ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Can Mentorship Flourish Online?

By Denise Doig / June 2007

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

At one time or another, we all have experienced powerful words of encouragement. Whether taking our first steps, riding a bicycle without training wheels, or finally grasping the concept of fractions, someone patiently stood in our corner urging us along. Even as adults, we still need a little push once in a while. Mentorship has become an avenue for just such support. A mentor is an experienced individual who shares their time and skills to guide those with less experience in a professional or educational setting. With e-learning courses becoming so prevalent, it's not surprising that online mentoring has taken off as well.

If there's one aspect of online learning that makes it unique, it's the creation of a community for all involved—instructors and students. Unlike a traditional classroom, many online courses foster ongoing discussions maintained via email listservs, dedicated chat rooms, or instant messaging, making it easier for mentoring to occur. Learning online requires a different set of tools, and the same is true of mentoring relationships. But is true online mentorship possible? And how does the relationship differ from that of offline mentorship?

The instructors who excel in an e-learning environment are the ones who make the most impact with their students. Donal F. Hartman, the associate program director for the justice administration and public administration programs in the school of graduate studies at Norwich University, is one of those instructors. He has extensive experience teaching offline and online. For him, forming supportive relationships with his students is actually easier to do online. "You write so much to students, you get to show more of yourself and your personality. I share more of what I have done and provide more feedback. The first program I taught I had several students call me frequently and we formed long communications," stated Hartman.

Many online students are more comfortable letting their guard down, which opens up new avenues for communication. Some are happy not to have to speak in front of large groups. Instead of a professor lecturing ad nauseam and students diligently taking notes, the discussions tend to flow freely, enabling an instructor to get a clearer idea of each student's strengths and weaknesses. Emails or instant messages allow the instructor and student to engage in private conversations the student often appreciates later.

At Indiana University's department of Applied Health Science, Dr. Lesa Lorenzen-Huber conducts courses related to gerontology and geriatric education. She describes her class settings as "online support groups." Because she deals with sensitive topics such as death and aging populations, her students are normally more comfortable discussing personal issues in an online environment. She explains, "You aren't face to face. People feel more open and free to share things."

But how easy is it to nurture a fully developed online mentorship? For students, it can be hard to find a capable individual willing to take on the role of a mentor. From the instructor's standpoint, online mentoring requires a greater time commitment—sacrifices atypical to a traditional mentorship will be required. Additional work is required from both students and instructors to make mentorship work.

According to student Chanda Morrow, Dr. Lorenzen-Huber's course emphasized the importance of student-teacher interactions—even though they were a little more than one hour apart at separate campuses, teacher and student met occasionally to work on a presentation Morrow later delivered. "At that point in my career I was new in the research area and I was nervous about being around seasoned researchers. We met for lunch and we talked on the phone. She came and supported me through the presentation."

Notwithstanding physical limitations, an online mentorship can continue to flourish well after the student graduates or finishes the course. A graduate of Norwich's master's in justice administration program, Allison Crowson, is still in contact with her mentor, Dr. Roger Wendt. He teaches "Research Methods and Statistical Applications" online, and his door is always open to students past and present. "A few months ago I had the opportunity to develop an online course (for another university) and my first email was to Roger for guidance. He does not just say that he is willing to help, he backs it up."

The e-learning experience encourages personal responsibility. You have to make sure readings and assignments are completed. If not, you will be left out of discussions, which will only highlight your lack of preparation to your professor and your fellow students. Because online students are forced to engage themselves in the course, they are in turn comfortable engaging with their instructors—setting the stage for students and teachers to develop a mentor relationship.

In "The Elements of Mentoring," coauthors and psychologist W. Brad Johnson and Charles R. Ridley identify 50 elements that exemplify an ideal mentorship. "A mentor may give much needed affirmation, encourage the pursuit of dreams, lend emotional support, or engage in increasingly collegial friendship with the protégé," they explain. Online mentors are no different. The effort and dedication needed in a traditional mentorship intensifies in the e-learning environment. Just like in the traditional classroom, developing an online mentorship experience requires dedication from both sides. In order to improve relationships with instructors, the student has to take the initiative.

In the end, finding a mentor in an online instructor can benefit students personally and professionally. As the Internet becomes more ubiquitous in daily activities, traditional communication barriers will only continue to break down. Who knows? A professor and student may be meeting for coffee in a Second Life café at this very moment to discuss a senior thesis topic.


  • There are no comments at this time.