I have been a mentor at Thomas Edison State University for more than 25 years for several reasons. First and foremost, I enjoy the adult, self-motivated students who populate my online courses. They are a pleasure to work with and their diverse backgrounds lead to fascinating assignments and discussion postings.
Connecting with students in an online environment is about creating a positive impact on the student and on the student’s classmates. Mentoring courses on the sociology of the family, as I do, my students have been in all stages of dating, marriage, divorce, remarriage, etc., and their experiences enrich the classes that I mentor. I have learned a lot from my students and, hopefully, they have learned a lot of useful material from me, too!
The Differences Between Face-to-Face and Online Students
One could argue that a student loses something by not having face-to-face (f2f) contact with their mentor. However, I can honestly say that I know my online students better than I know my f2f students, and they might often say the same thing in reverse.
When I was president of the New Jersey Virtual Community College Consortium, I gave frequent lectures around the country about the virtues of online learning. One of the differences that I would focus on is the oxymoron, “anonymous intimacy.” Most of us have had the experience of sitting on an airplane next to an absolute stranger who pours out their life history to us, because they know they will never see us again and their story is safe. Similarly, online students open up to their mentors via email and in online discussions in ways that they are not likely to do in a traditional face-to-face classroom.
Furthermore, students do the same in online discussions. Since they do not know their classmates on a face-to-face basis, they are not as inhibited as they might be in a classroom. They feel as though they can express their point of view in the online discussions and politely disagree with their classmates on controversial topics. The online discussions give them the chance to bond and expand their viewpoints based on feedback from their classmates and mentor.
In addition, online students learn skills that f2f classes don’t usually teach. They learn to collaborate with their classmates in online discussions and projects. They develop lifelong learning skills that prepare them for their careers in ways that they had not suspected. They learn computer skills and online searching skills, including the ability to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate sources; that will benefit them in many careers.
The main role of an online mentor is to assist students in the process of learning a body of knowledge. I love the saying that online mentors are the “guide on the side,” rather than the “sage on the stage.” It is not the responsibility to spoon feed students that knowledge. Having mature, self-motivated students helps a mentor to successfully be that “guide on the side.” I still need to know the same body of material, but I can now use it in a different way than I did when I was expected to be the “sage.” I can guide students to useful information. I can challenge them to move beyond simple answers and partial solutions.
Making the Online Learning Experience a Personal One
When I first started mentoring online in 1998, I knew that there were some advantages in an online course space, but I didn’t think about the ability for my personality to travel across cyberspace.
However, in numerous student evaluations over the last 14 years, I have had students comment on my sense of humor, my dedication and hard work, my caring personality and my availability. In turn, I have learned many things about my online student’s personalities – their dedication, their work ethic, their family lives, their goals, their joys and their concerns. We often talk in academia about civil behavior and some professors and administrators complain about the lack of civility among students. Strangely (maybe), online students tend to be much more civil than f2f students. Online students are more likely to send their regards, wish you a nice day, hope that you are feeling better, suggest that you be careful, etc., than f2f students usually are.
I have lots of wonderful stories about students that I could share from my many years of online mentoring experiences, but my favorite is a female student I mentored about 15 years ago.
The student worked as a midwife in Eastern Pennsylvania. Specifically, she helped Amish and Mennonite women deliver their children. On several occasions she would go out in the evening to deliver a child and get home in the middle of the night or very early morning. Her adrenalin was flowing and she would sit down and write me an email and submit an assignment. Her emails were filled with the beauty of the delivery and the children who were on the bed with mom or helping my student with the preparations. She would tell about the joy and assistance provided by the father and describe the new baby that she helped to bring into the world. She would share this beautiful experience and finish off her email by noting that she just had to write her assignment since she was wide-awake and so excited.
There are lots of students who I have had in my classes who needed the flexible schedule that distance learning has offered throughout its existence. These students have all had an opportunity to complete degrees and excel and share their excitement as part of our online communities.
Written by Dr. Mark Kassop