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Lessons learned from the development and implementation of Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning

A faculty learning community with both current and future faculty was developed to assist in training in developing STEM courses in online environments. This manuscript describes the community and the benefits of implementing similar programs at various institutions.

Published onApr 17, 2024
Lessons learned from the development and implementation of Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning


A blended faculty learning community was developed utilizing action research techniques. The community was designed to provide both professional development and community interactions for current and future faculty (graduate students and post-doctoral scholars) in STEM disciplines. Instructors were provided with pedagogical instruction for STEM online courses. This intervention addressed both calls for increased STEM-specific faculty development and support, and effective course design for online learning. The faculty learning community benefited current and future faculty participants through: (1) increased awareness of how the impacts of pedagogical decisions and instructional practices impact student learning; (2) opportunities for ongoing training and support in adopting sound digital pedagogies and appropriate technology for an evolving higher education landscape; (3) space to cultivate community among colleagues on equity-focused course design and redesign. Participants demonstrated gains in understanding and implementing aspects of online STEM teaching, along with increased confidence in online teaching modalities. Participants appreciated the community engagement and the blended learning environment while demonstrating their continued dedication to improving student engagement in STEM courses. In addition, future faculty benefited from training and engaging in a community with current faculty members across disciplines. Since online modalities are increasing in use and demand in higher education, faculty development focused on online pedagogy must increase to meet this demand. A blended faculty learning community that includes both current and future faculty while covering the content of teaching STEM in an online environment successfully meets these demands and showed potential for adaptation at many institutions.

Contribution Details for The Cuvette

  1. The authors found The Cuvette through the call for research to practice submissions. This work is a collaboration between a group of experts in both their STEM disciplines and education research. It describes the design and implementation of a blended learning community which trains graduate students and STEM faculty members in STEM online course design, as such it is a unique contribution to the research to practice call for works.

  2. This contribution is to the call: Reframing the Researcher-Practitioner Gap in Science Education

  3. This work has the following medium, route, & type:

  • Medium- article

  • Route - traditional

  • Type – evaluative

  1. This contribution is not discipline-specific; it applies to STEM education broadly.

  2. The intended audience of this contribution is STEM education researchers and faculty who may be interested in implementing similar training at their institutions.


At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many instructors were required to make immediate transitions to online teaching with little to no training in how to do so effectively. Although many campuses have shifted back to offering in-person course modalities, the presence of online learning in American higher education is not likely to disappear. Instead, the number of hybrid and online courses is on the rise and that trend is expected to continue and alter how we currently view coursework in American higher education [1]. The challenge is particularly perilous for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) instructors with laboratory and field-based courses. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics faculty are not typically provided with professional development opportunities for learning how to teach online.

An additional challenge is that the typical format for professional development is a one-time workshop that centers around general teaching practices. There is a shortage of long term, sustained professional development for STEM. There is also little to know information available for instructors to receive pedagogical training in online modalities that center in the unique challenges of teaching STEM content and ways of knowing. Many instructors felt left on their own to (re)design their courses and offer them online (in addition to managing their constantly mounting job duties and maintaining a work-life balance) during COVID-19. This lone method of development for faculty is not sustainable; it is leading to faculty burnout and the so called “great resignation” is beginning to impact higher education [2]. The recent work of two authors [3], highlights this growing demand for sustained professional development and offered an initial compilation of arrays of programs starting to emerge to meet this demand. Though there was great interest in this work, less than half of the submissions were able to be accepted. However, work is still needed on STEM pedagogies in online environments specifically.

This led us to three main conclusions that promoted the development of our intervention, 1) Faculty are not always supported in sustained ways, despite evidence that longer-term community-based programs tend to be more effective and allow for ongoing support through the course (re)design process 2) Many resources surrounding faculty development are not STEM discipline specific and thus may not adequately take into account the unique challenges of teaching STEM content. Generalized instructional advice does not always translate to STEM courses in obvious ways and this can be frustrating, especially for new STEM instructors. 3) There is an increased demand for online teaching that was accelerated by COVID-19. Effective online instruction can allow postsecondary education to be more widely accessible, especially for new majority college students [4].

Faculty development is not always accessible due to high demands on their time disallowing them from engaging in professional development, even when it could directly benefit their students. Those that do have time to participate do not always have access to programs. Non-tenure track instructors (e.g., lecturers, adjuncts, graduate instructors of record) often do not have access to professional development funds to assist with travel or fees for opportunities outside of their institutions. Meanwhile, many institutions cannot afford to offer such programs internally and/or do not have teaching centers to lead such efforts. Additionally, many of the teaching and learning centers in existence do not have STEM-specific professionals or events to support faculty in a discipline-focused manner.

