Training Faculty to Conduct Research Experiences with Online Students

Concurrent Session 6

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This session discusses the design of a research module that will help faculty engage online students in research experiences. Because faculty participants vary in level of research expertise, a personalized approach is taken where faculty design a personalized plan that fits the needs of their learning context/student audience.


Paula Bigatel, PhD is an Instructional Designer for Penn State World Campus, Faculty Development Unit. She received her B.A. in Psychology and English at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. Subsequently, while teaching English as a Second Language, she earned her Teaching English as a Second Language certificate. Paula has also spent about 19 years in business serving various in financial management roles. She completed her Master in Education and PhD at Penn State in Instructional Systems (Educational Technology). Over the last twelve years, Dr. Bigatel has taught graduate level courses in the Masters in Education and Technology Certificate programs, and currently teaches various online courses for faculty professional development. Her research focus is in online pedagogy and student engagement.
Online educator and administrator for Penn State's Organizational Leadership program. For more details, please visit my CV:

Extended Abstract

This session presents a pilot faculty development module to develop research knowledge and skills in online faculty so that they are better prepared to conduct research experiences with their online students. The planned objectives for participants in the session are:

At the end of the session participants should have an understanding of the following:

  • The need for a faculty development research module to conduct research with online students
  • The content of the the research module
  • The benefit for faculty researchers and online students
  • The significance of the research module for faculty and students
  • The evaluation of the module

Need for Research Module and Overview of Content

Research and scholarly inquiry is essential for any discipline. To date though, online educators do not receive the training to succeed in conducting research their online students as they do with their face-to-face research. As such, there is need for a faculty development course to help faculty gain this needed skill.

Specifically the research module described in this session involves a professional development opportunity for research faculty or anyone interested in conducting research with online students as a springboard to supporting online students in direct research experiences. The module goals include, but are not limited to:

  • Translating our institution’s research activities to the online learning environment
  • Targeting underrepresented student populations
  • Involving talented online students as research assistants
  • Enabling researchers’ self-efficacy to conduct research online
  • Building online students’ self-efficacy for conducting research
  • Mentoring future researchers

The module includes five lessons delivered over a five-week period. The module takes a personalized learning approach to account for the variability in a) faculty knowledge and skills in research as well as b) the learning context and student audience needs. More importantly, it formalizes training for faculty to develop not only research skills in their online students, but also in themselves.

The end deliverable might be a research proposal written by the faculty that students will conduct or it may be a plan on how faculty will support students in the creation of their own research proposals and/or execution of the research study proposed. The needs of the faculty members and their respective students will be considered when decisions about which aspects of the module will be selected and which deliverable makes most sense given their learning context.

Benefit for Researchers and Online Students

Developing students’ critical thinking skills is essential at all levels of higher education. A major goal is to teach students not only facts & information, but also how to critically assess what they are consuming.  There are many ways to develop these thinking skills, which involve students in analyzing and evaluating what they consume, but research skills target many sub-skills that embrace higher order thinking skills identified in Bloom’s taxonomy (analysis, evaluation, creation).

Given that we live in an environment that is bombarded by so much media coverage that may be heavily biased and politicized, being critical consumers is much more crucial. Some of the sub-skills developed in doing research involves examining biases, exposing assumptions, articulating rationales for conducting research, assessing the credibility of sources, analyzing data, arriving at alternative interpretations and perspectives, etc. (Brookfield, 2011).  Furthermore, students will develop communication skills writing for academic journals and/or presenting at professional conferences.

Some faculty may be teaching a research-based course; however, there may be faculty who want to incorporate research activities with their online students in various capacities in courses that are not research-based per se. Furthermore, some faculty may need more background knowledge in research methodology in order to engage their students in research related tasks - hence, the personalized approach for delivery of this module for research faculty or those interested in designing and developing research experiences in collaboration with faculty (e.g., instructional designers). At the outset of the module during the first week of orientation, participants must create a personalized plan for selecting relevant content and completing assignments that will best suit their goals for their respective courses.

Modeling personalized learning is a deliberate decision because the intention is for participants in this training to carry forward the personalized approach with their respective students. Once the plan is in place, participants have an option for their deliverable: a research proposal for faculty to conduct with online students or a plan on how to carry out a research experience with online students with a description of how online students will engage in a multitude of research-related tasks.

Significance of the Research Module Professional Development

In this session we will discuss the significance of this research module. One of the topics discussed will be how online students benefit from the level of engagement that occurs in research-related activities, and how such active learning opportunities enhance the educational experiences of students that could more likely lead to pursuing advanced degrees or seeking career pathways in the discipline in which the research is carried out (Lopatto, 2007; Lopatto, 2004; Zydney, Bennett, Shahid, & Bauer, 2002).  Furthermore, when activities are more engaging, real-world based, meaningful to students, and contribute to the development of valuable skills that can be tranferred to students’ personal and professional lives, we anticipate that retention rates will increase. Students are more likely to persist in relevant and valuable learning activities (Rovai, 2003; Rovai & Wighting, 2005). Upon completing training, faculty members will find strategic ways to help online students succeed not only in their own courses, but also in other courses and beyond as well. Faculty members can also encourage their students to write about their research activities in professional journals and present at professional conferences. This research module will provide faculty with resources to share with students about how they can go about disseminating their research.

Additionally, we will cover the direct benefit to faculty. For example, one of the goals of the professional development experience is to build self-efficacy in faculty’s ability to conduct online research with their students and as a by-product, they will be building self-efficacy in their students. Another goal is to focus on creating an inclusive experience where a diverse population of students can collaborate with each other during the research experience.

Evaluation of the Research Module Pilot

Upon completion of the pilot module, evaluation data will be collected to improve the module for future participants. As such, we also will discuss how we evaluated this research module to ensure that we were benefitting both faculty and online students.  In addition, the presenters of this session anticipate valuable input from the audience to help enhance the module for future iterations.


Brookfield, S. D. (2011). Teaching for critical thinking: Tools and techniques to help students question their assumptions. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lopatto, D. (2007). Undergraduate research experiences support science career decisions and active learning. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 6, 297-306.

Lopatto, D. (2004). Survey of undergraduate research experiences (SURE): First findings. Cell Biology Education, 3, 270-277.

Rovai, A. P. (2003). In search of higher persistence rates in distance education online programs. The Internet and Higher Education, 6, 1-16.

Rovai, A. P., and Wighting, M. J. (2005). Feelings of alienation and community among higher education students in a virtual classroom. The Internet and Higher Education, 8, 97-110.

Zydney, A. L., Bennett, J. S., Shahid, A., and Bauer, K. W. (April, 2002). Impact of Undergraduate research experience in engineering. Journal of Engineering Education, 151-157.