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.

Designing an Online Course with Brandon Strathmann – Part 1

Brandon Strathmann

Note: Below you’ll find Brandon Strathmann’s description of his experience working with eLIS to develop his first online class.

First let me commend all of you who contribute to this blog for the excellent variety and quality of content posted on it. It’s a great reflection of the dynamic and growing world of online teaching. I’m glad to have been introduced to such a useful resource.

I’d like to share my positive experience building an online class with all of you. I’m an Associate Professor of Animation and Motion Media Art at LUCAD (Lesley University College of Art and Design) who learned about the opportunity to design an online class at a Faculty Development Day event last Fall of 2012. I spent the past few months building an all-new “Advanced Character Design” class. It is designed to provide artists the chance to improve their skills of perception and rendering of caricatured humans and animals. I delve into the psychology of how humans are manipulated by the things they see. Artists learn to play around with the physical traits that viewers make conscious and unconscious judgments of when they look at a character. They end the class with a portfolio of the art they have done.

I entered this online academic realm with some practical computer and programming skills, hoping to expand the sort of content I could offer to students. I have seen technology innovate and improve the field of animation and video games during my own career, and learned that it’s always good to be one of the earlier practitioners of a trade to adopt advancing technology. Technology isn’t so much of an inevitability as it is an opportunity.

The training process for this class took two stages, that eased me into the unique methodology required in designing an online class. Part one was an online group class where participants learned how to modify existing classes to work in an internet-connected environment. This stage was challenging for me since I was designing a new class that had to be an advanced part two to an existing class that also needed to exist as a stand-alone graduate class. I was introduced to the various online tools to instill knowledge and skills in my students through four weeks of challenges and exercises done independently and in groups. The class ends with a complex final project testing the skill accumulation along with the creativity of the student.

The second part of this training was getting to work one-on-one with a Senior Learning Technologies Designer to build the written framework for this class. My course needed a customized format to provide a rich environment for students to learn in online. There was some trial and error in designing this since I was becoming better at understanding how the online teaching tools worked. I had to write a few drafts of my weekly course modules, honing in on how I might best communicate with online students as part of this learning process. It took me a while to learn what tool would be best for addressing various lesson plans but luckily my trainer was very patient and helpful.

I think it helps to be an experienced teacher when you design one of these non-traditional online courses. You need to really understand the specific challenges that your students face based off of your personal mastery of their educational medium. Art courses rely upon a lot of creative energy in a student’s learning environment to keep them interested and passionate about the material. I felt very challenged having to come up with an advanced class in character design as an online class. When I first embarked on this creative journey I felt that this would just be a correspondence course, something where I would provide instructional videos and provide written critiques about the work my students turned in.

Most of what a character designer does is hands-on and experiential in nature, these artistic factors are complicated visual elements that were challenging to translate into a written format. I designed symbolic language that my students could use as a guide to envision and review the topics covered in the lessons. Taking lessons that are primarily hands on and instead building them as systematic, written steps required me to predict how students would experience each portion of the designing process.

Early in the process I saw that I would need to plan out my lessons from the start to the finish for each of these class sessions, and that these lessons would have to planned out in a written form. Writing provided me with powerful tools to summarize my lessons. I’ve learned that I form ideas and describe them differently when I use the written as opposed to the spoken word. I enjoy getting feedback from my pupils and had to envision how students working in my class would react and feel about the lessons they are taking in class. So my pedagogical approach had to be modified to one where I was entirely reliant upon my existing understanding of student behavior in the classroom. This required me to research online content delivery methods and the educational philosophies of many other teachers to see what educational techniques I might use.

Click here for Part 2 of Brandon’s story

Note: Image orignally published on

Musings from the Future of Entertainment Conference – Part 1: Listening and Empathy

Futures_EntertainmentThis year, I was fortunate enough to attend the Futures of Entertainment (FoE) Conference that took place at MIT November 9 – 10th.  The FoE Conference brings together a diverse group of researchers, practitioners, analysts, and activists to explore the complex relationships among media, culture, and academia.

Issues surrounding the importance of language arose on a number of occasions throughout the two-day conference. During a session on Listening and Empathy, panelists grappled with questions of semantics and the power of language to influence understandings, attitudes, and behaviors. The panel was comprised of Grant McCracken, anthropologist and author of Chief Culture Officer and Culturematic; Lara Lee, Chief Innovation and Operating Officer at Continuum; Carol Sanford, author of The Responsible Business; and Emily Yellin, author of Your Call is (Not That) Important To Us. Moderating was Sam Ford, Director of Digital Strategies at Peppercomm and co-author of the upcoming book Spreadable Media.

The main purpose of this panel was to explore the ways in which an organization can work with, learn from, and ultimately serve their “customers” (a term that was thoroughly disputed throughout the discussion). Panelists tackled a number of challenging and thought-provoking questions that encouraged attendees to think (and rethink) about communication processes and purposes. How can we better understand the community with and for whom you work? Internally, what are the words you use to describe this group of people, and what does your word choice say about your approach? Is it your “audience”? “Customers”? “Users”? “Consumers”? Why do we reduce and commodify individuals through language? To what extent can we abandon these somewhat limiting terms and think in terms of “lives”? How can organizations foster human-centered innovation by connecting with and understanding the lives of others?

