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

This post is the third in an interview series with author and Lesley University Professor Joan Thormann regarding the design and facilitation of online learning environments.   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.

By Tony Alter from Newport News, USA (Homework  Uploaded by theveravee) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Your book indicates that building community is critical in online learning environments. How do you accomplish this?  

Joan Thormann: I develop assignments that result in idiosyncratic postings so students have the opportunity to learn from each other.  Students are required to post all assignments publicly in a designated weekly Blackboard Discussion Board forum.  This ensures that students’ assignments are not just for the teacher — they are for everyone in the class.  Sharing their work publicly helps to create authentic learning experiences.  It also improves the quality of the work.  Students do not want to be embarrassed in front of’ peers so they are less likely to submit poor work.  Knowing that classmates will read their assignments also helps to create a bond among students.

To deepen the connection among students, most assignments require students to post comments and questions to at least two classmates and respond to all comments and questions that are posted to them. Rubric-based points are earned separately for participation in each discussion. This requirement and grading system helps to insure that students read classmates’ assignments and get to know each other.

Another community building strategy is to assign what is called a ‘jigsaw’ once or twice during a course, where students focus on different aspects of one topic and then learn about the topic from each other. This type of assignment makes students dependent on one another to learn about the whole topic.

Using student moderation also makes students depend on each other since moderators can only be successful if classmates respond to each moderator’s effort to deepen understanding of the topic.  Students come to understand that it makes sense to participate since everyone will take on the role of moderator at some point and need full participation from peers to be a successful moderator.

Once a term students work with a partner or small group to complete an assignment.  I allow the students to select their own group members.  This encourages students to pay attention to others in the class.

By Charles Hamm (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the student moderators, required participation and jigsaw activities, do you have other strategies you use to build community within your online courses?

Thormann:   I feel that the Coffee Shop forum, where students can chit chat, is another community building tool.  When I know that a student has a special event coming up or a special interest, I urge the student to post pictures or share what’s happening in the Coffee Shop.  For example, one student won an award, another posted photos of a cruise she had been on and another posted pictures of herself with celebrities.  This gives the class the opportunity to congratulate each other and also learn about classmates’ interests.

The Coffee Shop is not the only place that interests are shared.  The very first assignment is an Introduction, which includes having students describe themselves and their interests.  This assignment is often the most robust of the course. As with the student moderators, I make sure to model the interaction by responding to each student’s introduction.

I also set up a Teachers’ Room forum.  Students are encouraged to discuss ideas not necessarily directly related to the week’s work but that align with their professional interests.

There are a number of different outlets for students to build community and make learning among students strong.  The result is that all of the postings in the weekly assignment forums on the Discussion Board are substantive and on task – they are never irrelevant. This pleases me, and I hope it pleases my students too.

These strategies, community building and student moderation, seem to suggest a paradigm shift, where students are empowered as leaders and help to generate knowledge within the class.  How do your students respond to this shift away from the traditional hierarchy?

Thormann: Judging from my research and that of others, most students see this shift as positive.  They like receiving feedback from their peers.  They feel empowered.  They learn new ways of interacting with each other.  Part of the student moderator’s assignment is that they do not have to post the weekly assignment, but they have to be familiar – maybe even more familiar – with the content.  Moderators often say they have learned much more about the topic for the week by moderating.  They learn the material in greater depth and also learn from their classmates.

It was interesting that one student wrote that she was going to use student moderators in her face-to-face classroom with her fifth grade students. She and others really seem to embrace the paradigm shift.

In implementing this paradigm shift it is important that I, as the instructor, do not abandon the class while working to empower students.  As I said earlier, I post feedback publicly.   I also send students personal feedback.  This may sound like an overwhelming task, but I use templates that help make the feedback process easier for me. The details of using templates are discussed in my book, The Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Designing and Teaching Online Courses.

Stay tuned next week for part IV of the series.

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

This post is the second in an interview series with author and Lesley University Professor Joan Thormann regarding the design and facilitation of online learning environments.  You can read part one here. 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.

By Left rj (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Please share more information about student moderation, why you decided to do this, and how it works.

Joan Thormann: When I first attempted to use student moderators to lead the class discussion, I asked for volunteers.  There are always passionate go-getters in every class and those were the students who volunteered.  It seemed to work well, so I started requiring that each person in my class take a turn moderating.

One of the reasons I thought student moderation would work stemmed from when I first started teaching online.   As the instructor, I was reading wonderful and informative assignments that students produced. Nonetheless, I felt like something was wrong with that picture.  Shouldn’t they be the one’s learning from one another?  This is when I began to encourage students to facilitate class discussions.  Student moderating requires students to read all of the weekly assignments.  This increases their interactions and ability to learn from each other.

I find that students who moderate early in the course often become involved in a way that goes beyond required participation. They ‘get it’ and want to learn from their classmates.  Both being a student moderator and responding to student moderators also helps to build community within a course.  All students must be prepared and actively participate.  It provides students with a stake in the process – the students have agency and a shared responsibility with classmates.

This is a leap in mindset for some people.  But once they take the leap they find this type of interaction to be very valuable.

What are some strategies to ensure success of the student moderator process?

Thormann: It is very important that the instructor model how to facilitate a discussion.  For the first two or three assignments, I moderate the online discussion in order to provide a model of moderating.  Students do not have to do it my way, but they do need to reflect on and think about how to help their classmates dig deeper and delve into the weekly topic.  I also post a summary of the weekly discussion when I am the moderator for the first few weeks in order to demonstrate how to do this as part of the student moderator assignment.

Even though student moderators lead the discussion, it is essential that I, as the instructor, continue to be present during the online discussion.   I send feedback to each student on their assignments a portion of which I post to the weekly forum.  However, I post comments and questions towards the end of the week so that students can take an authentic leadership role.

Delaying my feedback is an approach that I learned from students.  They told me, “Well, if you put your voice in early on, it undermines me as the moderator.”  I post questions and comments but not until students have had a chance to work with their classmates. I also try and cheer the moderators on so that they feel supported in this new online role.

A detailed description of how student moderation works can be found in my book The Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Designing and Teaching Online Courses.  I’ve also written two articles that address issues relating to the use of student moderators in online courses.   The ‘how to’ article is Student moderators in online courses published by Online Cl@ssroom and the scholarly article based on research conducted with colleagues at Lesley and the Instituto Piaget in Portugal is Interaction, critical thinking, and social network analysis (SNA) in online courses published by The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning.

Does the process of using student moderators create additional work for the instructor?

Thormann:  No, student moderators help save me time because I’m not the only one involved in facilitating discussions. Additionally, one of the side benefits is that students gain different perspectives from peers and appreciate the peer feedback and interaction.

Stay tuned next week for Part III of this series.

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.