Portrait picture of Prof. Julia Herzen
Prof. Julia Herzen (Image: Astrid Eckert / TUM)

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Studying in the Age of Corona

The Master’s program “Biomedical Engineering and Medical Physics” has begun in digital form.

Prof. Julia Herzen is the speaker of the study program for the new Master’s program “Biomedical Engineering and Medical Physics”. In an interview she talks about how digital studies function in the age of the Corona pandemic and points out the opportunities and pitfalls.

The new Master's program “Biomedical Engineering and Medical Physics” was to start in the summer semester. Has the program been able to launch in spite of the Corona crisis?

We’ve recommended that students begin with their curriculum in the winter semester, since the various faculties involved wouldn't be able to convert all the planned classes to digital formats in time for the summer semester. However, 13 of the 30 students admitted to the program have chosen to start their studies now.

Will these students be able to complete a regular semester?

Yes, they are supposed to attend as many suitable online lectures as possible in order to earn the 30 credit points defined for the semester. This has to include the lecture on Biomedical Physics, which is required for all students in the Master's program. The remaining lectures can be chosen from among a wide selection of courses.

One issue that still hasn’t been resolved is how examinations will work. Oral tests will be permitted in any case, as long as the necessary distances are maintained, but written examinations will be difficult, since this would mean putting a large number of people together in a single room at the same time.

You'll also be lecturing as part of the Master's program…

Together with my colleague Klaus Achterhold, I'm giving a lecture on Image Processing in Physics, which is attended by approximately 100 students from both our Master’s program and from other departments such as Informatics and Electrical Engineering.

How does that work? Can you be seen on video addressing an empty lecture hall?

No, nobody is going to watch a 90-minute lecture on video. I make short videos, organized by topic and lasting 10 to 15 minutes each. I can’t be seen in the videos – the students see the presentation slides and hear my explanations. In addition, I offer links to relevant chapters in textbooks as well as links to excerpts from educational videos – there are very good courses on image processing available on the internet. When the students don’t understand my explanations, they have a chance to read up in the textbook or watch the corresponding video.

And what actions do the students have to take?

First of all, there is a homework assignment and a multiple-choice quiz for each lecture. The quiz lets the students test their level of understanding themselves, and they are required to complete the homework and turn it in during the course of the week. We also offer a forum where questions can be posted. Either the other students answer them, or we collect the open questions and answer them during the weekly live video conference. Usually about 20 of the 100 course participants join in these conferences, although only a small number of them get actively involved. In addition, Clemens Schmid, the doctoral candidate who serves as a tutor for the homework assignments, also has online office hours. After the submission deadline is past, he explains the correct solution to the homework in a video.

How much effort is involved in preparing the digital lecture?

I was surprised at how much time preparations took. I’ve actually been holding this lecture for five years now, and preparing the digital version involved almost as much work as preparing a new in-person lecture. For example I noticed that details were missing from my slides that I otherwise would have been able to provide in person if the students had asked for them. I also realized that I needed to write a kind of script to make sure the transitions between the slides went smoothly and the structure of the presentation was logical. In the lecture hall that happens automatically.

Do you also see advantages to the digital version of your lecture?

My impression is that it works well as a set of instructions for independent study. We provide a structure and make a selection, but I can’t mention everything in the videos that I would say during a live lecture. So the students have to read books and learn to understand literature and have to try out various books to find out which one is best for them. That’s close to what university studies should be like.

Have you received any feedback from the students?

They appear to be quite satisfied with the course. But I have heard from several people that they miss the aspect of personal exchange. I know our Master’s candidates have a group on an instant-messaging service where they communicate when they want to answer a question. But they don’t have the chance to go to lecture together. That’s also a part of studying at a university.

Do you feel like you have appropriate support from TUM in the transition to digital teaching?

I would have liked to have had more time than the short couple of weeks we had to change over. But then everything worked surprisingly well. For example, on very short notice TUM bought a license for a video recording and editing program and closed a contract with a company that operates a secure streaming server. The video data are stored in Germany and are only accessible to registered users. Several technical solutions were already in place before, but they were rarely used since there was no need to. This includes the web platform on which we provide our materials for downloading.

Did you have any help in designing the lectures?

We networked with one another in the team and shared plenty of tips. My colleague Martin Dierolf visited the webinars from the ProLehre department and was able to help us with the knowledge he gained. My colleague Madleen Busse also contributed a lot of very creative ideas to the design of the digital lecture.

Are you planning for the winter semester already?

If the current difficulties continue, we’ll offer the next semester in digital form as well. But the Master’s curriculum includes practical lab exercises which are a part of the study phase. The research phase already begins for the students in the third semester. We can see now that the experiments in the lab would still be viable even under the present restrictions: a maximum of two persons in the laboratory and a separation distance of 1.5 meters. However, the students should do as much as possible digitally from home. If necessary we can also provide them with complete measured data for evaluation. Then, the practical exercise would only involve analyzing of the experimental data and writing up the results.

More Information

Information about the Master’s program “Biomedical Engineering and Medical Physics”

Interview with Prof. Julia Herzen about the Master’s program “Biomedical Engineering and Medical Physics”.

Julia Herzen’s professor’s profile.

Media contact

Media Relations Manager MSB
Dr. Paul Piwnicki
Email: paul.piwnicki(at)tum.de

Scientific contact

Prof. Dr. Julia Herzen
Biomedical Imaging Physics
Physics department
Technical University of Munich
Phone +49 89 289-14532
Email: Julia.Herzen(at)tum.de