From these questions, panelists deconstructed the terms “listening” and “empathy.” What do we mean by listening?  How do you listen through the patterns to determine what is being communicated? What meaning exists behind the spoken words? These questions pushed attendees outside of their comfort zone. According to Lara Lee, listening is about hearing the patterns that are in the life of people rather than the data. Panelists seem to agree that data can tell us what is happening, but data is limited in explaining why. Data does not capture the whole person and instead allows for homogenization, which is dangerous and often leads to narrow misunderstandings and misappropriations. To develop a holistic picture of people your organization aims to serve and an understanding of what is happening in the world, panelists encouraged us to interact with others in context, which prompted conversation on the value of ethnographic studies and the importance of empathy. According to Grant McCracken, empathy is not necessarily just about feeling someone’s pain. McCracken emphasized that although this is how we often understand the term “empathy,” the idea of feeling someone else’s pain is “the lesser half” of the definition.  The more important half of this definition is about understanding how others conceptualize the world. McCracken encouraged attendees to “stop thinking about the things you normally think about and begin thinking, in a holistic way, about how another thinks and feels.”

We then moved from the importance of words to the value of action. Empathy is not only about feeling, listening, and understanding; empathy is also about doing. These newly surfaced understandings of people must necessitate changes in behavior. Emily Yellin inspired me with her question, “How can we use our humanity to connect to someone else’s humanity?” The process of ethnographic studies provides opportunity to get outside of your culture and into someone else’s. Once you understand the culture and lives of those with whom your organization aims to connect, you can make changes to best serve this population. Panelists recommended an iterative approach to changed behavior, where you first take your new understandings and try out one or two new ideas that may better serve them. Pay close attention to what happens, then tweak your approach accordingly.

This consistent commitment to understanding the lives of others was completely inspiring and reminded me that the purpose of the decisions we make as educators and designers is ultimately to effectively serve students and support authentic learning. We must constantly ask ourselves to examine design from the student perspective and provide a variety of entry points to support diverse learning preferences.

Reflective Storytelling

Using Storytelling to Enhance Reflection

As an alternative to journaling or blogging, digital storytelling can be an engaging way to involve students in reflective learning activities. The except below is from a research article by Jason McDonald (2009), who examined how storytelling principles might impact instruction:

“Stories play a crucial role in human learning. As Schank (2005a) recently concluded:

“Stories have been at the center of human consciousness for a long time. People tell
stories, and the stories they tell shape who they are. People hear stories and remember
those that resonate deeply with them … Good education requires good stories. (p. 5)”

Stories can motivate people to make significant and lasting behavioral changes
(Denning, 2004; Singhal & Rogers, 1999), help them meaningfully interpret other
experiences (Bruner, 2004, 1987), and give them context to use learned information
in real-world environments (Andersen, 2004; Jonassen & Hernandez-Serrano, 2002).
Postman (1989) argued that peoples’ sense of identity is closely associated with the
stories they tell. Schank (1990) hypothesized that stories are a fundamental component
of human memory, and the foundation of even the most basic mental events.”

Below are some resources and examples of digital storytelling:

  • Storytelling as a means of reflecting on the lived experience of making curriculum in teacher education– Early Childhood educators discuss their use of storytelling while developing curriculum. Their purpose was to better understand and improve their practice as ECE teachers and to better appreciate the complexities of learning for their students and themselves.“…contrary to Schon’s (1983) portrayal of reflection as being a solitary process, we found that interaction with others generated more productive lines of inquiry. We believe that the collaborative process of storytelling has enabled us to critically unravel implicit and tacit beliefs and actions associated with developing curriculum and teaching.”

Blogs as a Reflective Tool

 Blogs as a Reflective Tool

The resources below are focused on the use of blogs as reflective tools. Although most of them discuss their use in online courses, some are used in face-to-face classes. Blogs and Journals in Blackboard can both be used for reflections. The Journal tools is normally used for private student to teacher communications, while blogs are generally shared among the class participants.

Developing the use of blogs as a reflective tool (the Arts)

In this video, Jonathan Kearney, an artist & Associate Lecturer at the University of the Arts London, outlines how he has evolved his use of blogs for reflection, leading to a deepening of  student’s reflection and four principles for future use. He compares 3 methods of posting in blogs: text, photographic, and voice + video. You can scan his video using the table of contents he provides on the web page.

Using blogs for peer feedback and discussion (Architecture)

This instructor uses  blogs for peer feedback and discussion around their coursework. Student postings include  process work, thoughts about their learning processes, and their goals for their work. Students in the video discuss how the blogs supported their learning.

Student blogging from the field (Engineering)  Examples of student blogs while performing fieldwork.

Reflection Journals   This reading from the University of Illinois is focused on the use of reflective journals for Service Learning, but it includes descriptions of a variety of different types of reflective journals you may find useful beyond Service Learning.

Developing reflective practitioners online: the business of blogs in work integrated learning (Business)

This paper examines the adoption, implementation and refinement of the use of reflective blogs in a work integrated learning unit for business students majoring in advertising, marketing and public relations disciplines. The reflective blog is discussed as a learning and assessment tool, including the approaches taken to integrate and scaffold the blog as part of the work integrated learning experience.