2020 Interview with Prof Sara Thermer
June 1, 2020
By: Barr Morgenstein
In light of the current health situation, all school activities moved online. For some, e-learning was always part of the syllabus. We discussed with Prof. Sara Thermer, the lead instructor of the pre-capstone entrepreneurship course, to learn her perspective on the changes taking place.
What has been the most surprising part about the shift to working at home?
I’ve been working from home for a while now, so I’m used to it — but self-discipline and structure are 100% the hardest things that my partner and students are struggling with. Now you can wake up 5 minutes before a Zoom lecture and lay in bed (although you shouldn’t). It’s challenging to force yourself to wake up on time, eat breakfast, get dressed, and sit at a desk to do work. And then to know when to call it quits at the end of the day, rather than working until 10 or 11pm because you can.
How are you staying in touch with faculty and students? How is communication being handled?
Everything was already handled over Slack and email. I’m much more diligent about staying in touch with everyone though and checking in on them. When the students at NYU were kicked out of the dorms suddenly, I stayed up messaging all of my TAs individually to make sure they had a plan and someplace safe to go. For my students I’m sending them more regular reminder emails and I built a “how to be an online student” page for my freshmen.
Prof. Sara Thermer, Pre-Capstone Lead Instructor, Instructional Designer
Do you think the current health situation encourages more students to take part in entrepreneurship?
This situation has absolutely brought to light many shortcomings in our government and health care system. Many people are embracing the entrepreneurial spirit by using their at-home 3D printers to make masks and other forms of PPE. There are so many instructions online for sewing masks. There’s even a Facebook group, RVs for MDs, where people are loaning their currently unused campers so doctors have a safe place to quarantine when they get home, instead of exposing their families to whatever they picked up during their shift. With the current economic climate and layoffs, I’m sure there’s mixed views of becoming a small business owner, but people from all walks of life are absolutely exhibiting entrepreneurial behavior in trying to help their neighbors and communities.
Have you felt a shift in desire from students to generate ideas to ease the challenges caused by the current situation?
I’ve seen a shift in political awareness and desire for policy changes more so than in solving engineering challenges. There’s a lack of compassion and empathy in government. Not necessarily a lack of tools or know-how.
Do you think the current situation will draw more students towards socially impacting projects?
Absolutely. Everyone has been directly affected in one way or another. I have a handful of students who currently have the virus, a large percentage that are in different time zones now, and students and TAs whose parents have lost their jobs and they are now needing to financially contribute to their households when they didn’t need to before.
What do you think are the benefits of online lectures? Do you think some programs are better taught online versus in-person?
Goodness, this is a loaded question. My background is in online learning in higher education. The flexibility and the (potential) creativity are by far the strongest benefits of online lectures. However, this isn’t what “online learning” is. What we are experiencing is “Emergency Remote Teaching”. Many schools spend 20 or so weeks developing an entire course to be put online. We had… a week? Maybe 2? There are a lot of pedagogical and andragogical considerations to take when transitioning a curriculum online. In some cases it can be challenging to conduct lab experiments online, for sure. I know most students (and the faculty) aren’t pleased with the quality of instruction that’s happening right now. But I don’t want you to get the wrong impression on what online learning really is.
How do you ensure people are engaged and paying attention through the online sessions/ communication?
Faculty presence is a HUGE part of this. Switching to discussion posts, hosting regular live office hours, regularly sending announcements, grading homework and providing feedback within a reasonable time, all of these are ways to stay connected to students. I’d like to encourage faculty to post video announcements or responses so the students can still see them — it keeps the humanity in online education.
All the faculty can do is provide the resources and the structure. At the end of the day, it’s up to the student to put in the effort to pay attention.
What tools are provided to students to help support their learning?
We have expanded office hours availability, sent announcements and messages, have been checking in with students we are concerned about, re-wrote the entire second half of the curriculum for the semester to make it “online/quarantine friendly” as much as possible. We’ve extended deadlines and allowed resubmissions and late submissions. We have no idea what these students are going through at home. The content is already hard enough as it is. It takes nothing to be kind to the students so they can succeed.
How do you encourage engagement across classes?
Students HATE having their cameras on. We really encourage it (but don’t demand it) because it’s nice to see everyone’s faces. This goes back to keeping the humanity in the online courses. We have online polls during lectures and have worked really hard to make engagement easy for students. Using students’ names, commenting on their Zoom backgrounds if they have one, asking how someone is doing in a broad sense, or if they are feeling prepared for an exam in another class you know is coming up.
Does the online learning session take as much time as other in-person sessions?
If done properly, more! Especially at the higher education level where we are so used to boring stand-and-deliver sage-on-the-stage lectures, it takes a lot more thought and effort to deliberately design the interactions in a classroom in a way that the material is accessible to everyone.
Is the course interactive? In what way?
My courses have always been hands-on which has made this transition rather challenging. How do you do customer discovery interviews, prototype with groups members around the world, or run tests on those prototypes under these circumstances? We’ve re-written the entire second half of the semester to account for these challenges.
Is the course material available online?
Where else would it be available? Objectives, lessons, materials, assignments, recordings… Everything is available online in an organized way. Students need to be able to find all the relevant information in an easy way.
What kind of feedback did you receive from the students?
Understandably many students are frustrated with the whole situation and can take it out on little things. Others recognize that you are working really hard to make these modifications and like the format changes better.
Are there any modifications per class to assure that the difficulty of the class is aligned with the students’ level?
We have reopened submissions for nearly every single assignment the entire semester. We’ve assigned TAs to specifically grade those resubmissions that come in. All the material scaffolds on itself. We’re happy to give everyone an A in the class if they have earned it. And by redoing assignments that they may have gotten a low score on, want to try again, or have improved the way they approach their problem, then that demonstrates they’ve learned the material. Who cares if a student hits a standard a little later than someone else? it’s more important to us that they focus on the material than on their grade.