04/01/2008

Using E-Mail to Mentor Students

By Melissa Venable

Introduction to Online Mentoring

Students in higher education are increasingly using varied means of technology to communicate. The use of e-mail as a communication tool is becoming widespread at all levels in educational settings. This article takes a closer look at what it means to mentor online, presents several advantages and disadvantages of mentoring through e-mail communication, and provides suggestions for those interested in developing an online mentoring program.

Typically, an online mentorship program consists of two groups, working professionals willing to serve as mentors and students interested in learning from someone already working in their career field of interest. An administrative effort is also required to manage the primary activities of the program: recruiting, matching, orientation/training, and follow-up. (Many of the commercial online college careers and recruiting system platforms also include options for basic management of career mentor volunteers.)

Students are matched with mentors based on career interests, gender, ethnicity, or other criteria, based on the goals of the specific mentorship program. Establishing realistic expectations through an orientation or initial training is important for both mentor and mentee. Participants need to know how to get started and what to expect regarding frequency of e-mail and appropriate discussion topics.

Mentors and students exchange e-mail messages addressing areas of common interest. Professionals mentoring students in higher education may take on a number of roles including (Ensher, Heun, and Blanchard 2003):

  • providing relevant information about their workplace and career field,
  • providing support through reassurance and advice,
  • allowing for professional development opportunities, and
  • modeling professional behavior and successful career decision-making.

Follow-up should be scheduled periodically. This effort will ensure that both mentor and student feel the process is beneficial and that both are interested in continuing in the mentoring relationship. Re-matching may be necessary and desirable if an initial match does not meet the expectations of the mentor or mentee.

Advantages

Anytime and Anyplace: Online options for mentoring may appeal to individuals who would not have otherwise considered participating due to their schedules, locations, or travel limitations. The ability to respond to questions through e-mail adds a convenience factor for busy professionals and students (Cravens, 2003; Duff, 2000).

Building Skills: E-mail can be considered “the most commonly used professional writing tool” (Burns, 2006, p. 38). Students mentored through e-mail in a college writing course “began to see their communication as meaningful…[in] a real-world, real-time exercise” (Burns, 2006, p. 40). Developing an understanding of “netiquette” or business communication etiquette expected in e-mail messages is also beneficial and further prepares the student for the world of work (Duff, 2000).

Disadvantages

Misinterpretation: Communication that takes place electronically, without face-to-face interaction, relies solely on text to relay meaning and feeling. Text on its own lacks the ability to deliver intonation and inflection of natural speech, which can lead to misunderstanding the intent of the sender’s message (Ensher et al., 2003).

Prerequisite Skills: All parties involved must have skills in both writing and in the use of technology. Without these skills, frustration may build as the participant either struggles to put his or her thoughts in writing or to use a keyboard and e-mail software. This frustration may lead to participants not getting maximum benefit from the mentorship program or dropping out of the program completely (Ensher et al., 2003).

Confidentiality: E-mail messages are easily forwarded to third parties and sometimes subject to wider level dissemination through computer viruses and other technology related problems. Administrators of online mentoring programs should consider training all participants on privacy and confidentiality issues (Ensher et al., 2003).

Considerations for Practice

Blended Approach: Virtual solutions are not a clear substitute for face-to-face interactions, especially when these interactions involve observation or complex dialogue. A blended approach, combining face-to-face and online interactions between mentor and student, may be ideal for all involved if feasible geographically (Cravens, 2003).

Outcome Expectations: Desired outcomes should be outlined early in the planning process of any learning interaction. In addition, expectations for all participants should be made clear upon joining an online mentoring program. Providing sample tasks or assignments may help participants get started. A list of icebreaker activities, conversation topics and suggested strategies for building online relationships may benefit mentors in particular (Cravens, 2003).

Training and Support: Mentors may not have the same technology skills as the students, or vice versa, depending on the characteristics of the populations being served by a specific mentorship program. Providing the highest level of training and preparation possible is necessary for success. This is also true of support while participants are actively involved in the program. Having a system in place to address participant questions and concerns may encourage participation from those who would not have otherwise joined and positively affect retention (Cravens, 2003).

Conclusion

E-mail is a tool that is widely available and in use by students, career service facilitators, and working professionals. E-mail tools usually require no additional support staff or equipment to adapt to mentoring tasks. Thinking of ways to employ this existing tool in the career development process can benefit students in their career decision making. An online mentorship program may be a way to extend the reach of career service facilitators and working professionals. While there is little research on the effectiveness of online mentorship, those who are involved with these programs are beginning to publish articles about their experiences. This information is helpful and recommended to those who are considering mentorship program development.

References and Resources

Burns, M. (2006). Improving student writing through e-mail mentoring. Learning and Leading with Technology, (33)5, 38-43.

Cravens, J. (2003). Creating a Successful Online Mentoring Program. In Corporation for National and Community Service Effective Practices Collection. Retrieved March 28, 2008, from http://nationalserviceresources.org/epicenter/practices/index.php?ep_action=view&ep_id=913

Duff, C. (2000). Online mentoring. Educational Leadership, (58)2, 49-52.

Ensher, E., Heun, C., & Blanchard, A. (2003). Online mentoring and computer-mediated communication: New directions in research. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 63, 264-288.
 

Melissa Venable, Ph.D., is Project Manager/Instructional Designer for the Distance Course Design & Consulting Group, College of Education, University of Hawaii - Manoa. In addition to online course development, Melissa’s background includes student support positions in higher education career services and academic advising. She has also provided career services in a government/military setting. Melissa is particularly interested in the development of online support services for distance students. Contact information: mvenable@hawaii.edu.


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