Electronic Portfolio: Academic Writings


The Role of the Mentor in Distance Education
April 2001

This analysis was written for OMDE 624, Student Services. The author takes a particularly interest in mentoring, having developed and implemented mentoring programs both at AOL and at NASFAA. The author's final "capstone" project also addresses the contribution that a mentoring program would make in helping the MDE program learning community develop.

Introduction and Summary

The role of the mentor in providing student support services to distance learners is examined in view of the common understanding of the definition of mentoring, the differences between traditional tutoring and mentoring, and the ways in which a mentor can provide student support. Based on experiences with mentoring programs, particularly in the field of education, and on the unique support needs of adult learners, it is argued that mentoring provides a more appropriate and involving source of student support for today’s distance learners engaged in technology-assisted distance education.


Definitions and Characteristics of Mentors

The role of the mentor originated in Homer’s Odyssey, where Mentor, a friend of King Odysseus and Queen Penelope was entrusted with educating their son, Telemachus. (Daloz, 1999; Valeau, 1999). Traditionally, mentors passed along knowledge to their inexperienced protégés. In the new age, the old mentor model, where experts who were certain about their craft passed on its principles to eager novices, no longer applies.

In more recent years, mentors have come to fulfill a number of different types of roles Today, mentors may play a role in education or in business. They may be teachers, experts, or peers. Regardless of the venue in which mentoring occurs, all mentors share certain characteristics.

1. Mentors tend to manifest accomplishment of some of the goals to which their protégés aspire. Thus, they are especially important at the beginning of their mentees’ careers or at “crucial turning points” in their lives and can offer encouragement and advice about accomplishing those or similar goals (Daloz, 1999, pp. 20-21). Often mentors are thought of as older. However, as Daloz (1999) points out, “if we simply think of a mentor as someone we feel drawn to who seems to know things about life that we need to learn, it may help us to recognize that mentors can appear throughout our lives, whenever we encounter a new transition” (p. 204).

2. Mentors provide newcomers to the profession or to a course of study with support and guidance. They can serve as instructional colleagues, who help with problem solving. Mentors may serve as role models and problem-solvers. They observe, give feedback, and serve as “bridges” to others who may have valuable resources to share with protégés (Robbins, 1999).

3. Mentors are often not in a position of authority over the mentee. Therefore, they can serve as non-judgmental professional colleagues, who can familiarize the mentee with the prevailing culture, policies, procedures, and practices because their support and facilitation is entirely separate from the evaluation process (Robbins, 1999).

4. Mentors may be viewed as “learning leaders.” Even in a business organization, where learning is seemingly not the main focus of the enterprise, the mentor fulfills an important leadership role by collaborating, innovating, producing and integrating (Fritts, 1998).

5. Mentors provide both support and challenge to their mentees. As supporters, they listen, coax out stories, provide structure (especially in the early stages of the mentoring relationship), express positive expectations, serve as an advocate, share their own experiences, tell their own stories, and encourage the mentee to also tell stories. Their challenge functions include setting tasks, engaging in discussion, constructing hypotheses, setting standards, provide vision, model, maintain tradition, suggest new language, and provide a mirror (Daloz, 1999).

6. Mentors support and encourage cooperative learning. By encouraging, helping, and sharing with others, mentors help to establish a framework for personal development and growth, whether it is in an educational or business environment.

Mentors and Tutors Compared and Contrasted

The literature of distance education tends to identify the tutor as the key support person for a distance learner. Moore & Kearsley (1996) view the tutor in distance education as someone who interacts one-on-one with the distant student. As the student works with the content in a study guide or with recorded materials, the tutor communicates one-on-one with the student, using surface mail as the technology for communications. This view is consistent with the historical development of distance education, which was based on the mass production of instructional materials sent through the mail. The primary rationale for the reliance on tutors was to provide students with one-on-one instruction. Thus, the tutor is primarily a teacher in traditional distance education. In Keegan’s topic index (1996), the reader searching for the term “tutor” in the topic index is directed to the “teacher” entries. To a large degree, teaching and learning remained focused on closed system of instruction, in the form of the textbook (the printed materials) and the teacher (the tutor), even though the instruction was no longer delivered in a closed classroom.

