With the Likeness and Voice of Mentor: Mentoring Presence in Online Distance Learning

With the Likeness and Voice of Mentor: Mentoring Presence in Online Distance Learning

David Starr-Glass (University of New York in Prague, Czech Republic)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0968-4.ch019
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Online distance learning environments are increasingly designed and facilitated using a Community of Inquiry framework, which promotes participant presence, encourages social interaction and exchange, and develops a sense of community. Communities of inquiry recognize the participation of real people, acknowledge their individuality, and engage them in a communal endeavor. However, sometimes communities of inquiry do not adequately meet the specific learning expectations and individual goals of participants. This chapter explores the author's quest to enhance a community of inquiry to make it more responsive to international students, skeptical about online distance learning and acutely focused on writing their undergraduate dissertations. The solution was to embed a one-on-one mentoring facility within the learning space thereby allowing students to receive personal guidance and support. The chapter considers Communities of Inquiry, social presence, and what is considered an innovative use of e-mentoring to support individuals within a broader learning community.
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Distance learning has served many valuable social, educational, and learning purposes since it emerged in the early 19th century (Schulte, 2011; Williams, Nicholas, & Gunter, 2005). In its evolution, distance learning has continuously utilized the latest technologies available – print, radio, television, and computers – and has adopted a number of different pedagogic approaches (Anderson & Dron, 2011; Taylor, 1995, 2001). Along this evolutionary path, perhaps more particularly in the last two decades, some consider that the technologies utilized have tended to overshadow the teaching and learning practices employed (Evans & Pauling, 2010; Leer & Ivanov, 2013). Few would dispute Salmon’s (2000) observation about online distance learning: “Millions of words have been written about the technology and its potential, but not much about what the teachers and learners actually do online” (p. 17). Since she wrote, many more millions of words have been added to the discourse and most of these have centered on technological innovation, potentials, and affordances (Daniel, 2012; Peters, 2010; Voss, 2013).

Online distance learning (ODL) environments do not exist to display technological possibilities; they come into being to facilitate human learning. Learning environments operate as systems, in which learners and technologies should interact synergistically. The technological dimension per se should neither dominate nor dictate learning activities; neither should it marginalize the learner nor the learning process. Many online distance learners appreciate the possibilities of technological connectivity; nevertheless, they struggle with making personal connections with each another, with their instructors, or with learning experience itself (Starr-Glass, 2013). A central role of the online instructor is to humanize the learning space, recognizing it as a productive place populated by real people, each with particular learning concerns, but united in the joint enterprise of co-creating new knowledge. In doing so, the instructor is faced with multiple challenges: illuminating the learning space with personal presence; projecting a sense of authentic personality; promoting socially-responsive learning and attending to a multitude of individual learning concerns (Cochrane, Antonczak, & Guinibert, 2014; Lander, 2014; Lehman & Conceição, 2010; Northcote, 2010).

In ODL environments, many instructor-facilitators attempt to develop communities of learning that support participants, reinforce their efforts, and provide a social framework for developing and elaborating knowledge (Drouin & Vartanian, 2010; Rovai, 2001; Rovai & Wighting, 2005). If an online learning community can be created, then individual participants – who are spatially distanced, perhaps even spatially isolated – might come to appreciate a sense of inclusion within a wider and supportive group. Students can share a joint academic purpose and be motivated to attain common learning outcomes. The author suggests, in this chapter, that community building online is not simply a social means to an educational end; rather, it is an attempt to engage learners more fully as people and as socially responsive human beings. In trying to create online communities of learning, many instructor-facilitators have found the Community of Inquiry framework particularly valuable (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001; Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2014; Rourke & Kanuka, 2009; Saritas, 2008).

This chapter advances a slightly different, and perhaps more contentious, proposition: Unique and individual learning trajectories can be, and should be, addressed within the community of learning, not subsumed by the commonality that the community provides. It is argued that recognition of the individual within his or her community setting contributes significantly to that learner’s sense of meaning and identity (Lee & Smagorinsky, 2000).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Guiding: This is a process of directing individuals towards goals that have been agreed upon as significant. It involves providing encouragement, giving advice, and demonstrating through behavior. In productive guiding, the guide tends to lead from the side (not the front) and is concerned with the progress and satisfaction of those who are being guided.

Distanced Mentoring: In distanced mentoring, which includes but is not restricted to e-mentoring, both the mentor and mentee are distanced physically, socially, and cognitively. Mentoring functions are usually mediated through technology: email, mobile telecommunication, or Skype. Distanced mentoring provides the possibility of matching a wider range of optimally suited and qualified mentor-mentee dyads that might be geographically distanced. However, the resulting social and cognitive distance involved can potentially weakens the relational bond between mentor and mentee.

Knowledge Creation: The construction of new insight by the learner from existing elements. Knowledge creation is active and centered on the learner, although it often occurs through a process of social exchange and cognitive cooperation rather than uniquely in the mind of the individual learner.

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

Instructor-Facilitator: This is the role of most of those who manage distance learning environments. The term purposefully co-joins the two critical aspects of their role instructing and presenting a specific body of subject matter and facilitating the social, cognitive, and relational dynamics of the learning environment. The instructor-facilitator role extends, among other things, to moderating online conferences.

Mentoring: The provision of relational linkages between individuals, who have different experiential histories, so that the more experienced can provide expertise to the less experienced in order to assist, support, and guide the novice’s career, education, or the building richer social and professional networks.

Learning Space: The dedicated place (real or virtual), purposefully designed by the instructor, in which learners are invited to meet and engage in knowledge creation. Through its design and affordances, the instructor suggests and encourages learners to create their own unique learning environment for optimal learning.

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