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The Value of Mentoring Online Students

Posted on Friday November 23, 2012 by Michael Keathley

During the rapid evolution of elearning over more than the last decade, one important component of the postsecondary experience was largely left behind: peer mentoring. In the excited rush to meet the tsunami of demand for online classes and programs, students were initially left in isolation, to navigate complex course Learning Management Systems (LMS), complete classes and programs, and make degree-to-work connections on their own.

The irony is that simultaneously, research has shown the need for virtual students to be part of a community in order for them to be successful academically. Learning to work with others and function as professionals are also aspects of higher education that should be modeled for future gainful employment.

Mentoring is one proven method to help students obtain these benefits. By looking at some existing examples of mentoring programs and some suggested other types of student-to-student mentoring that would be helpful, perhaps both online students and schools may benefit by engaging in their own mentoring programs.

Mentoring Defined
Mentoring is perhaps as old as civilization itself and closely linked with education. Dating back at least to a character in Homer’s Odyssey named Mentor, this term implies a more experienced individual who shares their knowledge with a less experienced individual. This is a bit different than teaching.

A faculty member’s focus is on imparting knowledge related to the curriculum and field of study; the context is academic. Mentors, on the other hand, focus more on sharing the ways they have applied that knowledge and what they have learned by means of their own experiences. A mentee, then, is to take this guidance and apply it toward the betterment of their own lives. Furthermore, usually a mentoring program lacks the formality of a classroom that is governed by course and institutional policies. Mentors and mentees work together, often directed by what the mentee needs, without any rigid structure or formal reporting requirement. The connection usually lasts only as long as the mentee desires the support and advice.

Two Good Examples
Although more needs to be done in this area, there are some good, virtual mentoring programs for students.

    1. For example, The University of Iowa offers a list of about three dozen mentoring programs, including some at other schools. One of these that provides a good example is the ICE-Net (Iowa Career Exploration Network) , an online mentoring program that matches alumni, professionals, and upper level students with new learners who are just starting out on their academic/career path. The online site for this program provides an opportunity for individuals to volunteer their help, some resources for mentees to help them figure out what assistance may be beneficial, and other related opportunities for networking among UI constituents.

    2. Another good example is the Online Peer Mentoring Program at Regent University. This program pairs new virtual students with more experienced upper-level students who have successfully completed at least 12 credits.

    The goal of the program is to help new students:

      • Acclimate to online learning at Regent.
      • Connect with others.
      • Learn about where to get assistance when needed.

    Each pairing lasts for the duration of an eight-week term, and mentors/mentees may choose to continue or discontinue at any time. Interactions take place through a variety of virtual venues (e.g., the university’s LMS, email, and Skype). At Regent University, there’s even an app to aid mentoring.

These are just two of the programs available to online students. Although each is restricted to students within their respective schools, they provide good examples of what other schools could create for their online students and what elearners could look for or suggest in their own institutions.

Suggested Programs
Mentoring opportunities that support new online learners are not the only type of programs that exist or that should be developed by online schools and pursued by elearners. There are some other ways the focus of a mentoring program can be narrowed. They may be organized by:

    • major or future career
    • skill (e.g., writing, math, research, etc.)
    • modality (online or face-to-face)
    • demographics (e.g., gender, race, disabilities, etc.)

Basically, these are according to the needs and desires of the participants. Gary A. Berg, a contributor at eLearn Magazine, provided a helpful list of more focused “Online Mentoring Programs” and The Virtual Volunteering Project contains some more with links to valuable resources on mentoring.

Brining mentoring more fully into online education programs offers schools, students, potential employers, and other constituents an excellent, nearly cost-free way to support student success and gainful employment. Given the demonstrated benefits of mentoring, why wouldn’t students and postsecondary institutions get involved with or help establish their own programs?

If you know of an excellent mentoring program for online students, please post the information in the “Comments” area below.

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