In recent years, the Internet and Web-based instruction have radically changed the delivery mechanisms for distance education (Relan & Gillani, 1997). Distance learners now have a wide choice of content, time, resources, feedback, and media for receiving instruction. They are no longer limited to a single teacher-student relationship. Learning has become more learner-centered, in that he learner can access a wide range of sources of content, many original, from various experts, novices and students, without this content being delivered by the instructor or the textbook study materials.

In a similar manner, mentoring can be viewed as evolving to a more learner-centered model. Zachary (2000) points out that the objective of the mentoring relationship has evolved and shifted to an approach that requires the mentor to facilitate the learning relationship rather than transfer knowledge to the learner. Unlike the traditional tutoring arrangement, the mentoring relationship can be viewed as a learning partnership, where the learner/mentee plays a much more active role. The mentor’s role has been replaced from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side” (Zachary, 2000, p. 3). The same could be said for the tutor, although the traditional tutor in distance education has been focused almost entirely on the teaching function. As we have seen, the mentor serves potentially a more wide-ranging role, not necessarily focused entirely on the content of instruction.

Mentoring as an Effective Student Support Service

Using a mentoring approach to provide student support services in distance education responds to some key characteristics of distance education.

1. Distance education provides access to adult learners, who exhibit different learning characteristics. In providing opportunities for students to learn outside the traditional classrooms at a time and a place of their choosing, distance education has opened the doors to increasing numbers of adult learners. A mentoring approach tends to be particular applicable to adult learners, who often experience considerable anxiety when they return to the classroom, whether it be a corporate classroom, a college or university classroom, or an Internet classroom (Daloz, 1999).

2. Mentors can provide support to learners in navigating an educational environment that may be entirely foreign. Especially in the Internet distance education environment, mentors can help new learners learn the ropes of dealing with unfamiliar technology, communicating electronically, acquiring the instructional resources they need without visiting the local bookstore, and conducting research without the benefit of a well-stocked library close by. Just as swimmers help drowners in traditional mentoring relationships, in a technology-mediated distance education environment, active participants in the role of mentors can help “lurkers” (also known as witness learners) (Salmon, 2000).

3. Mentoring supports cooperative learning. For successful implementation, cooperative learning requires positive interdependence as its most central concept. This term comprises mutual goals, joint rewards, shared material, and shared information (Sweet, 1993.)

4. Mentoring supports collaboration. Sweet (1993) points out that while collaboration is possible in both mediated and face-to-face settings, “its successful conduct requires that significant changes be made to current instructional design and implementation practices. The roles and responsibilities of both student and academic counselor must reflect these changes” (p. 40).

5. Mentoring supports the formation of a learning community – a community of practice. The essential characteristics of such a community are mutual engagement of its participants, shared repertoire, shared standards, and joint enterprise (Rogers, 2000). The community is composed of individuals who practice the same set of practices.

6. Mentoring has proven to be a particularly relevant technique for women returning to the workplace (Daloz, 1999). Given the substantial numbers of female distance learners, it would be expected that a mentoring relationship would prove to be equally positive in a distance learning environment.

7. Mentoring supports reliance on story telling as a way for learners, teachers, and mentors to share their stories. Such storytelling was a key aspect of the mentoring program developed by Empire State College to support adult learners. It is an essential mechanism for individuals, families, and cultures to share their common histories and bonds. By supporting storytelling, a mentoring support system provides all distance learners with a very strong mechanism for bonding.

Particularly in the field of teaching, mentorship has proven to be a very useful support mechanism. Hargreaves & Fullian (2000) analyzes the teaching profession and its use of mentoring in terms of “four ages of professionalism”:

1. The pre-professional age where one learned teaching through a practical apprenticeship and train-and-error. There was no real mentoring.

