Online Mentoring: Reflections and Suggestions

Paper presented at TelEd96 December 1996
John M. Rogan & Cynthia Denton

Reach for the Sky is a telecommunications project which has provided teachers with access to the Internet and online courses on its use. The paper explores the delivery of online courses from both the perspective of the mentor and student, with a focus on the mentor/mentee relationship. It provides reflections by the mentors on what worked and what they would do differently the next time around.

The Internet and The Information Super Highway have become familiar buzz words. In some circles, access to the resources of the Internet has become synonymous with educational reform. How do teachers learn online about using the Internet? How do they then become successful mentors themselves?

Starting in the summer of 1994, 22 teachers in 15 different rural schools in Montana were given access to the Internet, and ongoing online training in its use. This group includes elementary, middle and high school teachers of math and science. The goals of this Annenberg/CPB and U.S.West funded project, known as Reach for the Sky, are:
* Providing teachers access to telecomputing equipment, sustainable connectivity, training, and technical support.
* Linking teachers to the Internet science/mathematics resources and data bases.
* Networking teachers with local, national, and global communities of peers and experts.
* Assisting teachers to create and conduct telecurricular units and to mentor other teachers in the development and implementation of similar units.
* Showcasing teacher innovations in the use of the Internet and telecomputing which provide role models of educational renewal.

One year later, these same teachers became mentors of other teachers enrolled in the online course that they had already taken. In the summer of 1995, approximately 75 teachers from the states of Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Montana joined the Project. Each of the original teachers (the mentor) was grouped with on average four "new" teachers based on common interests and teaching assignments. Hence each group consisted of teachers from different states. With the exception of the new Montana teachers, no face to face contact was made. Under the guidance of the mentor, each group worked its way through one online course, Beginning Internet, designed to introduce teachers to the Internet, and collaborated on at least one telecurricular activity. At the same time, the mentors themselves took an online course, Online Mentoring, dealing with online mentoring techniques and issues.

The paper examines some of the dynamics of teaching an online course. Questions related to online instruction will be raised and discussed. These include:
* How does the mentor communicate with students enrolled in the course? What encourages or hinders participation?
* How does the mentor foster the development of an online community? What strategies are effective and what are not?
Data for this study were collected in five ways. The one was to analyze the transcripts of the email messages in the listservs created specifically for the mentor/mentee interaction.

Each of the twenty mentors had a unique space where he or she could post and receive messages from his or her mentees. Collaborative activities and the lessons themselves were also posted in this area.

A second way in which data were collected was to analyze the comments and messages posted in the mentors own private listserv. The mentors were all taking a course on online mentoring at the same time as they were working with the new teachers. Issues about mentoring raised in this course were discussed online in this listserv. For example, one of the lessons in the online mentoring course consisted of some of the points made in the previous section of this paper.

The third way in which data were collected was by means of live interviews with mentors. Most of these were conducted by telephone, but one was done face to face.

At the conclusion of both the online courses, Beginning Internet and Online Mentoring, a course evaluation was conducted by means of a questionnaire. The fourth source of data for this study is the reesults of these course evaluations.

Finally, Annenberg/CPB contracted with Northwest Regional Education Laboratory to conduct an evalution of all rural telecommucations projects that is was currently funding. The results of this external evalution were used as data for this study.

While some questions were raised prior to the beginning of the study, most emerged as a result of the online discussions and the interviews. Hence the results section will be organized around some of the issues that emerged during the study as well as around some of the initial questions.


Beginning an online course - Creating a comfort zone

Just as with first impressions, so the beginning of an online course is critical to the success of what follows. It is during the first few weeks that the tone is set, the expectations are developed and the comfort zone is established. Almost all the mentors felt less than satisfied with their ability to establish an online community. There were perhaps four reasons for this.

The first was that despite our best efforts, access to the Internet was problematic for some. In some cases it was a hardware problem, but in most cases the trouble could be traced to the provider of the service, whether commercial or educational. Many groups started the semester with one or more persons not able to interact online. Those who got off to a bad start rarely made up for the time lost, and more importantly never did succeed in becoming part of the group.

