I’m Seeking Online Mentors More than Online Teachers

I have been involved with online learning since my first online high school pilot in the mid-1990s.  Even in those days, I distinguished between the design of effective online courses and the teaching of those courses.  By separating the two, I soon started to break down the role of online teacher into distinct tasks that can be accomplished by a single person or by a blend of people and technologies.

Eventually, I came to realize that the role of teacher, in the traditional sense, is not especially important in highly effective and engaging online courses.  Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that online teachers are unimportant.  In some ways, I’m suggesting the opposite.  In many content areas and with many learning outcomes, there is great need for modeling and mentoring to take place. It is within modeling and mentoring relationships that people learn to become a practitioner of a given discipline, that they progress toward expertise.  With the exception of a few prodigies, one doesn’t become a great musician without ample modeling and mentoring.  The same is true in many areas of study.  As a result, some of the most powerful lessons learned in traditional classes come from students carefully observing the teacher, sometimes imitating the teacher, as well as getting persistent and customized mentoring from the teacher.  Each of these things are important in the formation and transformation of a learner, but it doesn’t necessarily require a teacher in the traditional sense.

This is where my concern resides with what I see happening in online learning, even in my own online teaching.  Imagine that you are a teacher who believes that your greatest contributions come in the form of presenting new content, facilitating a few class activities, and providing feedback on student papers.  Now put that person in an online course where the content is pre-developed and the activities are pre-determined.  What do you do with your time?  Unfortunately, some decide that their only important tasks are to promptly respond to emails, give a few closing thoughts on threaded discussions, and give good feedback on papers.  I know this from firsthand experience, both as an online teacher and an online student.  This isn’t necessarily bad.  I’ve had wonderful learning experiences in online courses where the teacher did little more than these three things.

With that said, this is where we have an opportunity to fundamentally transform teaching (yes, I intentionally wrote “teaching” instead of “learning” in this instance) in the digital age.  What I am about to suggest is not a claim that this is the only right way to do it.  I see great potential and value in computer-based instruction, self-directed learning environments, peer-to-peer learning, game-based learning environments, highly scalable online learning and a variety of other traditional and emerging perspectives.

However, alongside each of those, I would like to ensure that we also capitalize upon the power and potential of the highly committed mentor in the online learning industry.  What if I enter the course believing that my primary responsibility is to mentor students individually and collectivity with regard to the course outcomes, even the overall program outcomes? How will I spend my time and effort differently?

  • Perhaps I will host real-time office hours.
  • I might create required one-on-one and small group synchronous sessions to workshop ideas.
  • I might experiment with recording audio feedback on work so that I am more likely to offer lengthy narrative feedback that is personalized, includes stories and examples, and gives a more intimate form of asynchronous interaction than comments embedded in a rubric or inserted in a PDF or Word document.
  • I might provide feedback on projects and papers through Skype and phone conferences, suggesting improvements, letting the student work on them, and then having a follow-up meeting.
  • I’m probably going to take the extra work to give students a chance to demonstrate their knowledge orally and not just in writing, given that oral communication is often a key to their performance in the workplace.
  • I’m likely to use lots of ungraded formative feedback and allow the submission of multiple drafts.
  • I’m less likely to grade a test or paper and move on without ensuring that the students can use their performance on the work in order to improve.
  • My feedback will not be solely focused on form or substance, but the student’s progress toward expertise with the area of student…the student’s ability to apply the ideas in real-world contexts (even, or especially if it is a liberal arts course).
  • I will know the students by name and I will strive to be aware of their individual strengths, weaknesses, goals and aspirations.  I will recognize that they often have other life commitments and I will take that into account as I interact with and mentor them.
  • I will simultaneously teach students as individuals and a group.
  • My written and oral communication with them (individually and in online group settings) will be informed by knowledge about them individually.
  • I will carefully monitor student progress and provide frequent encouragements and gentle corrections in an ongoing manner.
  • I will adjust and customize learning experiences, content, and assignments based upon my assessment of what will best help that student progress toward expertise.

In a time where so many people are looking at the promise of massive open online courses, computer-based instruction, automated paper grading, and other efforts at efficiency and scalability, I am looking for a team of people who want to start a parallel revolution in online teaching and learning, one that is driven by the belief that online learning can be high-impact, highly relational, and transformational through the persistent passion and commitment of mentoring in the digital age.  Are you in?