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Online Learning Doesn’t Have to Be Isolating: Exploring the Mentoring Model

Online Learning Doesn’t Have to Be Isolating: Exploring the Mentoring Model
The mentorship model creates a new layer of accountability for online students and has a significant impact on their academic success.
When I mention that I work for Western Governors University (WGU), an online university, many people tell me, “I tried that once but I just didn’t have the self-discipline.” Their experience with online learning included little beyondlogin information and a final deadline. Luckily, online education is progressing dramatically. By re-thinking the way we use technology, we can find the best of both worlds: all the customization of the digital experience combined with a powerful human touch.

Academic success was traditionally tied to a student’s accountability to their teacher: “The paper is due Tuesday… The test is on Thursday… See you at class next week …” and so on. That is, until online education came along.

Now, many student failures in online learning ventures can be attributed to a lack of accountability and availability of support. The computer won’t give you a lecture if you don’t show up, but failing to apply yourself to your course can easily result in wasted time and money.

Of course, some models attempt to preserve the role of the instructor.These programs are taught much like a face-to-face class, delivered through the magic of the Internet. In these courses, a professor still defines the pace of the class, requires class participation (usually in the form of class chats) and sets deadlines for assignments. Other models, like that of WGU, strive to provide accountability and support while simultaneously empowering the student to set the pace.

WGU provides online degree programs coupled with a mentoring model that ensures “online” doesn’t mean “alone.” Because WGU accepts onlydegree-seeking students, a long-term commitment is made for individual success.

Students are immersed in the mentoring program immediately upon enrollment.  Every WGU student receives a faculty mentor assigned to support the student from the beginning of the program through graduation. The mentor and student communicate by phone at least weekly in the beginning. Faculty mentors filla variety of support roles: cheerleader, accountability coach, encourager, technical support and friend.

Faculty mentors (each of whom have at least a master’s degree) are assigned a student caseload and their full-time role is to provide student support. They may use a variety of communication methods that, depending on student preferences,include calling — but also Skype, email and even snail mail for encouraging notes.

Course mentors are the second type of WGU mentor. These full-time faculty members hold their Ph.D. and serve as content experts. They are also assigned a student caseload. Responsibilities of course mentors include creating a social community among students currently enrolled in their courses and teaching webinars focused specifically on competencies students typically find difficult. Finally, they support students one-on-one based on requests from the student or referral from the student’s faculty mentor.

Neither type of mentor serves as evaluator of student competency.  At WGU, all evaluations are blind, which helps ensure the quality of education in the competency-based model.

The mentoring roles at WGU are critical to student success.

Graduating students consistently cite the relationship with their mentors as a key to their success. “I really looked forward to our weekly calls,” said recent WGU Missouri graduate Martha Jaynes. “If I had questions, my mentor helped me and was able to guide me through the courses. If I had a tough time, she was able to keep me going and encourage me.”

Mentors are trained for, and evaluated on, student success. This is borne out by WGU’s average time-to-degree completion. The average time to complete a bachelor’s degree for WGU’s most recent graduating class was two and a half years. The average time to graduation for graduate programs was a year and 10 months.

WGU is singularly focused on degree attainment for working adults, and active mentoring is central to that mission. The mentor model provides the avenue for learning to happen on the student’s schedule instead of the professor’s.

Not all adults may see themselves as natural learners, but our model, with robust mentor relationships, demonstrates that a college degree is within reach for all kinds of non-traditional students.

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