2. The age of the autonomous professional where teaching is characterized by its individualism. Teachers teach in isolation, separated from colleagues. There is little innovation. Mentoring programs begin to be introduced, but the “surrounding culture of individualism” meant that helping relationships in a school were confined to new mentoring relationships. In other words, only neophytes or incompetents needed mentors.

3. The age of the collegial professional where teachers’ responses to challenges were ad hoc and uncoordinated. At the same time, “pressure to create collaborative cultures was growing due to the knowledge explosion…and efforts to build cultures of collaboration were increasing.”

4. The professional age, which involves more access to the networks of professional learning, a diverse clientele, and new approaches to mentoring to help build a strong professional culture of teaching.

A number of examples of experiences with mentoring programs are available to support the positive effects of establishing a mentoring program, particularly a peer mentoring program.

• The Virtual School used mentoring as a way to promote collaboration between remote students via a high-speed network, using software tools to support collaboration, making mentoring possible (Isenhour et al, (2000).

• The Hewlett Packard E-Mail Mentoring program provides a good example of an employment-related mentoring program that relied on telecommunications and Internet technology for its communications. Its initial focus was on helping students excel in math and science courses, but it ended up being a way for students to share their passion for technology with adults already working in technology fields (Adams, 1999).

• The TRICOM project on teacher collaboration supported initial training using electronic communications (Barton & Selinger (2000).

• At Marygrove College, students enrolled in an online graduate degree program benefited from a mentoring program provided by faculty members.

• The Electronic Emissary Project offered Internet-based “telementoring” through the University of Texas at Austin and funded by the Texas Center for Education Technology and the JC Penney Corporation. The project offers a “matching service” that helps teachers and students with access to e-mail locate other Internet account holders who are experts in various disciplines. An important lesson learned from this project is that the “exchanges perceived to be most successful are those in which the participants know each other as multidimensional people as well as intellectual compadres. The facilitators can model this very human kind of self-disclosure in their messages, and this can encourage similar actions among students, teachers, and SMEs” (Harris, 1996).

• A co-mentoring project offered by the Partnership Support Group (PSG) was designed to be different from traditional mentoring arrangements in that peers mentored each other. “Co-mentoring offers a viable alternative to traditional mentoring wherein status and power shape relationships and contexts as well as research, development, outcomes, and reward. As a proactive force in personal and social change, co-mentoring encourages professional learning among partners that enables organizational cultures to be reworked” (Diamond & Mullen, 1997).

• A Crystal City, Missouri high school mentoring project, where teenagers mentored other teens – truly their peers. This project appears to have worked because students in high school have a great deal of influence on one another, and peer relationships are very important to them. Formal mentoring sessions included bonding activities, discussions about survival in the classroom, homework and tutoring sessions, sessions on study skills, and discussions about attendance. Although a high school project, this experience with mentoring seems to apply to adult learning on a conceptual level (Stader & Ganepain, 2000).


Distance education no longer relies solely on the delivery of instruction by means of pre-produced written materials and one-on-one contact with an assigned tutor. While this sort of arrangement may still be common outside Europe and North America, where Internet access is somewhat less ubiquitous, the advent of the Net, and particularly the World Wide Web, has widened the field of possible ways to delivery instruction and support services to distance learners. As more adults return to education and as more employers rely on distance education methods to upgrade their employees’ skills, the advantages of implementing a well-developed, carefully-conceived peer mentoring program become more obvious. Collaborative learning activities have become more common now that the Web and Web-enabled software are more widely available to support such cooperative learning activities. At the same time, the roles of teachers, learners, and experts are changing. Whereas a tutor would have been appropriate in the early days of distance education (or in the universities of the Middle Ages), the teacher no longer stands as the “expert” and students as his or her willing listeners, absorbing teaching in a closed classroom. Distance learners, and particularly today’s adult learners, need help navigating the new technologies, gaining access to learning resources (including libraries), and learning to cope and cooperate in a technology-mediated environment. In a learner-centered environment, the learner is not necessarily well-prepared to design and guide his or her own learning. Having a mentor – a peer who has gone there before – would seem to be an essential student support mechanism for our current and future environment.


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