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Ben Thier

Photo of Ben Thier, smiling, standing near the iconic columns of the Stanford Main Quad

Ben Thier

GSE Program: 
MS, Learning Design and Technology (LDT)
BS in Neuroscience, Duke University
Year of GSE degree: 
New York City

"Unlocking all students’ love of learning is one driving motivator for me. With that comes complex questions about equity, access to opportunity, and student identity that are important to grapple with."

You’ve arrived at spring quarter! How would you describe your experience so far?

Life in the GSE is stimulating and energizing. Every quarter comes with a new focus that has added to my perspective on education. I have had time to dig deep into learning science foundations in the fall, explore human-centered design in the winter, and dip my toe into the entrepreneurial side of ed tech in the spring. Class by class and project by project, my LDT experience has helped me construct my vision for what comes next and has equipped me with the skills I need to make it happen. Not to mention, it’s been a total, total blast.

Describe LDT.

LDT represents the future of education and learning. Thanks to our diverse interests, no stone goes unturned, from the earliest infant learners to adults looking to learn something new. Students come out of their LDT experience ready to take on some of the most pressing issues in innovative, compassionate, and equity-focused ways.

LDT has also shown me the power of a strong community. Every alumni guest speaker we’ve had in class comes in with genuine interest to learn about our experiences, and every alum I’ve reached out to with a cold email or LinkedIn message has been quick to hop on a call and offer sound advice. Everyone’s path looks different, yet those paths are all equally inspiring because LDTers devote their time to their passions. 

Is there some time that you’ve spent with a member of the GSE faculty that is memorable?

Even though Victor Lee is not my primary advisor, he welcomed me to attend his weekly DISTAL [Data Interactions & STEM Teaching and Learning] lab meetings with the PhD and master’s students he works with. Each week, one student gets to lead a discussion on whatever topic they’d like related to their research or projects. Participating in DISTAL has been a great way for me to hear about the novel research the GSE PhD students are working on and receive insightful feedback on my own LDT project.

Why Stanford?

Stanford symbolized something new for me. I’ve lived on the East coast my entire life, so I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore California for a year. The GSE exists at the perfect intersection of research and industry, theory and practice. There are so many ways to explore new interests and develop old ones; it certainly makes me wish I had more time to take all the courses I couldn’t make room for and get involved with more education initiatives on campus. More widely, Stanford prioritizes the well-being and livelihood of graduate students, from great on-campus housing to a lively social community. Plus, biking to class every day and sitting on the roof of CERAS (the GSE building) with my friends makes every day something to look forward to. 

How would you describe the other students in your cohort?

I am grateful to be surrounded every day by compassionate people who are so giving of their time, feedback, and home-cooked dinners. Everyone cares deeply about the well-being of those around them, and shows it in their words and actions. You would be surprised at how quickly a casual Friday night happy hour at the EVGR [Escondido Village Graduate Residences] fire pit turns into a deep conversation about life, values, and our place in the world. LDT 2022 shows up for each other, pushes each other, and ultimately brings out the best in each other—what more could you ask for from friends? Also, we recently learned that the majority of LDT students are Hufflepuffs and INFPs [Meyers-Briggs type], if those are metrics that you care about. (I'm neither.)

What drew you to education?

Here’s where the nerdy side comes out—I love thinking about how we learn. Learning is deeply strategic and logical, yet highly emotional at the same time. Whenever I am learning, I try to take the bird’s eye view by asking myself questions: How did I learn that? How do I know that I really learned it? Unlocking all students’ love of learning is one driving motivator for me. With that comes complex questions about equity, access to opportunity, and student identity that are important to grapple with.

Photo of Ben Thier

What were you doing prior to applying to the GSE?

I was a 2020 college graduate living at home trying to navigate his early 20s during a pandemic. I ended up deferring LDT until the 2021–22 year to get the full in-person experience, and I’m so glad I did. In my unplanned gap year, I was an education systems support analyst in the customer experience department of Macmillan Learning, doing my best to make teachers’ and students’ interactions with ed tech as easy as possible at an incredibly stressful time.

What are your career plans and goals?

I am ready to put my learning experience design skills to the test after LDT. I am more driven than ever to design and develop ed tech products that are effective for learning and provide equitable opportunity to learn for all students. My LDT project partner, Adam Sparks, and I are excited to continue working on our project, Short Answer, after the program is over. Short Answer is a peer-feedback platform for middle and high school classrooms that we believe can really make a difference in getting students the immediate feedback they need and making teachers’ lives easier. 

What advice do you have for students who are trying to decide whether to attend the LDT program?

Reach out to us! We are always happy to talk, answer any questions, or point you in the direction of people who might have better answers. 

Any tips for incoming students to help them get the most from their time at Stanford? 

The LDT capstone project is a unique way to synthesize everything you learn in class and put that knowledge to the test in a real-world way. We hit on every major skill—need-finding, interviewing, prototyping, efficacy research, data analysis, and more. To that end, I recommend spending some time before LDT thinking about an idea that excites you or a problem in education you are ready to tackle. My other piece of advice is to plan hard for what you want your year to look like, and then spontaneously throw it out the window when new interests and paths inevitably pop up.

What do you do to relax and have fun?

I am intentional about taking every Saturday off from work to go on a new adventure or be with friends. We hike on trails near campus, take the train into SF for a city day, watch Stanford sports teams, or trek to the beach when it’s warm. (Note: It’s always warm here.) Also, I firmly believe that a day without solving a crossword puzzle is a day wasted.

Can you share a particular moment in your time at Stanford when you learned a lesson that will stay with you?

As I’ve grown older, my Jewish identity has become increasingly more important to me. This year I hosted a Passover Seder for 15 GSE friends. I was the only Jewish person at the meal, yet everyone brought food or helped me cook classic family recipes, making the holiday a special one. It was a powerful lesson about how important it is to surround yourself with caring people who are always excited to learn something new about you and the world.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share?

If I haven't already made it abundantly clear, what makes this Stanford experience so special is the people. My LDT cohort, the other GSE master's programs, world-renowned professors and support staff, my roommate and friends—I feel so fortunate to have all these people in my life for the long run! 

Photo of Ben Thier, sitting by the vine-covered sandstone buildings of Stanford's Main Quad

Photos by Rod Searcey

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Jeremy Edwards
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Wesley Horng
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Caroline Stasulat
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