The Online Learning Community as Digital Village Green: Interview with Joan Thormann Part I.

Over the next few weeks, the e-Learning and Instructional Support Department (eLIS) will be publishing a series of interviews with author and Lesley University Professor  Joan Thormann, exploring topics in online learning design and facilitation.  Joan Thomann will be presenting at an upcoming eLIS Brown Bag event, The Online Learning Community as Digital Village Green.  This event will take place on Friday, November 15th from 12pm to 2pm at Lesley’s University Hall at 1815 Mass Ave in Cambridge on the third floor, within the Creativity Commons. The interviews were conducted by eLIS Instructional Designer Sarah Krongard.


Joan Thormann co-authored the book The Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Designing and Teaching Online Courses with her colleague Isa Kaftal Zimmerman.

What was your interest in writing this book?

Joan Thormann: I started teaching online in 1996, when there was no guidance available.  Distance learning did exist, but mostly involved mailings, videos and/or televised lectures.  There was very little happening with online learning, and not much research available — there was certainly no eLIS!  In 1996 I was asked to teach a course online and was given one sample syllabus.

Initially I learned about teaching online by trial and error.  I also learned from my students’ feedback.  Eventually – slowly but surely – research about teaching online started to appear.  So, I began to follow the research, as though I was writing my dissertation again.  I wanted to know more.  I wanted to know how other people dealt with online learning and how to make it better.  This is something I am always doing. Much of my own research has come from trying new things in my online classes.

I wrote The Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Designing and Teaching Online Courses because over the years, I learned so much and wanted to share my knowledge.  I didn’t want others to have to flounder in the same way I did.

Were you provided with any university-supported tools when you started teaching online?

Thormann: In the very beginning, Lesley provided a threaded online bulletin board system and email. That was it.   I spent most of my time and energy developing websites for my courses and updating materials.  There was no gradebook. The technology was very primitive. Therefore, when Blackboard appeared, I grumbled a bit because I had to jettison most of what I had built.  But after I got over my grumbling and adapted to using Blackboard, I could focus on course content and interacting with students rather than maintaining my course infrastructure.

In working with Blackboard, I began to realize the amount of time that I spent in the past on administrative work. Blackboard liberated me from this.  And even though I hear my colleagues complain about Blackboard, I appreciate this tool, since I worked in the “Dark Ages.” Despite its virtues I have found it necessary to create Blackboard workarounds when I feel Blackboard gets in the way.

Now there are many tools available within Blackboard such as wikis, blogs, journals, discussion forums, and the grade center.

What are some of your current specific research interests?

Thormann: My research generally revolves around the incorporation of pedagogical approaches for online teaching and student participation.  Each time I use a new tool or approach I do action research to find out how well it works.  I have done research on the use of Skype, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and student moderators. My research shows that all three of these approaches are viewed positively by my students.   I have presented my research at meetings and written articles about these topics.  There are also descriptions of it in my book. Currently, it seems that others find my work with student moderating the most interesting and useful.

To research student moderation, I sent out a survey asking students questions such as What were the most beneficial and least beneficial aspects of moderating?”  The students who responded to the surveys were very positive about student moderating.   I now use student moderators regularly in almost all the online classes I teach.

I learned that each time I added a new pedagogical element to my course, I want – and need – to check with students to find out if the new element is, in fact, something I should continue to incorporate.  I use my students as a gauge.  Both ongoing feedback and end of course evaluations also help guide my pedagogy and research.

My latest research involves incorporating UDL in online courses. My future research may focus on gender differences in participation in online courses.

Stay tuned for Part II of this series.