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Online Mentoring Programs

By Gary A. Berg / September 2009

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One-to-one relationships, facilitated through the Internet, is changing how personal and professional mentoring occurs. Despite the pervasiveness of large lecture courses found in colleges, the core of learning at the graduate level and beyond formal education is one-to-one dialogue between a mentor and a learner. The Internet and trends in e-learning have finally made mentoring practical and cost effective.

Problems With the Old System
Traditional face-to-face mentoring brought with it several problems. First, it ruled out thousands of potential volunteers who did not feel they had the flexibility in their schedules to make the kind of commitment that mentoring or tutoring requires.

Second, the traditional model made it difficult for mentoring programs to thrive in the most underserved and isolated communities, the same communities that would benefit the most from it.

Third, under the old system, adult-child mentor relationships are not only logistically challenging, but also a potential safety risk for the child.

Another advantage of going online is that it allows programs to concentrate on particular groups in a way that isn't particularly easy to do in face-to-face programs. For example, in some fields of study or vocations where gender or racial inequality exists, it's easier online than in person to target and pair up mentees with mentors in a way that may help diversify the profession.

Online Mentoring Organizations's online mentoring programs reach young people who do not have access to quality educational resources, using a learning environment to connect them to mentors who offer practical and individualized advice, information and expertise.

imentor screenshot

iMentor is a New York City-based youth mentoring organization that uses guided email communication to enhance in-person youth mentoring, and continues to leverage lessons learned to help other groups start up their own mentoring programs. The organization effectively uses technology to add flexibility and structure in its mentoring program, engaging professionals as mentors and mentees from some of the most economically and geographically isolated communities.

The Electronic Emissary is a web-based service and resource center that helps teachers and students with Internet connections locate mentors who are experts in various disciplines, and then plan and engage in curriculum-based learning. In this way, the interaction that occurs among teachers and students face-to-face in the classroom is supplemented and extended by email, online forums, chats, and audio and video conferencing among participating teachers, students, and volunteer mentors.

MentorNet is dedicated to diversifying the engineering and scientific workforce by providing e-mentoring to women and underrepresented minorities in colleges and universities. Arguing that engineering and science are the engines of progress and economic development it grew out of a pilot online mentoring program at the Dartmouth School of Engineering and now partners with more than 100 universities.

GEM-SET is one branch of pre-college mentoring provided by the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program at the University of Illinois at Chicago that links volunteer women mentors in the fields of science, engineering, and technology to student members from across the U.S. More than 1,300 young girls ages 13 to 18 years old and 200 mentors in graduate school and beyond have participated via online mentoring and face-to-face programming where available.

HorseMouth screenshot

Horsesmouth, a relatively new online mentoring organization, was formed as a place where personal contributions create public value. It is purposeful social networking, a so-called "wisdomocracy" for adults which consists of an online social network for informal online mentoring on a wide range of topics within the three broad categories of life, work and learning. The general philosophy of Horsesmouth is stated as that if "you've lived, you've learned."

Although they are embedded within traditional university programs and blend teaching, tutoring and mentoring, the following three universities are interesting to note because of their online mentoring components.

UCLA Extension Writers' Program is a good example of how online mentoring and tutoring cross over. As America's largest continuing education provider of online creative writing and screenwriting courses and services, it offers individualized feedback and mentoring to thousands of aspiring and practicing writers worldwide.

During the initial accreditation process for California State University, San Bernardino's new doctorate in educational leadership, the accrediting body presented the institution with a serious concern about a lack of a history of a doctoral culture. Leveraging a track record of creating online communities of practice, one was developed to provide the scaffolding similar to that which occurs in full-time doctoral programs where faculty and students regularly interact in both formal and informal settings.

Similarly, the doctoral program at University of Phoenix provides a process for working adults to earn a doctoral degree.

The online mentoring of adults for specific professions is another growing area of interest. The Australian Catholic University, a public university funded by the Australian Government, added a new dimension to the teaching practicum to facilitate online peer mentoring among pre-service teachers by providing them with opportunities to reflect on teaching prior to entering full-time employment. While on their practicum, students used social software integrated into the university's course management system, to share and reflect on their experiences, identify critical incidents, and invite comment on their responses and reactions from peers.

