Providing students with mentors can be an effective way for students to learn directly from experts in real-world situations. It’s a technique used widely in face-to-face courses, and it can work in online courses as well. Al Widman, professor of management and business administration at Berkeley College, has matched students with practitioner mentors in his online undergraduate non-profit management course.
Selecting and preparing mentors
Widman, a former CFO for a nonprofit organization, drew on friends and colleagues in the nonprofit sector to serve as mentors. “While I was going through the process of lining up my friends to do this, they in turn were talking to contacts of theirs who I had never met but who expressed a willingness and interest to get involved,” Widman says.
Most of these mentors are willing to participate semester after semester, perhaps due in part to the culture of the nonprofit sector, but also because Widman does not ask too much of these mentors and is clear about their role.
“I have to be very clear in terms of the expectations and constraints that I’m going to put on the contact between the student and them,” Widman says.
The top concern is the amount of time involved. Widman explains to them that they are not surrogate professors and will not be involved in grading students’ work. The course is 12 weeks long, and mentoring begins in week six or seven.
Students make the first contact with the mentors via email, and Widman instructs mentors to respond to each email with 48 hours. Students are asked to limit their contact with their mentors to two emails per week. Mentors can answer questions and offer advice, but they are not to rewrite students’ assignments.
Contacting a mentor for advice can be intimidating for some students. Widman helps by providing background information and advice on how to work with mentors. “I lay out the mentors’ background so they understand the resources available to them and give them an idea of the types of things they might want to ask. I have a discussion board where students post the types of questions they might want to ask. I tell them they have free range to steal someone else’s question and ask it of their mentor,” Widman says.
One semester, Widman assigned students in pairs to each mentor with the idea that working as a team would create a good team-learning experience. This arrangement made sense in theory, but Widman found that the compressed time period and the logistics of students having to coordinate their efforts limited the amount of interaction they had with the mentor.
Students do have opportunities to interact with each other about the mentor experience on the discussion board, however. Although they rarely volunteer information about their interactions with mentors, students are usually willing to offer advice to other students who ask for it. “It’s not unusual for a comment to come through that says, ‘I asked my mentor a similar question, and this is the answer I got. ….’ Every once in a while students will ask me to reconcile opinions from different mentors. The nonprofit sector is not monolithic, so sometimes I reconcile those answers. But more often than not, students are interested in seeing similarities even though one might be dealing with an economic development agency while another is dealing with a nonprofit health clinic,” Widman says.
Student reaction to the mentoring experience has been positive. “There’s a lot of surprise. This is something that is very new to them. They recognize the uniqueness of this, and by that second or third email they see the power of it. They have someone who is not the professor that they could get an answer on a content issue from. I think that’s pretty unusual,” Widman says.
The college has added sections of the course because of the increased student demand based on word of mouth. In the most recent course evaluation, 80 percent of students rated the course as exceptionally beneficial.
Excerpted from Kelly, R. “Providing Practitioner Mentors for Online Learners.” Online Classroom (June 2010): 3,5. Print.