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An online mentorship programme for the online educator: Patterning for success

Mandi Axmann
Tehnikon Pretoria, South Africa
The introduction of technology into the classroom requires, if anything, more, rather than less, from the educator in terms of innovative learning methods. Educators must be given time, ongoing training and logistical support to achieve successful computer integrated teaching and learning - whether online or face to face. This article will discuss the critical elements for implementing a peer mentorship programme offered to educators online supporting them with the delivery of web based education.


The introduction of technology in the classrooms has broadened the spectrum of education, but has also placed extreme expectations on educators. Smith (1997) states the following "...teachers must be well versed in current research from cognition and learning theory in order to understand how learning occurs and to create their own, eclectic techniques. It falls upon the teacher to constantly recreate the instructional process and offer a variety of choices for approaching information and tasks in order to meet learners' ever changing, individual needs."

Not only do educators need to know about the latest technologies, but they also need to continuously assess their own performance in terms of the latest expectations of learning theories. It is no wonder that educators often feel anxious, overwhelmed and negative with regard to the implementation of new technologies.

Yet the pressure on educational providers is to move beyond the traditional classroom's whole group instruction and instead deliver real time, individualised instruction when and where it is most convenient and needed. For this reason, the introduction of technology into the classroom is going to require, if anything, more, and not less, from the educator in terms of innovative learning methods (Poole & Axmann, 2002).

Although workshops are a very valuable tool to introduce technology, it is only through practical application in the classroom that the educator comes to realise how the learning materials and instructional design may need to be adapted to make the best use of the technology. There should be greatly improved long term support structures put in place to close the gap. For example, peer mentorship programmes to support the educator with the implementation of technology.

Poole (2001) emphasises the fact that educators must be given time, ongoing training and logistical support to achieve successful computer integrated teaching and learning - whether online or face to face. This article will discuss the critical elements for implementing such an online peer mentorship programme for educators.

Online peer mentoring: Patterning for success

There appears to be a discrepancy concerning mentorship programmes, noticeably on the world wide web, and especially within the area of education. Firstly, there is a confusion about a mentor, a coach and a counsellor, and the difference between them, and secondly, the nature of the relationship between the mentor and mentee.

A mentor is classically defined as a "wise and esteemed counsellor" and a mentorship is usually a long term, one to one relationship between a mentor and mentee with the purpose of acquiring a specific skill. (Selene, 2001). For the purpose of this research project, the mentor is a more experienced educator, and the mentee is a novice educator starting out or with certain specific developmental areas with regards to web based education.

Despite the fact that the idea of mentoring has featured as far back as Homer's Odysseus, and that the concept has been tried and tested recently in the corporate environment, it has not sufficiently filtered through to the educational communities.

There are currently several existing online mentorship programmes, but unfortunately, these are often reduced to a project sharing or FAQ (question/answer facility), and the true value of the mentorship-mentee relationship is not yet explored to its full potential, especially in the online environment.

It appears that an in house mentorship programme might be the most effective, as implemented by the Intel Company (Grovener, 2000), but there is also definite value in cross-collaboration and inter-institutional mentorship programmes which is yet to be tried and tested. This specific research programme will also include several international partners who will be mentoring on the system.

Management of the mentorship programme

In a recent ranking of the top 100 US organisations that excel in human capital development, seventy-seven per cent of the top 100 companies have formal mentoring programs. This is not surprising when considering that mentoring significantly contributes to career development, retention and leadership succession (Glavin, 2002).

The Technikon Pretoria, South Africa, started with the introduction of web based education during 1997. Lecturers had the opportunity to submit project proposals to the Department of Telematic Education, which then appointed a development team headed by an instructional designer to assist with the design of these courses.

Soon, however, it became apparent that the demand would exceed the supply, as there were only a limited number of six instructional designers to assist the 1,200 lecturers.

As experience has proved, it is not possible to simply transfer a face to face course as is to the web based environment. New and innovative teaching methods are needed to make the course successful. It is proposed to set up an online peer mentorship programme where more experienced lecturers will assist the novice lecturers with the design and delivery of web based courses.