Notes on the New Mentoring Models
In general, face-to-face mentoring often translate well to the online environment. Many of the same basic principles utilized during in-person meetings apply online, too.

Additionally, online mentoring is often augmented by some sort of curricular structure. For example, one of the tenets of's platform is that students create their own paths through the curriculum, choosing among tracks that interest them. While mentees work through the curricula, mentors provide support and guidance. Another example is iMentor. iMentor supports student interaction with mentors without direct teacher involvement.

One-to-one mentoring services, like and iMentor, involve individual students interacting with one mentor each, often discussing topics that are not explored as deeply in school.

Other service providers, such as the Electronic Emissary, are designed to assist students' curriculum-based learning during the school day, typically requiring direct teacher involvement. Personalized communication with mentors whose work addresses school curriculum topics directly can help to make school-based learning more relevant for students.

Establishing a community of practice online is seen both in pure mentoring programs and those mixed with teaching based in educational programs. At the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, the online environment gives developing creative writers and screenwriters a range of opportunities to deepen their participation in the writing communities.

Gem-Set's Wise program

At the Australian Catholic University, where pre-service teachers use information and communication technologies to facilitate the sharing of ideas, online mentoring within a community of practice framework serves to unify the practicum. By engaging with one another and sharing expertise, they become active members of a community and at the same time critically reflect on their own skills.

At California State University, San Bernardino, the online community of practice provides opportunities for ongoing formal and informal interaction among full-time doctoral students and faculty.

Additionally, non-traditional mentoring roles can be easily formed in the online space. For instance, GEM-SET connects young girls in middle school and high school with "near-peer" mentors in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math(STEM) majors, graduate students pursuing master and doctoral degrees, as well as professional women with established careers. Pedagogically, shared critiques and comments on individual work benefit all.

At the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, another distinct advantage that the technology affords is that one-on-one critiques of an individual writer's work automatically benefit the whole class because they are posted for all to read. In the Sino-UK eLearning Programme, an online journal-sharing scheme involves maintaining and sharing an online resource.

Organizational Models
Managing size is a key consideration for online mentoring organizations. At GEM-SET for example, questions concerning quality versus quantity are said to be at the forefront of every decision because they involve decisions about access. Consequently, effective technology is needed both for communication and the management of mentoring relationships, especially for large-scale operations.

MentorNet screenshot

The core of MentorNet's program is a proprietary mentor-prot�g� algorithm that is described as a "relationship engine." One clear guide that emerges is an emphasis on the careful recruitment, training, and evaluation of mentors, a process that is organized and handled electronically.

The development of institutional partnership agreements for online mentoring is an important part of the organizational model for many of the organizations presented here. As part of its drive to be at the forefront of designing virtual learning environments and online learning experiences, partnered with UNICEF to manage and implement the Connecting Classrooms program, bringing together students from different countries and cultural backgrounds in a collaborative online space to explore social issues focused on marginalized young people in their communities.

iMentor Interactive is a comprehensive mentoring solution that enables member organizations throughout the U.S. to launch and manage effectively high-quality mentoring programs and serve a greater number of volunteers and youth program participants.

MentorNet has numerous college partners including most of the Ivy League schools, MIT, Stanford, California Institute of Technology, as well as some corporations. MentorNet and other organizations like it describe a business model that puts them between two markets that desire to connect for mutual advantage.

One of the most repeated points heard from these online organizations is the strong assertion of the importance of prot�g� safety. While there are basic standards for protecting users of online mentoring and tutoring services, the cases here show various specific techniques. For instance, never has its mentors and mentees meet face-to-face—all mentoring exchanges are limited to the online platform. As is true with many of the organizations, communications are filtered and monitored to ensure the safety of both mentee and mentor. Because deals with children, it also monitors the site to protect against potential bullying. A rigorous content filter flags potentially inappropriate content and messages sent across the system.

