Khoury Office Hours, includes other features. Instructors can see how many students are waiting, and students in line can see how many people are ahead of them, who the teacher is meeting with, and how long the meeting has lasted. Students fill in a form explaining their issue when they get in line, giving instructors a heads-up about the meeting’s purpose.

“The feature we’re most proud of is a heat map,” says Liu. The heat map crunches usage data and can indicate heavy wait times.

“The wait times are really the most important feature. So on any given day you can see, sort of like Google Maps, how busy it is depending on the time of day,” he says.

Demand for the app, which is currently only available for Khoury College students and instructors, has intensified since faculty began using it last fall. Liu and the other developers currently offer the web app free of charge, so instructors interested in the software can reach out to Liu if interested. Students then visit the apps website and log in with their Khoury account to schedule some face time.

For our team, a big part of developing the app has to do with learning web development skills and having fun brainstorming ideas on how to make the office hours experience at Northeastern more transparent and efficient, says Liu.

The number of users so far in the spring semester has already surpassed the total number of users in the fall. Last semester, only four courses used the app, with instructors fielding about 10,000 requests. In comparison, 14 courses are currently using the feature. Two weeks into the semester, instructors have already  addressed 12,000 office hours requests.

The Khoury office hours app has been instrumental in conducting office hours for our multi-instructor, multi-section course, says Amit Shesh, an associate professor who teaches computer science at Northeastern. It makes it easier for students to queue themselves for help, and also streamlines the way in which they are helped by the course staff.

An added bonus for Shesh? He can easily contact the apps developers if he has any issues or questions.

What sets it apart is that it is completely developed by students, and they are incredibly responsive to troubleshoot problems and add features requested by faculty, he says.

Progress on the app wasn’t always smooth sailing. When Chu and William Stenzel, another original developer, began designing the app in early 2020, they envisioned the project as a mobile app that would help schedule in-person meetings. 

“I had a bit of an existential crisis where I was saying, ‘Are we building anything useful at all, here?’” said Chu.

Then COVID-19 hit, and remote office hours were in high demand.

“Suddenly everyone really needed this to happen, and we were in a unique position to get it done,” he said.

As the app’s popularity grows, Liu, Chu, and the other designers are already working on improvements. They hope to develop a dashboard showing professors’ weekly office hours usage, information that could indicate whether homework that week was particularly hard.

The team is also working to pair students asking similar questions, saving time and effort for instructors.

And while the app is currently named “Khoury Office Hours,” Liu sees no reason why it can’t be used campus-wide.

“Our goal is to be a one-stop place where Northeastern can go to schedule office hours,” Liu says.

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