Volume 4, Number 1
Using Telecommunications to Develop Mentoring Relationships
As more and more schools connect to the "information superhighway," a question repeatedly asked by those with a stake in education is "How can students benefit from being on-line?" One benefit is undoubtedly the new option for communicating via the Internet - electronic mail (e-mail). The widespread use of e-mail has created a broad range of educational possibilities for students and educators and has also put a new spin on some more familiar activities. One of these "new spins," telementoring (on-line mentoring via e-mail), has proliferated in the form of collaborative projects and special programs across the country and has the potential to provide resources for both students and educators.
EDC's Center for Children and Technology (CCT)
is presently investigating the benefits of telementoring through the Telementoring
Young Women in Science, Engineering, and Computing project. Telementoring
uses the strengths of telecommunications to provide support for young women
in high school pursuing studies in science, engineering, and computing.
From the outset, Telementoring has developed from the premise that
merely getting people on-line is not enough; to fully utilize the strengths
of on-line communication, attention and care have to be paid to building
and maintaining a sense of community on-line.
What Is Telementoring?
The term telementoring has commonly been used to describe formal and informal on-line exchanges among teachers, students, and/or scientists usually collaborating on specific curriculum-related topics. CCT's Telementoring project differs somewhat in that it builds on the traditional concept of mentoring: a supportive relationship, sustained over a period of time, between a younger person and an older person. Communication between mentor and mentee, however, takes place entirely on-line via electronic mail. In either case, each participant needs access to: a computer, a modem, a telephone line, e-mail software, and a connection to the Internet. These on-line connections can be made between and among individuals and groups at distant points. This allows a project to draw on a larger pool of potential mentors from across the country so that, for example, an engineer in Washington, DC can correspond with a student in Colorado. In addition, access can be established relatively cheaply depending on how participants are connected. Perhaps the most enticing advantage of on-line communication is that it allows both senders and receivers of messages to choose at their convenience when to communicate. As a result, professionals can communicate during non-working hours and students can communicate from their homes or schools.
The Internet offers a range of proven and reliable
options for on-line communication. Messages can be sent privately to an
individual, distributed to a list of individuals (via listservs), or posted
to a "bulletin board" or newsgroup for public viewing. Each of
these options in turn can be configured to provide useful avenues of support
and different arenas for communication between and among participants.
Central to Telementoring, however, is the understanding that in
order to foster effective conversation it is important to complement these
on-line structures with supports that help build on-line communities where
reflective conversation can take place and meaningful relationships can
Telementoring Young Women in Science, Engineering, and Computing
With funding from the National Science Foundation, CCT has been engaged in a three year experimental project to develop Internet-based telementoring environments that link young women in high school with practicing professionals for ongoing guidance and support. In its first year, Telementoring focused on providing support for young women enrolled in a junior-year mechanical engineering course in a New York City public high school. Building on this work, the project is currently collaborating with the Department of Energy's Adventures in Supercomputing (AiS) program to pilot the program nationally in ten AiS school sites. The AiS program has provided high schools serving a range of ethnically and economically diverse students with computers and telecommunications technologies to capture and cultivate the interests of these students, particularly young women, in science, mathematics, and computing. In its third year, Telementoring will be introduced as a component of all AiS school sites, having a potential impact on a large number of female students in 70 schools.
Since 1988, CCT has carried out a number of investigations into the relationship between gender and technology that shed light on the needs of young women who are working in or considering careers in engineering or computing (Bennett, 1993; Brunner et al, 1990; Brunner, 1991, 1992; Hawkins et al, 1990; Hawkins, 1991; Honey et al, 1991, Honey, 1993). These studies revealed the many tensions and conflicts that young women experience when contemplating or pursuing technical and scientific courses and careers. CCT's most recent research with young women in pre-engineering classes at the high school level revealed the prominence of their feelings of isolation in these classes. There was no one to validate the difficulties they were experiencing and there were no female mentors to share similar experiences and help them craft strategies for dealing with these conflicts.
In light of this research, Telementoring was created to provide supportive environments in which young women in high school can safely discuss their school experiences and feelings with practicing women professionals who have "made it" in science and technical fields. In turn, these professionals can be constructive in addressing many of the their apprehensions, tensions, and conflicts and help sustain their interest in science and technology by providing: expert knowledge, useful strategies for overcoming fears and obstacles, and sound career advice.