To respond to these calls, a faculty learning community (FLC) for collaboration between current and future faculty was developed during the summer and fall semesters in 2020. The course titled Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning was first offered in the spring of 2021. For faculty, the commitments were similar to those of a traditional FLC while the students had additional assignments to earn course credit. This FLC specifically addressed participants’ desire for training and guidance in teaching STEM content in online modalities while also offering a community environment for current and future faculty across STEM disciplines. The course was intentionally designed to be flexible to meet the emerging and evolving needs of the participants and utilized Action Research strategies. Additionally, the course provided both discipline-specific and more general STEM content, and interactions that interwove faculty, graduate student, and post-doctoral scholar perspectives. These combinations of interactions allowed for sharing of wisdom and differing perspectives for all individuals.

The purpose of this work was to simultaneously provide specific pedagogical training for STEM instructors in online environments and, to provide community for those instructors to learn from each other and continue to develop their skills beyond the completion of the course. In this manuscript, we outline research findings that document participants’ experiences engaging in the FLC as well as outcomes regarding participants’ attitudes and motivations. The intended audience for this work includes faculty who may engage in faculty development opportunities, STEM faculty who are (re)designing courses for online teaching, future STEM faculty, professionals who support faculty development, and academic leaders who are making curricular decisions surrounding course modality and training of faculty. This array of perspectives is also represented in this manuscript’s authors, all of which have graduate degrees in STEM fields and have specific training and experience in Discipline Based Education Research (DBER).

Faculty confidence and self-efficacy surrounding online learning offerings vary significantly with experience in teaching online, online delivery method (synchronous or asynchronous), preparedness, accessibility of online learning tools, and overall confidence with technology use [5],[6]. Instructors report the importance of course design, course communication, and technical competencies as having greater importance than their skill level in those areas [6]. Specifically in a STEM based study, faculty reported low self-efficacy in areas of online classroom management, student engagement, and encouraging online student community building [7]. There are calls for increased offerings of faculty development opportunities to equip instructors with knowledge and competencies in effective online teaching [5]. As well as further faculty exposure to information surrounding effective online assessment strategies in STEM courses, customizing learning for a variety of learner needs, navigating uncivil online discussions, utilizing synchronous discussion tools, preparing focused content videos for use in online courses, and fostering community building in online environments [7].

Sense of community is important for both students and faculty. Communities of practice (CoP) are a popular mode of collective learning for a variety of organizations [8]. With the development of new technologies, virtual communities of practice (VCoP) have become increasingly common as they allow for more geographically diverse CoPs. A type of CoP, FLCs have moved from occasional to widespread implementation across multiple campuses over the past two decades. Faculty learning communities are cross-disciplinary groups that meet regularly across an extended period of time – frequently a year or more – with both a curriculum for participants to collaboratively explore together related to their instructional practice in a higher education context and an expectation that the group will create outcome products reflecting intellectual or practical growth in their own teaching or scholarly practices [9],[10]. Successful FLCs often arise from three core commitments: the need to establish a supportive community, the ability to learn from one’s colleagues, and the ability to learn more about one’s students and how to support them [11].

Faculty learning communities are not committees. They are not passive workshop attendance or solitary consultations. Rather, FLCs require faculty to actively participate in their own development. Faculty learning communities allow novice and experienced instructors to engage in the Kolb experiential learning cycle in a community with others [12]. Faculty groups may focus on inter- or intra-departmental curriculum or common interests, while benefitting from support (including financial support), and a community of respect, trust, colleague feedback, and shared expectations to improve one’s practices over time [8],[9],[12],[13],[14],[15]. Without community, faculty can feel isolated in their work. This isolation is even more prevalent with faculty in online environments [16]. Faculty learning communities focused on supporting faculty engaged in online teaching provide a necessary space to combat isolation and improve pedagogy while providing a community environment.

To maximize the positive effects of engagement in FLCs, researchers suggest that FLC participants need continued support in understanding the impact of their pedagogical interventions on student learning, retention, and persistence [11]. The expectation within FLC groups to explore effective teaching practices and to refine one’s teaching practice with the support of fellow members can thus reinforce instructors’ commitment to understanding the effect of their instructional decisions in an intentional and robust way, regardless of the course modality.

There is a heightened trend in higher education to offer online courses [1]. These alternative modalities, though increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have historically allowed higher education to be more accessible [17],[18]. Particularly in STEM courses, students with disabilities may struggle to engage in physical classroom learning environments due to long course meeting times, inaccessible terrain for fieldwork, and lack of flexibility in assignments and instruction [19],[20],[21]. If implemented properly, all students can benefit from the increased flexibility that online courses can provide. However improper implementation can heighten already present accessibility issues and leave both students and instructors frustrated [21]. These considerations underscore the need for informed faculty development grounded in both educational literature around evidence-based teaching practices and robust action research models.