The second was that not enough attention was given to any specific techniques for building an online community. Project staff and mentors alike did not appreciate the importance of how an online course is started. Advice on how to begin an online course was provided in one of the lessons that the mentors took, but in most cases it appears that they were not able to translate this advice into action. It is possible too that not enough emphasis was placed on this topic in the lessons. What ever the reason, more emphasis needs to be paid to the beginning of an online course. For example, perhaps future courses should start with some online community building activities - especially if group interaction is an essential and desired part of the course. This "warm up" period could also serve the purpose of assessing the mentees prowess and comfort with telecommunications.

Some mentors did make efforts to foster a sense of community to varying degrees of success. If responses from mentees in the first few weeks can be taken as an indication of success, then one specific mentor who provided a fair amount of humorous information about herself, and continued to keep the interaction light and humorous, seems to have had the greatest success. An online mentor needs the same skills as a successful hostess; the ability to make connections between guests at a party and to draw those on the fringes into the mainstream of the conversation. This process might be referred to as creating a zone of comfort in which all participants feel at ease with one another and valued members of the group. As one mentor observed,

"I think we need to remember that feeling "safe" must accompany the online responses that we will get from our mentees. They need continued encouragement and support as we did in the beginning. Mutual respect is an important component of our online relationship if we want to see it grow."

Third, all the mentors were experienced classroom teachers, but none had facilitated an online course before. They began to realize how much they depended on facial and other visual clues in making instructional decisions. Many said that they did not know "how far to push" mentees who were falling behind on lesson assignments or who were not participating. In a face to face situation, they would have relied on visual clues when dealing with a child who was not participating, but in an online situation found it difficult to know what to do with an adult that they could not see. Most made the prudent decision not to push too much. They felt that initial face to face contact might well have helped as they tried to visualize problems that their mentees might be experiencing, and might have also been instrumental in building a sense of community and commitment to the course. One factor which many mentees did share is that they were very pressed for time, and sometimes just had to allow things to slip. The mentors, who were experiencing the same kind of time pressures could certainly relate to this problem.

Fourth, the course made no attempt to engage the mentees in its goals and direction. Hence they had no stake in the course itself other than to be passive recipients of the lessons. Given that these were adults, many of whom had considerable experience with telecommunications, a sense of ownership in the course might have gone a long way towards fostering an online community. This process of negotiating the content and directions of an online course should be part of the creation of a zone of comfort.

Face to Face versus Online Only Contact

Although some face to face contact, especially at the beginning of the course is desirable, it is not always feasible or economically possible. How essential is face to face contact?

Responses by the mentors to this question were ambiguous. About half felt that face to face contact was very important, while the others felt it was of minimal consequence. Part of the response was based on intuition. "My gut feeling is that it makes a difference." The response was also partly based on empirical evidence obtained from the group of four mentees for which each mentor was responsible. One mentor, who was positive that face to face contact makes a difference, pointed out that she had far better contact with the two mentees that she had met face to face. However, another mentor, who also came out in favor of face to face contact, admitted that the one mentee she had met in person dropped from the program. Hence, while the effectiveness of face to face contact has not been resolved, the ability to put a face to the name is perceived to be an important factor in establishing rapport with the group.

In a survey of Reach for the Sky participants undertaken by Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, results were analyzed along face to face versus no contact lines. Some differences between these two groups did emerge. However, it must be appreciated that the sample of those responding to the questionnaire who had had face to face contact was small (n=8). Two of the more interesting findings are reported below.

The first is in response to the question, "How isolated do you feel from your colleagues in other locations?" The results indicated that those who had face to face contact still felt a higher degree of isolation. This contradictory finding can best be explained that only teachers in Montana, for the most part, had face to face contact. Because of the extremely rural nature of this state, many of these teachers worked in very isolated communities - more so that the teachers from the other states involved in the project. The brief two day contact with other teachers involved in the project was not enough to make any major difference in their perception of isolation. Both groups did have equal opportunity to overcome isolation by means of online contact.

The second finding was in response to the question, "How comfortable are you with telecommunications on the Internet?" The results here also appeared to be contradictory. Those who had face to face contact were less comfortable with telecommunications than those who had not. However, there were substantial differences regarding telecommunication skills between the two groups at the outset of the year. Montana participants were mostly new to telecommunications. On the other hand, those in the other states were selected with the view to their becoming Internet trainers for their State. Hence many of them already had a fair amount of telecommunications expertise.

