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?