Teaching in online modalities requires pedagogy and training that may differ substantially from teaching traditionally face-to-face courses [22],[23]. It also requires a greater understanding of the technology used while teaching [23],[24]. Studies suggest that when online assignments are intentionally designed, particularly when universal design for learning (UDL) efforts are incorporated, student perceptions of course effectiveness increase [25]. Trends across higher education institutions point to a growing incorporation of digital modalities to meet diverse student learning needs and a strategic expansion of online learning by many institutions worldwide. As a result, there are renewed calls for training and professional support in these modalities [26]. Faculty learning communities, or other (V)CoPs can, and indeed have served as excellent environments for the incorporation of this training [23]. Furthermore, it is unfortunately often the case that in designing new online or hybrid learning environments, faculty receive guidance and support with design and development prior to teaching courses but are then left on their own during implementation phases and in the redesign and evaluation of impact phases that follow [27].

Faculty face numerous challenges in designing effective learning experiences and FLCs offer a valuable structure for providing ongoing support to overcome these challenges. It is difficult to distill advice and teaching considerations in a simple and concise way. This motivated us to design an FLC as faculty should not have to be content experts and instructional design experts, they should be supported by faculty developers to be content experts in the most efficient and effective way. The program that we have detailed throughout this manuscript addresses this dearth of support through a three-phase approach, guiding and supporting faculty through design, implementation, and assessment phases of effective STEM digital instruction. Similar FLCs have been effective in online course development have involved faculty with differing roles and levels of experience [28]. This program does the same, however also includes future faculty (graduate students and postdoctoral scholars) for an increased level of varying perspectives.

While many faculty developers agree that interdisciplinary conversations between colleagues of differing disciplines––particularly among STEM disciplines––is valuable to both faculty and students, it is equally important to facilitate intradisciplinary conversation between faculty of the same discipline––for example between instructors of introductory and advanced courses within the same degree program. There can be significant distinctions between foundational STEM courses (e.g., introductory and gateway courses shared across majors) and courses that disciplines identify as integral to a student’s major field of study (e.g., senior design engineering courses, field camps for geology students). Course features such as enrollment size, modality, learning objectives, and access to or dependance on technology may also differ widely between these courses. Instructor and student dispositions can be quite different towards each type of course, and even the type of instructor (e.g., adjunct, tenure-track, graduate student, etc.) leading foundational courses may differ from courses within a specific degree program. Instructors of these two course types often hold different training needs or goals and may experience differing access to professional development opportunities related to their teaching. Faculty developers who design FLCs for STEM instructors thus need to be cognizant of the motivations and attitudes faculty (and graduate students and post-doctoral scholars that become faculty) hold while teaching STEM content through online modalities, and consider participants’ differences in resources, autonomy, and institutional support structures.

Graduate students, particularly those with faculty career aspirations, can also benefit from communities of practice for all of the same reasons as faculty. Graduate study can be a particularly isolating environment for many, and this isolation has been identified as one of the leading causes of graduate school attrition [29],[30]. Just like faculty, teaching and learning in online environments have been found to contribute to these feelings of isolation [31]. Community development and teamwork has been suggested in the literature as important facets for graduate curricula [30]. Though there is extensive research on FLCs, there is little information about FLCs that involve both graduate students or post-doctoral scholars (future faculty) and current faculty in a blended learning community. Studies suggest including students, both undergraduate [32] and graduate [33], as consultants during the implementation phases of FLCs to use their insights in determining impacts on participant pedagogy. Future faculty that are familiar with the FLC topics have also assisted in the creation of the FLC curriculum, without participation in the community itself [34]. Additionally, there are accounts of communities akin to FLCs designed solely for graduate students [35], [36]. But rarely has the educational literature described FLCs with both current and future faculty collaborating and exploring together in one blended cohort.

Action research “seeks to bring together action and reflection, theory, and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern to people, and more generally the flourishing of individual persons and their communities[37]. Many research studies are guided by theories, however, action research goes beyond the notion that theory informs practice, to a recognition that theory can and should be generated through practice [38]. This work implemented action in the design of the FLC, the results are part of the process as further improvements on the course continue [39]. The results presented in this manuscript function as a blueprint for faculty developers to design programs to support online STEM instruction. Likewise, the basic tenants of action research and the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) were taught during the course to improve upon instructors’ self-reflection on their teaching and continuous improvement of their courses.

Research Questions

This study analyses the blended FLC, Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning, and addresses the research questions (RQ):

RQ1: What are participant attitudes and motivations surrounding teaching STEM courses in an online environment?

RQ2: How does participation in a blended FLC change participant attitudes and motivations surrounding teaching in an online environment?


The participants in the Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning course created data as part of the educational research aspects of the project. Applications submitted by the participants (approx. 6 weeks prior to the start of the STEM online course), a participant pre-survey (completed in the first week of the STEM online course), and a participant post-survey (completed in the final week of the STEM online course) were all collected and coded. The assignments, deliverables, and reflections were submitted by participants throughout the course, and check-ins occurred at regular monthly intervals.