Overall, the impression is that face to face contact is desirable, but may not be necessary. If this finding is accurate, then it would suggest that Internet skills can be learned through distance techniques alone without face to face contact.

Inclusion of principles of adult learning

A crucial element largely missing from the course for the mentees was the flexibility to respond to their circumstances and needs. The way in which the course was structured assumed that everyone had the same type of equipment and the same prior knowledge. The latter in particular was far from being the case.

Mentees ranged in ability from those who had extensive telecommunications experience to those who were relatively new to it. The only instances of responding to these differences was at the initiative of individual mentors. For example, one wrote,

"I think this open endedness would be a good experiment and might help to alleviate some frustration. One of my mentees is having trouble using a newsreader because her computer at home doesn't have enough RAM to do it and the computers at school have had all newsgroups blocked in an attempt to make inappropriate material inaccessible. She took it upon herself to take a different direction and 'run with it' and did a great job. It was relevant to her and it seemed the only option for now."

The questions of relevance was raised specifically a number of times by the mentors. If adult learners perceive what is being offered as relevant to their needs, there is often no holding them back. However most mentors did not report that this kind of enthusiasm existed in their group. The lessons that they were offered were not always in line with their expectations. For example one mentee suggested,

"I think that it would be good for Reach for the Sky to switch to the web as soon as possible. I realize that not every teacher will have access to this, but they can always access it the old way. I have been a little frustrated with having to rely on telnet instead of the web. I can't even do a web search and find the rfts address yet, except for the telnet address. I really think that you guys should be moving forward to make the change over."

This comment was made at a time when the Reach for the Sky lessons were based on text only exploration of the Internet while some of the mentees were already familiar with graphics based exploration tools such as Netscape. The Reach for the Sky lessons have been revised in hypertext format and posted on the Web. Nevertheless, the point of ensuring that adults find relevance in the learning situation is an extremely important one.

The comment above also serves to illustrate that in any group of adult learners there will be a wide range of interests and abilities. The assumption that a course based on a fixed sequence of lessons can be relevant to all learners should be examined. As one mentor comments,

"Is part of our problem the fact that maybe some of the lessons are irrelevant in some eyes? There is no doubt that the experience/knowledge level differs greatly from person to person. It may very well make an interesting experiment to make lessons more open ended and let participants choose which items they 'run with'."

A group of adult learners is also likely to differ significantly in learning style. In particular some will do the work immediately while others will procrastinate. Some like to work in spurts while others prefer to work their way steadily through the course. As one mentee stated,

"I would like it better if you made things a little more self-paced. If the lessons were all there waiting to be done, I could do them when I had the time. You could still give them a timeline and mail them the lessons, but they could have the option of doing it at their own rate too."
The whole question of freedom versus structure became a issue that several mentees touched on, but which was not resolved. Some felt that as much freedom as possible should be provided and that mentees be allowed to pick and choose amongst the offerings and shape a course that would suit their own needs. Others felt that the structure inherent in following a prescribed sequence of lessons with regular assignment dates would be the only way to deal with the procrastinators. One mentor summed up the dilemma as follows,

"Different learning styles (sequential vs. simultaneous) creates problems depending on the format you choose to use. Some learners will like to see all of the choices so that they can pick and choose while others like to learn or proceed in a logical and orderly fashion."
There is probably no single answer or way of dealing with this issue. However what could be done is to raise it at the very beginning of the course and allow the learners themselves to decide how they would like to proceed with the course.

Finally, the whole question of mentor/mentee relationships needs to be reexamined. Adult education can and should be viewed as a collaborative activity. The facilitator need not be the 'expert' with all the answers and feel responsible for providing all the information and structure. Yet the online course was set up with very clear hierarchical relationships. Mentors were clearly responsible for setting the pace and tone of the course, while mentees were expected to turn in assignments by the given deadlines. This is, of course, the classic model for most college courses - and the course is being offered for credit. Yet, as one mentor wondered, this may not be the most effective way of structuring an online course for adult learners.

