E-Mentoring: Mentoring at a Distance

E-Mentoring: Mentoring at a Distance

David Starr-Glass (University of New York in Prague, Czech Republic)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6046-5.ch070


Mentoring involves the creation of a relational bond between a more and a less experienced person in order to advance the learning, socialization, and aspirations of the less experienced partner. Traditionally, mentoring has been conducted through face-to-face meetings, which promote optimal social connectedness, interpersonal attachment, and growing trust and confidence. The limited availability of local mentors, a desire for better mentor-mentee matching, and a concern for flexibility and inclusion have all resulted in attempts to distance the mentoring process. Electronic mentoring (e-mentoring), which uses computer-mediated communication technologies to link the partners, has provided logistical and pragmatic benefits. However, mentoring relies on strong relational bonds and social exchange dynamics, both of which are potentially weakened by social, psychological, and cognitive distance. This chapter explores the dynamics and process of mentoring and how these are altered in e-mentoring. Specifically, it examines transactional distance, distancing the locus of experience, and national culture differences between mentor and mentee. These impacts on e-mentoring are explored and recommendations for practice are presented, as are considerations for the future directions of e-mentoring in educational and organizational programs.
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Mueller (2004) was enthusiastic and emphatic: “Although e-mentoring is in many ways similar to face-to-face mentoring, it offers unique possibilities and challenges related to ICT [information and communications technology]” (p. 57). Her review of e-mentoring initiatives was untaken when e-mentoring was in its infancy. Her particular perspective was on how mentoring could increase gender equality and strengthen role models in science and technology. But what has happened to the “unique possibilities and challenges” in the ten years following her review? Have the similarities of e-mentoring to face-to-face mentoring converged or have they significantly diverged? Have the unique possibilities of e-mentoring been overshadowed by its challenges?

To explore the direction that e-mentoring has taken, and the potential that it has retained, it is first necessary to consider traditional face-to-face mentoring with which it has always, and perhaps inevitably, been compared. Mentoring has a particularly long history and has been used extensively in organizational development, social action programs, and higher education (Pawson, 2004). It involves the formation of relational linkages between individuals who have different experiential histories, so that the more experienced can “provide their expertise to less experienced individuals in order to help the novices advance their careers, enhance their education, and build their networks” (Sherman, Muñoz, & Pankake, 2008, p. 244).

Mentoring belongs to a cluster of relational approaches that have been used to enhance performance, to support socialization, and to deepen learning. There are similarities in these approaches and it is often difficult to characterize them specifically, but there are differences. Mentoring, for example, usually results in longer and deeper relationships than those associated with tutoring and it also focuses on broader, more diffuse skills than those developed in coaching (Grant & Cavanagh, 2004; Jackson, 2005). The dynamics, anticipated outcomes, and participant benefits of mentoring are perhaps closer to those provided by supervised internships in the professions and cognitive apprenticeships in higher education (Dennen, 2004; Dennen & Burner, 2008). In these professional and academic settings, as in mentoring, novices are appreciated as “legitimate peripheral participants” and “the central issue in learning is becoming a practitioner not learning about practice” (Brown & Duguid, 1991, p. 48, emphasis in original).

Because mentoring is a relational approach, a critical issue for its success is the matching of an appropriate mentor with an appropriate mentee. Both participants need to recognize the potential advantages of the proposed mentoring relationship. Mentees have to believe that their prospective mentor possesses the experience, knowledge, and relational skills that they desire. In informal mentoring arrangements, both parties make these assessments independently and come to their own conclusions about the value of the anticipated experience: self-selection is the driving mechanism (Bender, Yaffee, & Sechrest, 2012). In formal mentoring arrangements, where the matching is institutionally brokered, the process is more complex. Those who facilitate the mentoring relationship need to recognize the aspirations of those who will be involved, their partner preference (in terms of culture, ethnicity, and gender), and the anticipated duration of the relationship (Blake-Beard, Bayne, Crosby, & Muller, 2011; Grossman, Chan, Schwartz, & Rhodes, 2012).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Relational Bond: The social, cognitive, and affective connection between mentor and mentee that allows for the development of mutual confidence and trust.

Affordance: A design feature purposefully embedded in an object, technology, or environment in order to clarify its use, to suggest other possible uses, or to make use easier. The extent to which an affordance is utilized depends on the recognition, ability, and inclination of the user.

Distanced Mentoring: In this situation, mentor and mentee are distanced physically, socially, and cognitively. Mentoring functions are usually mediated through technology: email, mobile telecommunication, or similar computer-mediated communication technologies. Distanced mentoring provides a wider selection of mentor-mentee dyads, but it potentially weakens the relational bond traditionally associated with the mentoring process.

Power-Differential: The perceived difference between mentor and mentee in terms of status, authority, and self-efficacy. High power-differentials limit the ways in which mentor and mentee regard one another, resulting in decreased mentee empowerment, creativity, and initiative.

Guiding: Directing the way towards goals that have been agreed upon as being significant though encouragement, advice, and behavior. Guides lead from the side, not the front, and are concerned with the progress and satisfaction of those who are being guided.

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