Desired Learning Gains, Deliverables, and Goals

When asked at the application stage what they hoped to gain from taking the course (question 1), participants overwhelmingly focused on their own desired learning outcomes related to quality teaching in an online modality. This theme was found eighteen times across the question prompt. Participants acknowledged the unique challenges of teaching online for STEM courses and desired to learn more about effective strategies and design or redesign techniques. Most recognized that they were novices at teaching STEM courses online themselves – despite circumstances that compelled some of them to do so in Spring 2020 and beyond because of the COVID-19 pandemic - but that online teaching will likely, as one participant stated in their application, “continue to be a major facet of education in the future.” Also at the application stage, participants focused on details related to their goals in the areas of student engagement, communication with students, and using online tools and technologies. When asked about their planned work products or deliverables in the pre-survey and post-survey (question 2), the top response remained aspects of course design.

At the pre-survey stage during the first week of the term, participants had access to the learning management system for Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning and were able to see the layout of the course as a meta-example of how a STEM online course could be designed. As a result, we saw their responses about design becoming much more concrete than they were at the application stage; participants no longer wrote theoretically about the need to teach better in online modalities. Rather, they specifically mentioned components such as course modules, organization, and open educational resources. The emphasis on effective course design or redesign continued through the course to the post-survey as the most desired work product and deliverable. Participants also mentioned specific student activities, such as graded assignments of exams, quizzes, and surveys as crucial deliverables, and the importance of student engagement in their planned work products and deliverables. The participants’ description of these needs is noteworthy, as many learning activities and student engagement techniques that work well for in-person courses do not translate to online STEM teaching. Participants acknowledged that they needed to work on these deliverables and spent significant time doing so over the term of the STEM online course.

Feedback on Design

Participants had the opportunity during three course check-ins and the post-survey to provide feedback on the design of the STEM online course and what they most needed. Time – and never having enough of it – was the most common barrier faced by participants. Our participants indicated that they most appreciated activities that were very practical and useful to their own practices of STEM teaching in online modalities. The ideas of shifting FLC curriculum to less “class” time and more focus on content creation and community development is supported by the findings of deNoyelles et al.[40]. For instance, reflections were beneficial to participants’ because they provided a chance to pause and collect their thoughts and ideas but should be used sparingly to provide more time for other activities related more directly to course design and delivery. Furthermore, some participants struggled with the asynchronous nature of the STEM online course, and they found that regular reminders from the instructor on to-dos and other tasks were essential.

The autonomy available to participants in their own teaching was also greatly varied. Some had the ability to “try one or two new ideas” each semester while others expressed “my current TA assignment doesn’t really allow for any wiggle room to practice any of the teachings from the course.” The participants indicated that they valued the multi-level learning community aspects of the course in order to learn from others’ experiences and ideas. Feedback from peers “helped fill in any gaps we missed and also provided an opportunity to see others’ work.” All of the graduate student participants wrote about the novelty and utility of having professors involved in the course – both as the designers and as participants. They perceived that input from “actual professors seems to be our gold standard from the viewpoint of a student.” The participation of faculty in the STEM online course and learning community allowed participants to learn from each other in practical and worthwhile ways.

The STEM online course allowed participants to learn about tools and techniques, practice critique, and engage in redesign. Yet the participants also provided specific feedback about ways that these items and the overall structure of the STEM online course could be improved. The participants recognized that the 2020 quick shift to online learning caught many instructors unaware, and many had initially just tried to retool face-to-face strategies to online modes of teaching. In the Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning course, they were seeking ways of “maintaining online integrity and course backwards redesign practice” of necessary STEM student learning outcomes. For inst­­ance, the participants desired more opportunities for learning to write multiple choice questions for exams and other assessments that could stimulate and test for higher-level thinking. They also “needed help on how to write assessment questions and how to determine if they were good questions or not.” Additionally, we saw the comment twice that participants desired more examples for courses specific to their home departments rather than general strategies for STEM online teaching success. We intend to use all of this feedback in future iterations of the STEM online course. Our qualitative and quantitative results provide directions and implications for anyone in the field who wishes to create a similar blended community of practice specific to online STEM teaching for current and future faculty.


Recruitment and Population of Participants

Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning was offered at an R1 institution (a doctoral granting university with a very high research activity designation; [41]) in the Southeastern United States in an online modality. This course served as a VCoP for all participants, where faculty engaged as voluntary professional development and graduate students and post-doctoral scholars could earn course credit. Separate recruitment material was designed for graduate students/post-doctoral scholars and faculty to identify potential benefits for each population. In fall 2020, an informational website was sent to both graduate student/post-doctoral scholar and faculty email listservs in each of the STEM colleges at the participating institution. Advertising distinctions were made for the unique course audiences: the graduate student/post-doctoral scholar site discussed opportunities to improve virtual, online, and hybrid teaching skills, whereas the faculty site highlighted the benefits of the learning community and course redesign. Course information such as student learning objectives (SLOs), course duration, target audience, a course description with sample topical outline, and a link to the application were all detailed on the sites.