The developmental areas that were identified by the participants, were namely, technical skills eg. creating html pages, use of communication tools, elements of design, facilitation of online courses, active learning and technology; designing for inclusion, research skills and personal development areas.

The main issues to be addressed in the development programme are the following:

Purpose of the mentorship programme

Who are the people involved, and what will be their incentive?
How much time will be spent on the mentoring?
To which aim (organisational and individual) will the programme benefit?

Identify the support area

What is the specific support area of the mentorship programme?
What are the developmental areas identified by the participants ?

Prepare the participants

What are the roles and responsibilities of the participants (mentors, mentees, system administrator, etc.)?
How will the mentors and mentees be matched?


How will the mentee's progress be measured and by whom?
How will the effectiveness of the mentorship programme be evaluated?

It is often difficult to measure the effectiveness of the communication, and to match the participants. An online peer mentorship programme has the advantage that many of these aspects can be done electronically by means of a web based database.

The Intel company developed a very successful online mentorship programme which was considered as a model on which to base some of the designs for the peer mentorship programme. Some of the design issues would have to be adapted for an educational community.

Mysteries of matching

Profiling strengths and developmental areas

According to Grovener (2002) Intel's version matches people not by job title or by years of service but by specific skills that are in demand. Lory Lanese, Intel's mentor champion in New Mexico says "This is definitely not a special program for special people." Nor is the company's mentoring with a difference approach all about face time and one on one counselling. Instead, Intel's program uses an intranet and email to perform the matchmaking, creating relationships that stretch across state lines and national boundaries.

The first step is to create a matching system that will reduce guesswork. It is important to profile the participants so that they can identify their strengths and developmental areas themselves as well as those identified by the organisation. An online questionnaire that relates to the developmental areas (as mentioned above) has to be designed to facilitate the matching process.

Clarifying the tasks and performance areas

In a classroom, the examples would have been made up or taken from old case studies. In contrast, the group mentoring program uses real life examples taken from a day's work. "I had the perspective of four other people about a problem that I was facing," says Wilson. "It felt like the burden was taken off of me. I got to share my workload." (Grovener, 2002). This type of learning also ties in with constructivist learning, where the focus of assessment is on what learners themselves construct in real world contexts, based on authentic learning tasks (Duffy & Jonassen, 1991).

Metacognition - thinking about thinking - is the ability of learners to plan, monitor, and control their own cognitive processes and performance, and to select learning strategies for themselves. Furthermore, transfer relates to the application of a trained strategy within a different context (Osman & Hannafin, 1992). It is especially with these two areas of mentee growth and development that the mentor plays a very significant role.

As this program is different from a formal learning programme where learning objectives are predetermined, the mentee has greater freedom in setting objectives based on personal and organisational growth areas. For example, a mentee might have sufficient skill in some of the performance areas, like technical skills, but might lack facilitation skills for the online environment. The tasks that the mentor sets in conjunction with the mentee would then be based just on that specific developmental area, and not on all the performance areas identified by the system.

One of the main differences between corporate mentorship programmes and educational mentorship programmes would be that personal developmental areas will have a stronger focus.

It is important that the mentor formally contracts with the mentee, and the performance area as well as the specific tasks for the duration of the mentorship. This can give the relationship purpose and direction, and make for a more successful partnership.

"When can I meet you?" Establishing communication

These are some elements to consider for establishing online communication. Decisions need to be made on a time and place to meet either online, via video conference or face to face. The cross-cultural exchanges and language Issues may also sometimes need to be addressed. This mentorship programme is mostly designed for in house, but some mentors, due to a specific subject field, might not be within face to face contact range.

Virtual communication is something which can both facilitate and frustrate. The myth that needs to be explored is that computer mediated communication sometimes seems to be viewed as "not real". During 1994, Rheingold had the experience of meeting her online friends. Although she felt like she knew some of these people intimately, she was somewhat taken aback that "there wasn't a recognisable face in the house."

However, with the advancement in mobile devices, video conferencing, video streaming, the affordability of web cams, and so forth, this experience need not be the case any more. It is now possible to view someone as clearly as sitting opposite the person in a lounge chair, so that one is able to take into account both verbal and non-verbal communication.

