Big Sky Telegraph and Big-Hearted Mentoring

In 1984, from a ranch house near Walden, Colorado, I called Dave Hughes to ask about his online "Little Red Schoolhouse," which began a mentoring relationship lasting a full ten years. Dave Hughes, a retired army colonel who "self-taught" himself computers and the Internet at age 49, was a well known advocate for grassroots communications, empowerment and electronic democracy; he was also known as the "Cursor Cowboy." I was caretaking a ranch, with a new masters degree in Instructional Technology, teaching evening extension classes on "Computers in Agriculture."

Through voice phonecalls and vigorous online exchange, I eventually learned enough to create and teach online courses for teachers through the Big Sky Telegraph network (1988-1998), which Dave built. My mentoring of teachers in rural Montanan schools was patterned from the mentorship I’d received. If "my" teachers needed help, there would be the determination to do what needed to be done, period! The relationship is similar to my role as a big brother, in a non-Orwellian sense, of course, when your little sister or brother needs help, there’s no question but to make damn sure they get it!

The Good and the Bad; a mentoring story

Jose Jr. came online my Big Sky Telegraph system via Internet from the San Diego Public Library terminals in about 1994. I learned he was nine years old, and lived with 30 "sisters" at a "girls home" in Mexico. He and his father would drive across the border seven days a week to collect damaged cans of food from the supermarkets. Jose’s dad would drop him at the library where he’d get online. I was excited about how bright he was, and that potentially, I might teach him skills that would help him and his "family."

At the same time another youth, Kevin Pain, came online offering anyone interested information on "hacking." I politely explained our system was mainly teachers, with some students, and he became offended and over the coming weeks proceeded to break into our password files and send obscene messages under the names of others. We deleted them as fast as they appeared, which was not a problem since our volume of users was small.

We traced his access and found he, too, was using the San Diego Public Library terminals. We called the library, who solved the solution by shutting down their public access. They solved the Kevin Pain problem, and I lost Jose Jr. in the process. I remember the previous Christmas, Jose Jr. sent a message that an anonymous gift of 15 turkey’s had arrived just before Christmas. I’d shared a number of his articulate messages on Internet listservs, no doubt inspiring a kind heart somewhere.

Hughesian Mentoring Innovations

In 1989, Dave Hughes and I held a workshop where we showed Native American youth from five Montana reservations how to create computer art graphics for online display. This preceded the WWW. We were challenged by visions of cultural art as "share-art," similar to shareware, as a culturally supportive economic activity. Right idea, wrong technology, but we had no way of knowing the WWW was about to begin!

Also, in 1989, half-a-dozen remote Montanan rural schools had 7th-8th grade students being mentored on Chaos Theory Mathematics by Dr. George Johnston from the Plasma Fusion Lab of MIT, through Big Sky Telegraph. Text-only, at 1200 baud, with $18/hour long distance phone tolls via Apple IIes, and it worked wonderfully! A good example of quality mentoring being bandwidth independent!

Rural Teachers Innovate to Create a National Example

Over the ten years of directing the Big Sky Telegraph network, which offered free self-directed lessons on how to get online to learn and communicate with others, I had the opportunity to encourage many, many people. What I learned was we all can accomplish incredible feats, with a little encouragement from others. Many of the rural teachers thought everyone was getting online, and did their best to access and share resources.

The 700 lessonplans were collected from these rural teachers and through a project with the Columbia Education Center involving teachers in 19 states, and Finland. These lessonplans became the first lessonplan collection to go on the Internet, sponsored by the U.S. Dept. of Education. Little did these teachers know, their innovation would be touted for excellence by the White House, four congressional reports and many books and articles. They eventually inspired hundreds of similar networking initiatives.

For ten years, I learned as I attempted to mentor "my" rural teachers who took my 1 college credit online course. What would be the greatest value I could provide them, through online resources, and my own messages, to justify the great cost to them in time and money, back when the technology was young.

Trust as the Foundation of Mentorship

I learned from these teachers that effusive warmth and loyalty can easily be shared online, regardless of having never met in person. Though not everyone responds to the opportunity for friendship in the same way, in an online situation. While some easily opened up with trust and their honest feelings, others were more guarded or reserved. I found that in time, most everyone warms up once they recognize sincere interest in them and their students’ needs.

Content VS Emotive Mentoring

If instructional content is provided in a self-directed format, and a student needs someone to motivate and monitor the instruction, this role does not necessarily have to be performed by an expert in the content area. An online mentor’s role is primarily to encourage, motivate, and monitor the student’s learning, and can be performed adequately by a peer or someone without previous expertise in the content area.

Mentoring and Migrant Technology Projects

There is no upward limitation of the degree of benefit a student can receive from a mentor who has Internet access and information retrieval skills. Mentors for the MECHA project’s migrant students, who use grant-provided WebTV’s costing $99, can potentially provide the student’s entire family with assistance identifying available medical and social services programs, psychological counseling and much more. (Five Migrant Technology Projects; see )


Research into just what online mentoring is, and can become, is a rapidly evolving area of interest, upon which the future of effective distance learning depends. Building learning communities around the theme of ongoing lifelong learning requires an approach more familial and social than the traditional disciplinarian approach. Since the WWW is so new, we’re all kindergartners in the information age, and learn best through hands-on direct experience, with others, youth and elders.

Lefti, a Wayward Spirit

One more story, a character came online on Big Sky Telegraph around 1990, "Lefti Tupinfellin." Lefti told stories about his growing up in Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco, during the sixties, with Timothy Leary and many noteables of the time regularly hanging out in his living room with his parents. Lefti was a homeless person and rambled on in his messages in a way that definitely sounded like someone on the fringe of acceptable society.

Then, one of my staff said to me "Left-it-up-and-fell-in" which identified for us that our street person "Lefti Tupinfellin" had misrepresented himself with this hidden reference to a toilet bowl. Our relationship continued, as he confessed to being a carpenter in Boston, named Seth, who actually had grow up in the environment he’d described. The moral? We can be anyone we wish online, but will usually reveal who we really are by the way we communicate with others.

The last I heard from Dave Hughes he was telling about 10 year-old Victor, a low-income hispanic child living in a home without a phone, from which he uses a laptop and wireless technology from one of Dave’s innovative projects, to do his homework using Internet from home, or anywhere else he wants. Dave told me about the Eskimo village of Toksook, where homes are connected via wireless because the cost of getting wired was prohibitive, and then there was the Ute Reservation project. Stories continue at

I hope everyone finds a mentor like Dave Hughes. It will change their lives.