Potential participants completed a short application form prior to admission into the course. This allowed the design team to gain an understanding of applicant needs for the course and how it aligns with their professional development goals. Application questions addressed previous teaching experience and how individuals envisioned contributing to the course and the course community. The applications were largely similar for the graduate student/post-doctoral scholar and the faculty populations, with only minor differences based upon their roles. Portions of the applications were used for research purposes via open coding, analysis by the research team, and consensus coding methodologies, discussed more below.

The first cohort of this course was comprised of sixteen participants. Of the sixteen participants, four were faculty with varying roles. One was a professor of practice, two senior lecturers, and one lecturer. There were twelve participants with graduate student or post-doctoral scholar roles (described from this point forward as “students”): eleven graduate students and one post-doctoral scholar. Four of the university’s colleges and twelve different STEM disciplines are represented by the participants. The disciplines represented include animal and veterinary sciences, bioengineering, chemical engineering, chemistry, computing, environmental engineering and earth sciences, healthcare genetics, mathematical and statistical sciences, mechanical engineering, parks recreation and tourism management, and physics.

Research for this study was exempted by the university’s institutional review board (IRB# 2020-380). Participation in the study was optional and was not a condition for enrollment in the Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning course. All coding and analysis of participant assignments took place after course grades and deliverables were submitted. The instructor of record for the course only viewed survey results and coded assignments in aggregate. Deidentification and coding tasks were performed by research team members that had no grading responsibilities in the course.

Course and Intervention Design

Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning was designed to reflect these commitments to participants: (1) to form authentic and mutually beneficial relationships with participants; (2) to co-construct knowledge around effective online STEM instructional strategies with participants; (3) to merge and incorporate the experiential expertise of instructors with modern research on evidence-based instructional practices within STEM education, creating effective practices for the future; and (4) to embed flexibility within the course design to incorporate emerging issues in online STEM education as universities across the nation continue to respond to unpredictable global circumstances.

The Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning course was offered as an online, virtual course. Instruction was primarily asynchronous, however, there were monthly synchronous meetings for all course participants. The agenda for these meetings was largely flexible and allowed for time for question and answer both about the content and discussion on teaching questions and struggles that came up during the semester. One of the primary goals of the meetings was to help with the community-building aspect of the course. Additionally, each graduate student met with the instructor of record once per module (approximately once a month) for a check-in meeting while the four faculty members had connection meetings with the research team.

A major aim of this research project’s design team was to tailor learning to meet participants’ expressed needs, thus each module ended with an opportunity for participants to share feedback with the designers and instructor. This feedback came in the form of check-in meetings between participants and the course instructor and written responses to prompts in an online feedback survey. Additionally, several of the assignments were collected and analyzed by the research team. The feedback from the module check-ins and feedback surveys, as well as examples of participant work collected from module assignments were included as data in the analysis of the course content (described in detail in the section below).

The course was comprised of four major learning modules where each module contained approximately four-weeks of course material. An overview of the course modules with content and assignments can be found in Figure 1. Module content and activities centered around topics identified by the project leaders as being essential considerations and skills for successful virtual instruction as well as topics of interest identified by applicants in their feedback about course goals. The modules were titled: Inclusive STEM Online, STEM Content Interaction, Online Assignments (Measuring Student Learning and Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) and Pulling It All Together. Each module contained 3-4 major assignments and ended with an opportunity for participants to provide feedback to the design team on the module’s content and assignments. The purpose of each assignment was for participants to move from theory to practice as they engaged with and applied the topical module content in specific ways, as an individual or as a team. Individual content interaction assignments included discussion boards and readings with asynchronous annotations. Individual personal development assignments included practice using several online software platforms or tools beneficial for use in STEM courses, and team project building assignments scaffolded progress towards a final course project.

Figure 1

Overview of course learning modules. Boxes on the left contain course topics and boxes on the right contain course assignments.

Participants interacted with their peers in teams and with the course instructor and design team in various ways. At the start of the course, participants were organized into one of four groups based on having similar STEM disciplinary backgrounds, as seen in Figure 2. Each group had one faculty member and three student members who worked together as a team throughout the course and for the final course project. Throughout the Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning course, participants were working on components of course redesign, using the evidence-based practices of online pedagogy that they were learning in the topical modules. For the final project, the groups worked within their teams to demonstrate how they redesigned a traditionally face-to-face STEM course (or major components of such a course) to a virtual or hybrid modality using evidence-based practices to improve student learning and engagement in those modalities.

Figure 2

Groups for teamwork and projects. Each group was arranged by disciplinary similarities or participant interests and consisted of a faculty member and three students (graduate and post-doctoral scholars).

