This article will focus on the characteristics of a technology- supported virtual community where university students can seek the guidance of professionals in the students’ field of study via a mediated mentoring program. Advances in information and communication technologies, particularly the Internet and interactive multimedia technologies, are creating new networking opportunities for students. Mentors and mentees can develop valuable relationships facilitated by multimedia technologies. This article will explore the characteristics of both community and mentoring within the framework of a technology-supported virtual community.
Connecting students and mentors can be difficult, particularly with regard to time and place. A student’s schedule may not be compatible with a mentor’s calendar, making a face-to-face meeting difficult. There could be a considerable geographic distance between a mentee and a mentor, making an in-person visit time-consuming and expensive. A mentoring program that utilizes interactive multimedia technologies, however, can overcome the challenges of time and distance to create and sustain a vibrant virtual learning community.
The whole idea of virtual community revolves around interacting and communicating in a mediated fashion. Because the Internet and other multimedia technologies are global, real-time, interactive, and readily accessible to many at a high bandwidth (Beale, 2000), virtual communities abound. Virtual communities offer people new ways to communicate and interact using multimedia technologies as individual members of virtual communities extend their selves via the computer network (Foster, 1997). As Song observes, “what we find in virtual communities is an understanding of community as communication taken to new extremes” (2002, p. 41).
As with traditional communities, virtual communities can be defined in terms of groups, relationships, common interests, and shared knowledge. The obvious difference is the fact that interaction among members of virtual communities is technology-mediated. Instead of talking face-to-face over the backyard fence, people are communicating and sharing information using interactive multimedia technologies. Their reason for coming together is mutual interest, not a common physical space. The setting is a network of digital information (Kollock, 1999) where, as Negroponte (1995) sees it, the world consists of bits, not atoms. Song states that, “Technically speaking, all virtual communities are essentially electronic and digital communication systems” (2002, p. 41).
“Virtual communities are not physical communities, but exist in the minds of those who inhabit them” (Roberts, Smith, & Pollock, 2002, p. 225). But virtual communities do not necessarily exist solely in cyberspace. While some communities are entirely virtual, some virtual community members do make the effort to meet in a physical space. Geography-bound interactions, however, are not integral to the functioning of a virtual community. In fact, as Ward claims, “the spirit of community or communion that is found among networks of people is far more important than having a sense of place” (1999, p. 98).
This spirit of community can extend beyond the general population and into the realm of education. Higher education can take advantage of the possibilities afforded by interacting using multimedia technologies and provide the opportunity to create new types of communal bonds and redefine the definition of community (Papastephanou, 2005). One approach is to create a virtual mentoring program.