The phrase "irl"- in real life - should be replaced with the phrase "unc" - under normal conditions, because the only difference between virtual communication and face to face communication is the condition under which it takes place. It may be one person's early morning when another is finishing the day, but the reality of the interaction can be just real as in a normal face to face situation.

Whatever happened to the virtual community?

According to Grovener (2002), Wilson states that group mentoring offered a new way to solve problems and learn management skills -- a way that is very different from management training in a classroom. "At a certain point, what you get in a classroom is academic," she says. "With a small group mentoring each other, you get the kind of deep feedback that won't happen in a roomful of people."

Apart from the one to one sessions, there should also be a space provided where the mentors and mentees can report back. This can be done within the system on a public forum or "meeting place". Creating this community of sharing can increase the effectiveness of the mentorship programme.

Within the matrix - How do we evaluate participation?

When it comes to evaluating a system, we can sometimes live within the "matrix" as the popular science fiction movie illustrated, namely be so much a part of the system that it seems difficult to find an objective perspective.

Logging interactions and having threaded discussions is only one solution. The result of the mentorship should still be in measurable outcomes. For example, if a mentee wants to learn more about facilitating the online environment, their should be a project like an article, a research study or a formal evaluation done on the actual facilitation of students in the learning environment. Evaluation needs to be done by all the participants.

The areas that should be evaluated are progress, the interaction and the system. For an effective mentorship programme to take place, it is also often necessary to have a programme supervisor that can monitor the progress of both the mentee and mentor. Continuous evaluation of the system and the interaction on the system is needed for continual improvement and upgrades. Despite the fact that the mentorship system has been with us for a long time, there is still a wide scope for formal study and research, especially in the online environment.


Rheingold (1994) states that: "The technology that makes virtual communities possible has the potential to bring enormous leverage to ordinary citizens at relatively little cost...but the technology will not in itself fulfil that potential; this latent technical power must be used intelligently and deliberately by an informed population."

Similarly to the popular television series, the X-files, stating that "the truth is out there", it can also be said, "the support is out there". Nobody needs to feel alone. We just need to get the systems in place.


Axmann, M. (2001). Effective learning strategies for the online environment: Including the lost learner. In T. Okamoto, R. Hartley, Kinshuk & J. Klus (Eds), Advanced Learning Technology: Issues, Achievements and Challenges. Los Alamitos, CA: IEEE Computer Society.

Bruce, B.C. & Levin, J.A. (1997). Educational technology: Media for inquiry, communication, construction, and expression. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 17(1), 79-102. [verified 26 Aug 2002]

Duffy, T.M. & Jonassen, D.H. (1991). Constructivism: New implications for instructional technology? Educational Technology, 31(5), 7-12.

Glavin, T. (March, 2002). The 2002 top 100. Training, 39(3), 20.

Grovener, M. (2002). Inside Intel's Mentoring Movement. FC, Issue 57, page 116.

Osman, M.E. & Hannafin, M.J. (1992). Metacognition research and theory: Analysis and implications for instructional design. Educational Technology Research & Development, 40(2), 83-99.

Poole, B. & Axmann, M. (2002). Education fact or fiction: Exploring the myths of online learning. TCC Online Conference 2002. [verified 26 Aug 2002]

Poole, Bernard J. (2001). Education for an Information Age: Teaching in the Computerized Classroom, 2nd edition, McGraw-Hill Companies, Publishers, New York, NY (1998). 3rd edition (2001), self-published by Poole, is available free of charge online at [verified 26 Aug 2002]

Rheingold, H. (1994). The Virtual Community: Finding Connection in a Computerized World. Secker & Warburg, London.

Smith, K. (1997). Preparing faculty for instructional technology: From education to development to creative independence. Cause/Effect, 20(3), 36-44, 48. [verified 2 Sep 2002]

Selene, L. (2001). The Mentorship Programme: A Closer Look at What it Is and How it can Help You. Engineering Society of the University of California. [verified 26 Aug 2002]

Author: Mandi Axmann, Tehnikon Pretoria, South Africa. Email:

Please cite as: Axmann, M. (2002). An online mentorship programme for the online educator: Patterning for success. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

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