Research Design, Data Collection, and Analysis

 To determine participant attitudes and motivations and how those changed throughout their participation in the Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning course, the research and design team collected and analyzed data from the participants. The data included participant-supplied information in the applications; pre- and post-surveys; assignments, deliverables, and reflections produced throughout the course; and information provided via check-in sessions. For research purposes, we utilized twenty participant application responses, twenty-one pre-survey responses, and eleven post-survey responses. (Some applicants and pre-survey respondents did not end up enrolling in the course or participating in the interventions.)

Pre- and post-surveys were administered via the course learning management system the week before the course began and during finals week. Both surveys were designed with the intention of comparing results to illuminate the professional needs and interests of graduate student and faculty educators as they (re)designed STEM courses for the virtual environment and how well this course addressed those needs. Surveys were a combination of 5-point Likert-style questions and open-ended questions. Some questions were influenced by Wallin’s survey on faculty knowledge, skills, attitudes, and abilities [42]. Questions pertained to what participants hoped to work on in the course, skills gained in the course, alignment of the course with participant teaching practices, and overall course satisfaction. Research-based practices were used when designing the surveys, but the surveys were not otherwise validated. Survey responses were deidentified by a member of the research team before coding took place. Open coding was performed, followed by consensus coding of the qualitative responses and quantitative analysis of the Likert-style questions. The instructor of record for the course did not participate in any of the deidentification or data analysis.

For assignments, deliverables, reflections, and check-in responses submitted by Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning course participants, the materials were collected, open coded, and analyzed by the research team. Data collected that did not regard participants’ attitudes and motivations was identified as outside the scope of this study. Careful quantitative and qualitative analysis by the research team was necessary on all data to determine trends and implications.

Desired Learning Gains, Deliverables, and Goals

Table 1 summarizes the findings from open coding of the qualitative data on desired learning gains and deliverables course participants. Though code frequency does not imply statistical significance in qualitative research, we present them here to represent the abundance of each theme in participant responses.

Table 1

Participants’ specific desired learning gains and deliverables.

Q1. Please describe what you hope to gain from taking this course. (Source: application, n=21)


Code Frequency

Teaching online: strategies, design/redesign, the way of the future


Student engagement: improving participation, giving students good feedback


Communication: better interacting with students, making online courses more personal


Tools: using online teaching tools and technologies to enhance teaching


Q2. Please describe what you plan to work on/worked on during this course. (Source: pre-survey (n=21) and post-survey (n=11))


Code Frequency



Course design or redesign: content and how it is delivered, materials, modules, open education resources, flipped classroom



Student activities: exams, quizzes, surveys, and other deliverables



Student engagement



Teaching online: general practices, improving comfort with online modes



Though this course could count towards some of the graduate students’ degrees, it was largely an elective undertaking for participants. Thus, the course development and research teams believed that it was important to know participants’ teaching and professional goals and to help them meet those goals. Table 2 provides a summary of the findings from open coding of the qualitative data on participants’ teaching and professional goals (question 3). Overall, we saw goals of improving teaching abilities both generally and online specifically across several course topic areas. We saw many implications for preparing for the professoriate training. Participants indicated that they know that they need to upskill or that they realize that future academic jobs will require them to have experience and training in teaching online. These results support a needed change in training for current and future professors to include a range of pedagogical modalities–online, flipped, hybrid, asynchronous, etc.–not just traditional in-person STEM courses.

Table 2

Participants’ teaching and professional goals.

Q3. Please describe how this course aligns/aligned with your teaching and professional goals. (Source: application (n=21), pre-survey (n=21), and post-survey (n=11)


Code Frequency




Career: Future career goals and needs as a professor. Desire to improve or upskill.




Effective teaching online: Overcoming obstacles in moving STEM courses online. Preparing for the future of STEM online education.




Course design or redesign: Building new courses. Enhancing curriculum.




Effective teaching in general




Improving student engagement




Inclusivity: Fulfilling inclusive teaching goals and teaching diverse students




Early on and similar to participants’ responses on question 1 in the applications, participants wrote in general about the goal of being more effective teachers in online modalities. This was found thirteen times in the applications, as seen in Table 2. They also wrote regularly about their own career goals, found ten times in the applications and fourteen times in the pre-survey. We saw statements such as “I wish to become and undergraduate professor…I do plan to teach courses that will have an online component and it is important that I prepare for it well. While tech will not be a replacement for [an] instructor, it is a good supplement for teaching effectively.”

At the end of the course, we saw a relative increase in the post-survey of the number of times that participants described student engagement as one of their own teaching or professional goals. The content of the Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning course focused on this component of teaching, and participants had multiple opportunities to reflect on and create learning activities to elicit student engagement. One example comment is shared here: “The course focused on aspects of course accessibility/inclusivity and keeping students engaged in what can be an off-putting online environment.” This comment also points to another finding from question 3: participants explicitly described inclusive teaching as part of their goals. They recognize that online teaching modalities can be more adaptable to “open doors for so many students who may not be able to go to in-person class” or to “make it more accessible for students who are constrained by distance and time.” As current and future faculty learn to incorporate effective online teaching pedagogies into their own practices with an intentionally inclusive lens, this type of teaching is likely to become increasingly pervasive as well.