Mentoring programs specifically designed for young women are currently available in a wide variety of forms. While many of these programs have succeeded in raising career awareness, few have provided widespread opportunities for young women to receive sustained support for dealing with the more conflict-laden, psycho-social, and emotional issues that arise when they pursue courses in traditionally male-dominated fields. Because young women do not have easy access to professionals, telecommunications is a particularly appropriate medium in which to provide this kind of support.
Support can take many forms. The project has developed and tested a number of on-line communication formats intended to support different "clusters" of participants - students, Telementors, teachers, and parents. These include:
Alone and in concert, these formats offer a variety
of contexts for building supportive on-line communities among young women
in high school technical courses, their teachers, parents, and mentors.
One-on-One Mentoring (Private Discussions)
The central goal of Telementoring is to give young women access to advice and guidance from practicing professionals on an ongoing and individual basis. One-on-one mentoring relationships, thus, are at the heart of Telementoring. Individual students are matched with individual mentors who have varying amounts of experience in technical and/or scientific fields, including practicing professionals as well as college students in fields ranging from neural computational science to geology and bio-engineering. Information obtained from mentor applications and student surveys is used to match mentors and students. Before private discussions begin, mentors and students participate in separate on-line sessions to prepare for establishing these relationships. Mentors and students, for example, are asked to craft introductory biographies and to set goals for their relationships.
Students generally communicate regularly with their mentors - about once or twice a week. Students and mentors thus far have discussed a wide range of topics, including: self-confidence, career options, college decisions, project work and content-specific questions, personal relationships, and the work of scientists, engineers, and technologists.
All participating students and mentors are enrolled
in mailing lists allowing for group discussions. Mentors are recruited
to facilitate dialogue around topics identified as important to students
and based on mentor articulated interests and talents. During each forum,
the facilitator prepares, hosts, and moderates a "talk" on the
designated topic. Each talk is a mini-seminar that all students can participate
in and, when possible, is presented in the form of a scenario. Past topics
have included: What is College Really Like: An Insider's Look, A Day
in the Life of a Visiting Scientist, Affirmative Action and You, and
Blending Science and the Arts. Discussion Forums enable young women
to gain a broader perspective on the difficulties encountered and the different
strategies used by women in technical work environments.
In addition, private mailing lists, called "lounges," are set up for each cluster of participants involved with the project: i.e. students, mentors, and project liaisons. The lounges provide informal and formal opportunities to learn from colleagues and to share different strategies for approaching difficult issues. Lounges have been critical vehicles for building a sense of community among participants. Each participant in a lounge is considered a Peer Mentor and capable of using her strengths and talents to raise issues and bring people together. Peer Mentors help to sustain the Lounges as places for continuously sharing ideas as peers confront new situations and develop effective strategies for success. Discussions in the lounges often revolve around such issues as balancing family and work, self image and self-confidence, networking and professional contacts, career opportunities and options, and strategies for dealing with classroom issues.
The Mentor Lounge is designed as a place where mentors can both prepare for establishing one-on-one mentoring relationships and gain peer advice for addressing problems or issues that arise in the context of their relationships with students. Former project mentors use their experience as a resource to facilitate discussions.
The Student Lounge, facilitated by former student participants, is a mailing list that students can use exclusively for their own purposes throughout the course of the project. This lounge is commonly used to discuss homework projects, personal relationships, and classroom issues. This space assists students in forming stronger bonds with each other and in developing a support system within their classes.
In the Teacher Lounge, teachers who are
serving as Project Liaisons are able to discuss their programs with other
Project Liaisons and CCT project staff, raise issues and concerns, and
exchange strategies for implementing and sustaining their programs. Project
Liaisons are individuals identified by project schools who are responsible
for recruiting participating students, their parents, and other family
members. The Project Liaison is likely to be a teacher directly involved
with student participants. She helps to shape and form the program at participating
schools and is the mentors' and students' primary contact throughout the
course of the project.
