Virtual Mentors: Technology Enables Support

The International Telementor Program helps adults connect with students online to help them redefine their learning.

The International Telementor Program helps adults connect with students online to help them redefine their learning.
Virtual Mentors

In a creative writing project, students from Bossier City, Louisiana, shared their online writing samples with other students and mentors.

Credit: Zac Burson

In Homer's Odyssey, Mentor was the teacher in whose care Odysseus left his son, Telemachus, when he set off on his voyages. In its original meaning, a mentor is a teacher. Across the country, many organizations, such as the National Mentoring Partnership and the California Mentor Foundation, are demonstrating the value of mentoring for young people and for adults learning new professions, such as novice teachers. Mentors provide invaluable one-on-one advice, role modeling, training, and encouragement to learners.

"Telementoring" provides a unique virtual space where, for the first time in mentoring history, every student with Internet access can have a mentor. The International Telementor Program (ITP) started in 1995 when David Neils, a software engineer at Hewlett-Packard, created an opportunity for Kruse Elementary School students from Fort Collins, Colorado, to pursue a unique interest in a project-based environment.

After four weeks, it became apparent that the only way the students would receive additional mentoring support from HP employees was if the connection was virtual. The employees simply didn't have time to drive miles to and from the school each week. Neils began to use e-mail to make the connection with HP professionals, who were eager to help. The program has now expanded from that one elementary school to more than 550 schools and home-schooling families throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, and Germany.

"ITP's real focus isn't about technology or even telementoring," says Neils, who has continued as the project's director. "It's about helping students redefine learning where success is measured by how effectively the student is leveraging resources at school and home, in the local community, and globally to pursue unique interests. Grades, GPA, and standardized test results become byproducts rather than the focal point."

Virtual Mentors

For a project on U.S. immigration, Lelia, a student at P. S. 56 in Queens, New York, baked soda bread and studied Jewish immigrants with her online mentor from Thomson Financial.

Credit: Neme Alperstien

Project Management Happens Virtually

In championing the power of the Internet to put business professionals in close touch with students and teachers, ITP practices what it preaches, using its Web site to manage teacher and mentor applications, project plans, matching, daily monitoring, and evaluations for each group of students and mentors. It includes project descriptions and needs for specific mentor backgrounds, examples of current and previous projects, and advice to mentors.

The program's success results from self-selected teachers, students, and mentors combined with clear requirements, lightning-fast support, and a personal connection with a dedicated ITP staff member. "Technology simply allows an efficient and productive connection between student and mentor," says Neils.

A Creative Approach to Creative Writing

For instance, seventh-grade teacher Isaac Burson in Bossier City, Louisiana, designed a semester-long project on creative writing and publishing, whose goal was for students to create, revise, and publish a personal narrative, three poems, and a short story. Mentors with background and interest in creative writing matched themselves with each of Burson's students and, in one of their first assignments, introduced their personal interests and job responsibilities to the students.

On a weekly basis, mentors not only evaluated student ideas and helped shape their written work into final, polished products but also engaged in a two-way exchange, sharing their own written personal narratives for critique by students. Students and mentors worked together to identify online publishing opportunities for the students' work. The e-mail exchanges between students were published in an online "e-group" space, so that all student-mentor pairs could see the work of all other pairs in the class, encouraging further cross-pollination of ideas. The quality of communication continued to improve throughout the project. Students and mentors were inspired by reading the text of the best mentors and students in the group.

Other recent projects carry titles of "Shakespeare's 'The Tempest,'" "Plant Responses to Stress," "Career Search for Limited English Proficient Students," "California History Multimedia Presentation," "Virtual Math Lab Partner," and "Something Is Wrong in Michigan's Lakes and Ponds!"

Working on Internet Time

The initial mentor matches happen on Internet time. Consider the problem of finding mentors for eighty-seven students involved with seventh-grade teacher Martha Cutright's project on "Developing an Educational Action Plan" in Dodge City, Kansas. Her project was designed to help students identify learning goals they were truly passionate about and develop an educational plan to achieve them.

Using ITP's Web site and e-mails to ITP's mentor pool, mentors for each student were found from around the world -- in six hours! Neils explains, "Our mentors know that if they don't respond to that e-mail before lunchtime, when they get back, the mentoring opportunity with a particular project and student will probably be snapped up by another mentor. The average time between a submitted mentor application and a student match is six minutes. The average time spent waiting for a mentor in a traditional program is one year."

Since 1995, more than 21,000 students, teachers, and mentors have participated, including mentors from eight other nations. This past year, about 2,100 students have been mentored, ranging from fifth through twelfth grades, and some college students, as well. Originally supported by Hewlett-Packard, ITP is now a program of the Keystone Center in Colorado, with sponsorship from HP, Agilent, the Merck Institute for Science Education, Thomson Financial, Sun Microsystems, Cinergy, and others. It provides a cost-effective model for bringing new expertise and energy into the classroom, at a cost of about $2.60 per student each week.

A "Phenomenal Connection" in Cyberspace

Maureen Pajak, a teacher at Mayfield Elementary School in Lapeer, Michigan, writes, "What a positive impact this has had in academic as well as social/psychological arenas! When students can't wait to get to school to check the computer for messages from their mentors, compete for time on the keyboard, even giving up recess time to surf the Net to check out Web sites sent by mentors, we've made a phenomenal connection. My pupils know there is at least one other person out there in cyberspace who cares about them and wants to help them achieve success."

Neils sees the purpose of the International Telementor Program as nothing less than connecting students' passions to their studies and to their lives. "There are too many kids whose spark for learning is completely doused by the seventh grade," he says. "When I talk to third and fourth graders about pursuing their dreams, they're excited, animated, and leaning forward. Sixth and seventh graders look puzzled and are sitting up straight. By high school they're sitting back with their arms crossed waiting for the final bell to ring."

"We need systemic changes where the focus of our learning environment is to help students leverage resources effectively with their interests as the focal point," Neils points out firmly. "We all win if we help our students develop the skills and foundation to pursue their dreams successfully. Telementoring is a powerful dream-launching tool."

Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

This article originally published on 4/11/2002

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