"Is it possible we initially set up a roadblock to reach our goals by getting into the mentor and mentee situation? Could we have entered this learning situation by not letting any of the mentees know that we were anything other than another mentee? Instead of a mentor, could we have been presented as just a participant of the group who 'has some experience in online' or would this really cause a can of worms? When the need arises to 'remind a mentee to get caught up on their assignment' regardless of how well it is phrased, is there an automatic eroding of the partnership felt in the learning experience? Should we encourage such things as, 'Mentee, your assignment is to LEAD a discussion concerning...' rather than simply asking mentees to participate? Would this added pressure help or hinder?"

These are important questions which were not considered prior to the course. Again there are no simple solutions. However they do not go away if ignored. Anyone considering teaching or facilitating an online course should be encouraged to consider these questions within the context of the course to be taught before embarking on the enterprise.

Creating discussion and issues of critical mass
One of the topics covered in the course on "Online Mentoring" concerns the initiating and leading of an online discussion, which is really part of creating an online community. Reactions and experiences have been mixed. However, a number of important issue have emerged.

The first has been around the need for discussions at all. As one mentor put it, "Discussion for the sake of discussion is annoying." The value of any kind of online discussion is certainly a function, in part, of the nature of the course itself. Some courses, for example those that focus on the acquisition of Internet search skills, may not lend themselves to rich discussions. Others, such as courses on how to use the internet in the classroom, may provide very fertile fields for enriching discussions. Hence, discussions may not be central to every kind of course. However, regardless of the nature of the course, the role of discussion in the process of building an online community remains as an important issue. The crucial point here is not whether to encourage online discussions or not, but to consider their role in the overall delivery of the course. Depending on the purpose of the discussion, it will need to be encouraged in different ways. If it is central to achieving the purpose of the course, then it will need to be structured in a particular way - perhaps along the lines of a college seminar. If, on the other hand, its main function is to bind participants together into an online community, and entirely different kind of structure will be necessary - perhaps more like icebreaking activities at the beginning of a workshop.

A second issue is to recognize that online discussions are a new and strange concept to many who are not familiar with the medium. Online discussions need to be worked at as they do not necessarily occur naturally. The pattern of interaction in four of the mentor/mentee groups has some interesting lessons.

The general pattern is that the response ratio was initially reasonably high, but declined from November 1995 through January 1996. In other words after the initial launching of the course, which took place in October, the interaction began to decline. This decline, together with some pointed queries from a few mentees, prompted the Reach for the Sky staff to do some serious thinking about interaction on online courses. The lessons in January, which were part of the mentor's course, focused on issues relating to adult education and to facilitating an online discussion. As a result, interaction in February increased sharply. Not only was there more activity online, but the response ratio also increased in most cases. This increase was maintained for the remaining lessons of the course. In other words, once a pattern of discussion and response is established, it requires less effort to maintain. It does take specific action to foster an online discussion, but that action does bear fruit.

A third issue here is that of critical mass, which should be thought of in terms of the number of active participants rather than the number of bodies. It was suggested in the previous section that an online discussion requires a 'critical mass'. However, it is not clear what constitutes a critical mass, and whether it is the same for all kinds of courses and discussions. Part of the reasoning behind the concept is that there will always be a high percentage of lurkers. While this may be true in an open conference, is it also true of an online course? If people come together to collaborate there should, in theory, be no lurkers at all. If the online course is to include collaboration on the creation of a report or the analysis of some data, it is possible that a group can be too large to be effective. Hence the issue of the size of a group seems to be very much tied in with the overall purpose and context of the course itself. An instructor of an online course will need to take the various variables and weigh them up when determining the ideal size of the group.

A fourth issue concerns the nature and quality of the interaction. The literature suggests that the online medium may be more suited to the discussion of routine 'low-level' issues than those that are more complex. However, it is difficult to generalize this issue beyond the context of a particular course. The experience to date with the Reach for the Sky course on which this paper is based does provide evidence for this position. However, the nature of the interaction is inevitably both a function of the course itself and of time. As one mentor muses,

"Do 'problem solving discussions' only start occurring once the people have created a bond with the other persons and reached a certain comfort level with the technology they are using? Is it fair to expect many of our mentees to be at that point at this time? When we mentors took the first class and got to lesson 5 were we as a group at any different level than our mentees are as a group now?"

It would appear that community building is a long term process which requires the development of trust and comfort. The development of levels of discussion over time is an interesting question for ongoing research.