Building and Maintaining On-Line Community
It is important to point out what Telementoring
is not. It is not something that is "done" to someone else. Students
are not simply passive recipients of "helpful information" from
informed individuals. Essential to Telementoring is discussion,
be it one-on-one or in a large group. As a result much of the work is geared
toward nurturing discussions that are not unilateral and mentoring environments
where students can safely discuss their school experiences. Telementoring
is also not content-oriented. It is dynamic: discussions are born out
of every-day real experiences. With these concepts in mind, on-line community
is a cornerstone of the project. It is important that community is built
and maintained so that all participants are assured that their input and
concerns are not only valid, but also valued.
Development of On-line Preparation and Training Experiences
Mentor Prep Exchange is a good example of how Telementoring
works to build supportive structures beyond just getting people on-line.
Nearly all women who have completed mentor applications have indicated
that they are interested in participating in some type of on-line training
experience that would prepare them for establishing relationships with
young women in high school. To accommodate this need, all mentors are added
to a private mailing list -- the Mentor Lounge -- to participate in a series
of on-line discussions over the course of two to four weeks before "meeting"
students on-line. To ensure that training will be relevant and help women
feel more prepared to deal with some of the conflicts that students might
raise, a series of "scenarios" have been developed that capture
some of the issues that young women have spoken about in interviews with
project staff. The scenarios span a range of topics from conflicts about
math (see sidebar) to issues of self-esteem. Mentors are asked to respond
to the scenarios as if they are responding to students. As a final activity,
mentors write and share their own biographies and paint a vivid picture
of a typical day in their lives. The "bio" and "descriptive
shadow" of their work-plan are used as an introduction to their mentees.
Many mentors report that this on-line training has been a valuable experience.
Throughout the project, mentors continue to support
each other on-line in the Mentor Lounge. By sharing personal experiences,
mentors create a diverse pool of strategies and approaches to mentoring.
Students also engage in a series of similar activities in their own "lounge"
to prepare for meeting their mentors on-line.
it is too early to gauge the overall effects of Telementoring on
participants, early work suggests that Telementoring offers a broad
range of benefits for both students and mentors. During the first year
of the program, students reported: increased confidence in their abilities;
decreased feelings of isolation; broadened awareness of career options;
a sense of voice and empowerment in the classroom (students began to speak
up about issues that arose in class); and unification (students became
a support community for each other). There was also an unexpected result
of the pilot year. Young women in the program actively recruited three
times the average number of young women that typically enroll in their
pre-engineering program -- which was a record high for the school.
There is also a noticeable impact on mentors,
since they too become connected to a wider community of support throughout
the project. Benefits reported by mentors during the first year include:
increased connection to young people; a broadening of their own career
awareness; and increased knowledge of strategies for supporting workplace
mentoring programs. They also reported a sense of fulfillment in being
able to provide guidance (something that was absent in some of their own
lives) and in participating in a program that makes community outreach
"Lessons Learned": Design Implications
Some insights into the design of effective environments have also come to light. Like all good learning environments, Telementoring is a work in progress. These "lessons learned" reflect formative research and feedback from participants and inform revisions to Telementoring environments and materials. Some of the "lessons learned" over the first two years of the project include:
Overall, these are encouraging indications that
Telementoring can address the needs of students working to succeed
in science and technical courses. As the project is implemented nationally,
we will continue to gauge both the challenges and the successes.
The Media Workshop Research project is interested in connecting with teachers who are either currently doing media literacy work or are interested in bringing media education into their classrooms. This project explores the issues and challenges teachers face while trying to integrate media, from newspapers to the Internet, into their curriculums with a critical eye. Among other research efforts, we are soliciting teacher fantasies around technology and media in schools. Interested? Please contact Meghan McDermott, or call her at 212-807-4225.
The National Design Experiments Consortium (NDEC) is a working group of researchers who are engaged in collaborative projects with schools to design and investigate technology-enhanced learning environments. The overall goals of the Consortium are to bring researchers together to facilitate information sharing across projects, and to synthesize experiences and evidence from different consortium projects. To facilitate communication within the NDEC community and beyond, we have recently established a web site. The site contains general information about the Consortium, information about consortium projects, publications, and a set of resources on the use of video in classroom-based research. Please take a look!
Notes from the Center for Children and Technology is distributed free of charge.
Newsletter Editor: Jebeze Alexander
Contributors to this Issue: Dorothy Bennett, Naomi Hupert, Terri Meade, Kallen Tsikalas
Center Director: Jan Hawkins
Newsletter Web Design: Jesse Gilbert