E-Mentoring: Someone (Virtually) by Your Side

Having a mentor is part of an optimal educational experience, something that technology-assisted learners deserve to the extent possible.
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I've been thinking a lot about e-mentoring lately.
Probably the most common objection to the DIY U vision is the supposed lack of personal connection when people are learning online. This is an important concern. No matter where you are on your educational journey, having a mentor and advisor is key. And it's exactly the students ill-served by the current educational system -- because they are poor, they live in rural areas, are the first in their families to go to college, have learning disabilities or negative interactions with formal education -- who are most in need of a stable person in their life who can provide encouragement, a sense of educational direction, or just a role model.

Yet it's a mistake to assume this can't be done online, and by doing so, we're cutting ourselves off from an optimal educational future. Here's a couple of examples that I've come across lately.

Last Wednesday I moderated a panel on "Democratizing Education: The Key to Global Economic Growth" at the Clinton Global Initiative. The star of the show was Vivian Onano, a sparkling young graduate of a Microsoft-sponsored computer lab program for girls in Kenya. They spend 9 months learning everything from Excel to business accounting and even a computer program that teaches them how to do AIDS education. At night the girls return to the lab and study. Vivian told me they hide under the desks when the lights are turned off so that they can stay in the lab until late at night, using the Internet for everything from research to Facebook! She went online to apply for colleges and was accepted on scholarship to Carthage College in Wisconsin, where she started this month in premed.

While on her first visit to New York City for CGI, Vivian wasn't among strangers. She was staying with a woman in Rye, New York who had been her mentor for the past few years. Linda Lockhart of Global Give Back Circle, which runs the Microsoft-sponsored labs, says that each of her 270 girls is paired one on one with a mentor in the States. It's a very serious relationship, at least a six year commitment from high school through post secondary school and getting launched, and yet they don't normally meet face to face. The program was originally designed to work through letters, but when the girls get to the lab they are able to stay in much closer touch through email, Facebook, Skype chats and phone calls.

Later this weekend, I was talking about this idea with a friend of mine who is a PhD student at NYU. He said that since his undergraduate years at MIT he's been involved with a program called Middle East Education Through Technology that teaches Israeli and Palestinian teens computer skills and has them work on projects together. While the students all work together with their American counselor/instructors during the summer sessions, the rest of the time they stay in touch via the Internet.

Finally, Seth Weinberger of Innovations for Learning, which I wrote about in Fast Company's April issue, runs a program that allows Chicago professionals to tutor public school kids over the Internet and phone. Kids as young as first grade talk to their tutors while the two of them read together or look at math problems on a shared desktop. Seth showed me a short video of the kids meeting their mentors for the first time at the end of the school year -- hugs all around.

Why is this important? Having a mentor is part of an optimal educational experience, something that technology-assisted learners deserve to the extent possible. Also, the pool of potential mentors is larger if you make it something people can do over the Internet and phone -- like the busy professionals in Chicago, who can help schoolkids from their desks instead of trekking back and forth to the schools in the middle of the afternoon. I'm thinking about signing up as a Global Give Back Circle mentor myself.