The impact of mentoring in general is challenging to assess. According to GEM-SET, a causal relationship between online mentoring and students' educational and career futures has not been established because it is nearly impossible to identify and isolate the factors that are most important in career decisions. Yet according to a study, three years after participating in the MentorNet program, 91 percent of prot�g�s are pursuing or have successfully entered their chosen STEM field.

Additionally, findings show that students in's mentoring program demonstrate a statistically significant increase in decision-making abilities and self-perception of their abilities to cope in school and life.

Mentoring online provides new tools for assessment because of the ability to record and document interactions. Some organizations have an extensive portfolio of online interactions that can be analyzed later by researchers.

Cross-cultural concerns must be addressed in the international mentoring. Nevertheless, many of the online mentoring organizations mention the attraction and advantage of removing cultural and other forms of bias that comes with face-to-face meetings. Online mentoring by its nature tends to hinder potential individual bias and provide a positive sense of anonymity. For instance, online writing mentoring at UCLA Extension offers the virtue of relative distance when presenting highly personal creative writing. The anonymity of online mentoring keeps the spotlight on the content and interaction rather than the in-person distractions of age, race, nationality or gender.


  • Tue, 23 Mar 2010
    Post by Alexander (Sandy) McDonald

    Thank you for a comprehensive introduction to the topic of online and virtual mentoring. As you mentioned, an element of structure is an important part of a successful program. Online mentorship programs, as with face to face programs, will benefit from a core structure, whether curricular or attending to other needs, that shapes the interactions between the mentor and the protegee.

    From the perspective of the participants, providing a framework to guide interactions and offer direction for the future, is an effective way to begin the relationship. Until relationships are formed, creating a comfort level between the participants, it may be intimidating for protegees to ask questions or for mentors to make suggestions. Having a framework to guide initial mentor and protegee behaviors can provide direction and can help facilitate the relationship building process.

    Cheers! AC MCDONALD

  • Thu, 22 Oct 2009
    Post by Mark Tayar

    I hadn't heard of online mentoring before so thanks for sharing this interesting insight. In trying to set up a traditional mentoring programme I found the biggest problem was getting mentors to find the time to meet their mentees. In online mentoring the asynchronous nature of email may overcome this issue. Even so, I still think a synchronous online meeting via chat or Skype may be more satisfying for both parties.

    These new mentoring models not only challenge the old system of face-to-face learning, they potentially challenge current eLearning principles.

  • Tue, 08 Apr 2008
    Post by Marcia Mayper

    As an educator my feeling is let my students be exposed to diverse medias, yes, even comics and games! A good laugh is healthy. Playing is so vital to all, especially to young children. I am addicted to Lauchball Let''s keep these innovative online interactions going, the issue of finding them, knowing how to integrate them productively with other materials and solely for enjoyment.

  • Wed, 26 Mar 2008
    Post by Lynne Spichiger

    Check out the Name that Culture Game in the Raid on Deerfield website.

  • Tue, 25 Mar 2008
    Post by Nina Simon

    Mike, I''ve been promoting games as learning experiences with museums for a couple of years. Even when the content is not explicitly educational, the format often involves immersion, no instructional text, and emotional engagement with the content. There are some wonderful explicitly serious games out there, like World Without Oil, which invited players real-time to work (and live) through an oil shock. The immersion and the realism, coupled with the "what if" question, took often preachy content (resource consumption) and made it personal and compelling. I''ve written about this on the Museum 2.0 blog ( choose "Games" on the right column for much more on gaming and learning.

  • Thu, 13 Mar 2008
    Post by Mike Gualtieri

    There are some amazing computer and console games that have a historical context such as Assassin''s Creed and Age of Empires. Assassin''s Creed is an 3d game for x-box that is set during the Crusades. Age of Empires spans multiple era''s and provides pre-built historical scenarios. There are dozens of examples. Since kids are spending so many hours in front of these games I am surprised that much of what I read about elearning is focused on "digital media" but that somehow excludes games. I have heard that there is a field called "serious games". I don''t know what that is, but some of the entertainment games are serious in their own right. I''d like to hear from elearning experts about what researching is being conducted on the effective of learning from the "entertainment" games. If EA, Sony and Microsoft have figured out how to get kids and adults addicted to games, what can elearning learn from them?