Most Essential Skills and Knowledge for Effective Online STEM Teaching

At both the pre-survey and post-survey stages, participants provided their input on a number of items, rating their relationship to successful online teaching and learning. The exact question prompt was: Please select how you would rate each of the following faculty skills, attitudes, and abilities on a scale of 1 to 5 as you perceive their relationship to successful online teaching and learning. Reverse-coded here for clarity, the Likert values ranged from 5 (very important) to 1 (not important) (Figure 3, Figure 4). We also performed a paired t-test to compare participants’ ratings on the post-survey and how they indicated they would have rated each item before they started the STEM online course intervention. Items with a statistically significant change are marked with an asterisk in Figure 4.

Figure 3

Perceptions of item relationships to successful online teaching and learning Pre-survey responses. Error Bars represent standard deviation.

Figure 4

Perceptions of item relationships to successful online teaching and learning Post-survey responses. Error Bars represent standard deviation and * indicates statistically significant change between pre- and post-survey responses.

The student motivation and engagement item remained at the top for both the pre-survey and post-survey. This finding aligns with the qualitative data in Table 1 and Table 2, where participants were frequently mentioning the importance of student engagement, particularly question 3 in Table 2 where improving student engagement was the top coded goal by the end of the course. Although participants were learning about and applying specific tools and techniques during the STEM online course, student-centeredness remained their primary focus.

Between the pre-survey and post-survey stages, we also observed that online presentation skills, varied student assessment techniques, and use of learning management software all had gains in the Likert-scale values and relative rankings. Participants learned to use specific pedagogical techniques for specific STEM teaching purposes and found those items to be very important to successful online teaching and learning. We also asked an open-ended question about their favorite activities in the Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning course, and participants indicated that they obtained benefit in performing STEM online class readings using a collaborative annotation application, creating chunked video lessons, and redesigning assignments. Participants acknowledged that these items “enabled group sharing, idea sharing, and concept sharing among students,” that they “required me to think deeply about the lesson,” while reflecting on the need to “continuously update your course materials” and that “coming at them from a new angle was refreshing.

Nearly all items from Figure 3 were rated as important (4 of 5 on Likert scale) by participants in the post-survey. Partnerships with business and industry were not unimportant at either stage (M=3.13 and 2.91 respectively; “not important” is a 1); they just were not the primary focus of the faculty and student participants in the STEM online course. The pre-survey ratings show more variety in participants’ rating of each items’ utility, but participants were more certain of their importance by the end of the Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning course. This finding is also noteworthy, as it has important implications for other practitioners who may wish to create a similar intervention. Focusing future STEM online professional development for current and in-training practitioners around these items is most likely to bring about improved teaching and learning practices, while aligning with participants’ motivations and goals.


These findings can be implemented into practice in multiple ways. The authors’ main takeaways from this experience are summarized in Figure 5.

Figure 5

Figure 5. Author recommendations for practice implementation

A Team with Diverse Career Perspectives: Readers who are involved in faculty and/or future faculty professional development efforts should consider including diverse career perspectives among program designers where possible. The design team for this course included educational developers, faculty, and graduate students. This variety of perspectives allowed the participants to interact with experts who could offer different points of view on a variety of issues presented in the course. Particularly in the case of this course, the graduate student who was part of the design team had taken STEM courses online in a variety of formats as she was a student during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whereas the majority of the design team members had taught online but not taken many STEM courses in a virtual environment, the graduate student was able to leverage their first-hand experience to draw attention to and advocate for an improved student experience as the course was being designed. The faculty team members of course offered valuable insight into the course content and challenges specific to instruction in STEM disciplines, but of equal importance, they were able to leverage their networks with fellow faculty and relationships with students to cultivate a diverse participant pool. The team’s ability to bring diverse student and faculty perspectives to the course was indeed a key component of the program’s value to participants. Finally, the educational developer was able to surface institutional-level perspectives to highlight meaningful and effective practices that cut across disciplines. The educational developer also offered valuable resources specific to online instruction, community building, and evidence-based instructional practices in addition to utilizing their professional network’s resources and relationships. The interdisciplinary nature of the team’s professional background combined with their unique perspectives of the learning experience at all levels–student participant (graduate student team member), content expert (faculty team members), and learning expert (educational developer)–harmonized together to support a robust program design with tailored course materials and meaningful discussions among participants of differing disciplines.

