Monday, August 04, 2014


Online Mentoring

Lately I’m enamored of an idea, and I’m wondering if someone has already done it and either shown how to do it, or how not to.

Does anyone have experience with a peer mentoring system for online students?

I’m thinking here of something very different from academic advising or achievement coaching.  Academic advising involves selecting a course of study, and choosing courses to fulfill requirements.  At its best, it involves discussions of long-term career or academic goals, frequently including transfer.  (At a cc, ‘transfer’ is not a dirty word.  We celebrate high-achieving students who transfer after graduating to finish the four-year degree.)  Achievement coaching is about study tips, productive nagging, and targeted encouragement.  Both are pretty well established.

I’m thinking here of some sort of formal system in which more advanced students help newbies navigate the realities of online study: how to negotiate systems, ways around common glitches, that sort of thing.  

I know that student grapevines exist, but they’re often more gossipy than useful.  On campus, though, it’s relatively easy for students to talk to each other, and it’s at least conceptually possible that some of that discussion could involve tips for getting what they want from various college systems.  But online, it’s not clear to me how that would happen.

Usually, online students interact with each other only in the context of a given class.  That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it lacks the equivalent of a cafeteria or hangout space.  

But wait, I hear you thinking, what about the gazillion social networks out there?

Yes, they’re there, but they’re open to all.  In other words, they lack the specificity of a campus.  

Yesterday’s piece about the “invisible curriculum” -- words I coincidentally used in a post on the exact same day -- drove this home.  Students on campus can give each other pointers about where to go for a given issue, who to talk to, and the like.  The reliability of the information may sometimes be suspect, but it can offer a lifeline to a student who just feels lost.  I don’t know that we have an online equivalent of that, yet.

Until recently, it probably didn’t matter much.  Most students in online classes also took onsite classes, and just used the online ones to streamline their schedules, or to make them fit around work and family obligations.  For those students, dropping by a campus office wasn’t necessarily a major burden, since they’re on campus two or three days a week anyway.  But the area of most rapid growth is the purely online student, for whom the safety net of dropping by physical offices may not be available or practical.

I haven’t seen anyone try this yet, but it seems like too obvious an idea to have not happened.  Surely someone has learned some useful lessons around this.  (I don’t want to be like the economists in the old joke that ends “if it were a real $20 bill, someone would have picked it up by now.”)  

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Have you seen this done well?  Alternately, have you seen it done badly in ways that offer useful lessons?

SamChevre says:
I have not seen this in a college context.

However, my profession (actuary) has an informal bulletin board ( which serves this function for many of us. We take self-study exams (3000 or so hours of studying) to get our professional credentials, so there's a significant commonality with online students.

Things that seem to make it work well:
1) Limits on entry; generally, you have to be an actuary or student to want to be involved, and you have to sign up for the board.
2) Moderation: this has deteriorated over the years, but an unmoderated forum is worse than useless. The best moderation guide I know of is this one:

We have a strong cohort system, and the per-cohort Facebook groups (e.g. Software Engineering Class of 201x) offer the most meaningful interaction. The general Software Engineering at Waterloo group only gets spam from startup founders looking for coders. So specificity is important, perhaps by manufacturing some sort of cohort in your case.

(The students create their own Facebook groups in our case.)
As a student (and later an instructor) in an on-line certificate program, I would not have wanted to get mentoring from volunteers who might not know much more than I did (nor would I have wanted my students to have to depend on such). The on-line format was wonderful in that it gave access to the course material to people who could not even remotely have attended on-campus classes, but that very distance meant that we were lacking in the opportunity to "see" and judge the expertise of any fellow students until very late in the course. And even then, I would not have trusted fellow students to give good advice on how to use the courseware, or any other technical subject.

What worked (for student questions/confusion) in this context was the tech support person for the entire sequence of courses. He responded to in-the-moment questions and longer-range questions. He responded within 24 hours, always.

Of course, students could also post questions about how to use the system or how to interpret the syllabus on-line to each other too -- and since they were on line 24/7, they could get answers quicker from each other. But for the gold standard, they went to the tech person.
The Blackboard system has a Community feature that can technically support this kind of distant interaction. We are going to implement a peer-mentor program for nontraditional students and use the Community system as a means for them to interact. The peer mentors will be selected, trained, and paid for their interactions. We are still working out the details and would love to hear from anyone else who has experience to share.
My undergrad alma mater had a program that, in my mind, can be put online quite easily.

It was a formal, 1-semester, undergrad partnership where senior undergrads were partnered with first years to help them navigate the university labyrinth and provide moral support for the first-semester transition to university. You just signed up and the program partnered you with someone on the week classes started. You were required to talk at least once a week - recommended minimum time was 30 minutes - for at least one semester.

I could see an online program like this with an online sign-up; you can weed out spam by requiring student ID's to sign up, or integrate it into your software as a non-credit "course" or something similar. Once registered, you would be partnered with another student and you can chat online/e-mail, all using your institution's IT system.

The advantage of this system is that it is 1-on-1 which gets over the anonymity problem that plague large-group approaches. This way, it's small, and in-house, and completely online.
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