Structuring Online Mentoring Programs

While all online programs put new faculty through some sort of training to teach them the techniques of online education, there is still much that comes up during courses that cannot be covered in prior training. This is why a mentoring system is critical to the success of any online program.

A mentoring program matches new faculty with experienced practitioners who serve as role models and trusted counselors. Mentoring must also be continuous, starting from day one and continuing through a number of courses.

In our program, a new faculty member completes a coaching needs assessment before an initial face-to-face mentoring session. The initial meeting can occur via Skype, WebEx, or in person. The idea is to allow the mentee and mentor to make a connection and start building a trusting relationship.

During the meeting, the parties ask questions, get to know each other, and set goals and expectations. The mentor can share their experiences and expectations of the mentor–mentee relationship and vice versa. The mentor also records questions, roles, expectations, and goals in a working document that can be amended as the needs of the mentee direct. This allows for reflection, note taking, and refinement of goals and direction.

Mentees also shadow the mentor in one or more classes to learn how to conduct a class and see what does and does not work. This truly rounds out a well-designed mentorship program and is popular among mentees.

In our program the first five courses are used to transition to the university. Besides answering questions, the mentor will help the mentee learn the university’s learning management system and its policies and procedures as well as course content and best practices for grading and providing feedback. The mentor can also help the mentee troubleshoot potential issues that may arise during course instruction.

Once the faculty member has moved beyond the five-course benchmark, the mentee is no longer considered “new” and transitions away from continuous contact with the mentor to engaging in scheduled professional development activities from the university. These activities include workshops on topics such as how to build an online presence, how to engage students, and how to teach more efficiently. The activities improve skills and boost faculty confidence.

Faculty also attend brown bag lunches hosted by other faculty members on topics such as how to enhance feedback using social tools or little-known Word functions. These sessions generally last about an hour. They are also recorded for those unable to attend. For larger topics such as ADA, accessibility conversion, FERPA, Title IX, classroom management strategies, or management of disruptive students, workshops can be delivered through an online medium such as the school’s intranet or LMS.

These trainings should also include discussion to allow faculty to learn from one another. However, that discussion should not end with the completion of the training. A powerful mentoring device is ongoing peer social networking to help new hires and experienced faculty learn from one another and collaborate on their teaching. We have seen these groups discuss a variety of topics, including classroom management, instructional best practices, faculty expectations, student issues, and policies and procedures.

There are a variety of ways to host these conversations, including social media tools, such as a wiki or Facebook, or a networking platform designed by the school. To keep the conversation going, someone should be appointed as the group leader to seed discussions, a role that can rotate between faculty. Alternating leads allows for diversity in practice and exposes mentees to different styles and perspectives. In addition, having a FAQ list or a list of common topics would be helpful if it were available when a mentor or lead is offline. This continued support encourages mentees to reach out for assistance at any time.

One way to keep the social media site active is to encourage all mentees to check into the site at least once a week. It need not be required, but knowing that the instructor could still access this platform would encourage active involvement. Another option is to create subgroups on specific topics or in specific fields.

A mentoring program allows faculty to build relationships with colleagues and share best practices. Through collaboration and relationships, faculty develop a sense of community and belonging that ultimately leads to increased student satisfaction and better learning.

Heather Coldani is a professor at the University of Phoenix. Lynn Dorey is an instructor at Ashford University. Sherri Jenkins is an instructor at Southern New Hampshire University.

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