Incentives for Time and Effort: In advertising this program, the team highlighted the opportunity to learn with and from graduate student and faculty participants in the course. The team believed this was a unique and valuable incentive for potential participants as few professional development programs incorporate graduate and faculty instructors into the same program. In their feedback, participants explained that they enjoyed the blended nature of this course and found that they benefited from hearing voices from both populations at the same time. The graduate students benefitted from faculty participation by engaging in conversations with faculty about their real-world teaching experiences and advice. Additionally, the design team made efforts to highlight the expertise graduate students offered in discussions of course design as recent or current students. This was done to support discussions between these two groups in a more equitable way by positioning graduate students and faculty as peers rather than positioning the faculty as the sole holders of instructional expertise. Faculty benefited from engagement with future faculty through their role as a mentor and through exploring the course design process from the recent or current student perspective. For faculty, additional benefits included access to the course materials and encouragement to learn from the content without obligation to complete the assignments. A key learning from the team’s first iteration of implementing this program was that the faculty participant were not sufficiently incentivized for their participation in the full course. In the first iteration, several faculty members who applied to enroll and were accepted later expressed an inability to meet the time and participation expectations. Their exploration of course materials and attendance at synchronous conversations dwindled to the detriment of their graduate student peers. In a later offering of the course, faculty received professional development funds and their overall engagement was much greater. In instances where professional development funds are not available, we suggest considering digital badging [43], or inviting faculty to one or two days of the course rather than participating in the whole course.

Practical Examples and Opportunities for Networking: The graduate students who took this course were STEM graduate students interested in teaching and/or becoming faculty members in the future. In this course, they were designing course materials to be used in the faculty courses. The projects offered students real experiences in course design and implementation as opposed to theoretical projects. For example, participants were challenged to develop a 3-5 minute long miniature lesson recordings on a topic they could teach either as a standalone lesson or as a component of a larger topic. Participants had to first craft a learning objective statement and description of why and how the objective would be met in the lesson, then they recorded themselves teaching it as a virtual miniature lesson. This practice in designing engaging lessons in a way that aligned with online learning principles and transparently aligned with course goals is a skill graduate students could adapt immediately as an instructor or to share the recording to illustrate their instructional skills in a job interview process. Additionally, the graduate student participants benefitted from engaging with the faculty participants as mentors who all had differing faculty roles and taken paths in their careers (some tenure-track, some teaching track, and one had spent time in industry before coming to academia). This provided examples to the graduate students of options for their futures. The community formed through bringing these two populations together was encouraged after the completion of the semester.

Flexible Course Design and Delivery: Finally, the authors suggest building in flexibility and creating space to pivot to new emerging topics into courses, programs, and other faculty and graduate student teaching-related professional development efforts. The design team believes that one of the biggest indicators of our success in designing a meaningful and useful program was that the Teaching Postsecondary STEM Through E-Learning course elements matched what the participants said they wanted and expected (Tables 1 and 2). This was in part because the course designers intentionally asked for feedback from participants at several points throughout the course and purposefully embedded flexibility into later course module topics, resources, and assignments to be able to make adjustments in order meet emerging interests or needs. In this study, feedback was solicited in the form of short questionnaires posted to the course learning management system (LMS). The design team reviewed these questionnaires at the end of each course module before beginning the new one, implementing some changes during the semester and some before future course implementations. Mid-semester evaluation such as this are recommended in the education research literature, particularly for use in online teaching environments [44].


Plans for future work include expanding this course offering from one research intensive institution to also including instructors from a local technical college to decrease the accessibility gap present in STEM online faculty development. The authors credit the success of this work in part to the fact that design team members possessed a unique balance of STEM content expertise, teaching and learning expertise, and DBER experience. Despite their combined strengths, research and course design work in this underexplored territory is difficult and an expansion of STEM faculty development programs, particularly in online environments, is necessary.


In response to the rapid shift to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, several faculty development needs became apparent. Amongst them arose the need for professional development in online pedagogies, a need for a sustained program rather than one-time trainings, and a specific need for faculty development centered around STEM instructors. A faculty learning community that incorporated both current and future faculty from several STEM disciplines was developed specifically for these instructors and implemented using Action Research tenants in the spring of 2021. Participants appreciated the varying perspectives of having graduate students, post-doctoral scholars, and faculty in the same learning community. Additionally, participant attitudes towards and confidence in the implementation of online learning techniques improved throughout the course.

This work contributes a small answer the call from faculty development and DBER spaces for educational research exploration and recommendations for practitioners to meet the emerging instructional needs of modern instructors. It addressed calls for STEM-specific faculty development and incorporated the unique challenges present with STEM online course design and instruction. This work carries implications on multiple levels; not only have our instructors benefited from the pedagogical training they received and the improved confidence in teaching in online modalities, but their students and departments have benefited as well, strengthening the education system. The authors now call on faculty practitioners, graduate students, educational researchers and developers, and institutional leaders to work together to create sustained and blended community-focused learning opportunities for STEM instructors. As such, blended faculty learning community programs should be explored and implemented in institutions hoping to improve their professional development training for both current and future faculty as they may offer powerful tools to meet the evolving needs of American higher education.

Data Availability Statement

The datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are not publicly available due to Institutional Review Board (IRB) regulations. Data are available with reasonable request, provided the request complies with IRB regulations.

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