Collaborative Research Circles Extend Learning Beyond the Online Course

As an experienced online educator, I am confident that my students are not only learning but also excelling. Through our classroom activities and interactions, they are simultaneously mastering content and developing higher-order thinking strategies. Yet I am plagued with concerns that this is not enough.

In a competitive environment (whether work or academic), there are undoubtedly a host of qualified candidates. Grades and classroom success do not separate these candidates; rather, the differentiating factors lie in professional experience, increased engagement in the discipline, and more insightful letters of recommendation. The issue is not just content knowledge and cognitive skill (although these are undoubtedly important). The challenge is to engage students outside the classroom. Through extracurricular research and professional interactions, students are able to build the academic credentials that will allow them to outshine their 4.0 GPA counterparts.

This issue is not unique to online education. The need for extracurricular engagement applies across all delivery modes of higher education. The challenge for online programs is to ensure dedicated attention to developing and promoting the types of extracurricular activities that will allow online students to flourish and compete effectively with their face-to-face counterparts for career and graduate school positions.

While there is a range of activities that will foster students’ academic growth, integrating hands-on research experience has proven particularly challenging for online programs. Because research is often time-intensive, difficult to monitor from a distance, and challenging to coordinate at multiple geographic locations, distance education programs have struggled to identify effective strategies for integrating the implementation of applied research into the online curriculum.

In an effort to these challenges and engage students outside the online classroom, we developed virtual collaborative research circles as an extracurricular option for learners seeking to enhance their experience and credentials. The goal of each collaborative research circle is to promote active scholarly engagement that results in a joint faculty-student presentation or publication.

Coordinated by the university’s research center, collaborative research circles are voluntary, extracurricular groups designed to facilitate research centered on similar topics or shared interests. Though the groups are designed with the students’ needs in mind, faculty also benefit via the increased research support to advance their own research agendas. Interested faculty notify the research center of their research project and requirements (number of research assistants, timeline, expectations, and goals). The research center then sends out an email inviting applications and matches student applicants with the most appropriate research circle. As a function of the extracurricular nature of the program, the coordination of research circles is done independent of the course schedule and typically lasts six to nine months.

Obviously, the research team concept is not new; traditional education (particularly graduate education) is built on this model. The key to success for this model in the online environment is to adapt the traditional research team structure to be uniquely suited for geographically dispersed, asynchronous interaction. Through our experience, we offer the following advice for implementing extracurricular, online research teams:

  • Create concrete goals. Online students typically elect this mode of learning because they have busy, demanding schedules. They are not likely to seek extracurricular involvement unless they can see a clear, direct benefit for their professional growth. We design our collaborative circles with the explicit goal of publication or presentation in order to highlight the tangible benefits for the students’ academic development.
  • Follow a set timeline, yet be prepare to be flexible. Unlike a classroom environment in which activities follow a tight timeline, participation in a research circle is likely to be a more extended process. It is important to have a general schedule set forth to guide project development, but it is equally important to be flexible and accommodating, as this is a voluntary, extracurricular activity. The quality of student work will be higher if they have the necessary time, energy, and schedule flexibility to ensure that they are doing their best work. You will want to be aware of how project expectations fit into their existing course schedule and accommodate accordingly. We found that setting a clear, six-month timeline of activities provided adequate structure to keep students actively involved in the research yet allowed enough schedule flexibility to accommodate their simultaneous class, family, and work demands.
  • Integrate synchronous interactions, but use them sparingly. In an online environment, it is challenging to coordinate schedules for synchronous meetings. Despite the scheduling hassles, live interaction (via phone or Web-based videoconferencing) is extremely valuable for establishing relationships between team members and ensuring a coordinated understanding of the research project. Periodic (typically, monthly) synchronous interactions proved valuable for developing relationships and enhancing the efficiency of communication.
  • Be explicit in communicating expectations, roles, and responsibilities. Without the benefits of body language or frequent informal interactions, it is important to explicitly discuss (and agree upon) the scope, roles, and expectations of the project prior to beginning research activities. Included in these discussions you should highlight preferred means and frequency of interaction; individual and joint responsibilities; time commitment expectations; and the unique qualifications, goals, and experiences of each team member.
  • Limit the size of groups. As the majority of (if not all) the research activities will take place geographically separated in a primarily asynchronous format, it is most efficient to maintain small groups of four or fewer learners per research project. A small-group format ensures that each person is able to contribute in an active manner to gain knowledge, skills, and experience from the process.
  • Integrate individual and group activities. The most effective and efficient collaborative research circles are those in which each person has a clear role with associated expectations. It is advised that each individual have an independent portion of the project (e.g., literature review, data collection, data entry, data analysis, IRB application, results, methodology, discussion) rather than have multiple individuals collaborate on the same component. Groups should work together to distribute tasks and develop a clear plan for expected deliverables. Throughout the entire project, group members should frequently communicate to share progress, address challenges, and discuss project progress.

Inherent in these recommendations is the key challenge when implementing extracurricular activities in the online environment: maintaining motivation and engagement. It is difficult to foster sustained motivation over time when there are no external incentives (e.g., grades or monetary reward); this challenge is intensified in the faceless, asynchronous online world. To be effective, collaborative research circles must be committed not only to the outcome of the project (which is important) but also to the team itself. It is vital that collaborative teams work to create personal relationships with one another and commit to a common goal, and for each member of the team to have a clear role in the overall team’s success.

With this in mind, it is helpful to integrate the use of videoconferencing applications (e.g., Skype) along with a means of collaborating (e.g., Google Docs) and a shared workspace (e.g., Mendeley or Dropbox). Essential to the selection of collaborative tools is the need for members to seamlessly work as an interdependent team while establishing personal accountability and interpersonal relationships. Through the collaborative research circles, learners build expertise in the research process, foster interpersonal relationships, and enhance their credentials to compete more effectively for professional opportunities.

Excerpted from Online Classroom, 12.11 (2012): 4-5. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. B. Jean Mandernach is a professor and senior research associate at Grand Canyon University.