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telementoring: a view from
the facilitator's screen

 
By Laura Amill
Telementoring Facilitator/Researcher
The Electronic Emissary Project
University of Texas at Austin

 
In Virginia, four high school physics students prepare for their advanced placement tests by completing problems sent to them by a retired physics professor in Florida. Across the ocean in Italy, junior high students at a U. S. military base learn about the stock market from a financial expert in Florida. A few states away in northern Texas, a high school science class for at-risk students communicates with a cloud physicist in Mexico City, while in southern Texas a fifth-grade class of bilingual students exchanges e-mail with an expert in Japanese studies in Massachusetts. These are but a handful of examples of successful interchanges between K-12 students and subject matter experts participating in online mentoring projects. They meet each other online as part of a university-sponsored project that is helping to bridge time and distance between volunteer mentors and students around the world.

For almost four years, I have been privileged to work as an online facilitator for the Electronic Emissary Project at the University of Texas at Austin. The Emissary project is an electronic mentoring, (a. k. a. telementoring) service under the direction of Dr. Judi Harris, Associate Professor of Curriculum & Instruction. The project supports a database of about 150 volunteer subject matter experts (SME's) from many different fields. Participating K-12 teachers use the Emissary program to seek virtual support for their classes in content areas with which they are less familiar. Via e-mail, the mentors and teachers develop curriculum enrichment projects that engage students in areas that are beyond the realm of the textbook. Once the projects are underway, the students communicate directly through e-mail with their mentors, either in groups (often as whole classes) or individually, as their learning needs and preferences dictate.

My roles as telementoring facilitator

After each teacher has selected an expert from the database who seems to have the content expertise and prior experience neededfor the online project being planned, I contact the expert and extend an invitation to mentor via e-mail. The SME's, for the most part, happily offer their services. In some cases experts have waited as long as two or three years for a "match" since the time they volunteered using the Emissary's Web site. When SME's finally have an opportunity to mentor a student or a class they are usually very eager to assist. A few of them have mentioned that the Emissary project provides an ideal way to volunteer time within their hectic schedules. Because they are unable to volunteer physically in local schools as often as they would like to do so, e-mail is the perfect medium for them to communicate their knowledge with students. I have been fortunate to work online with physicists, meteorologists, history professors, journalists, physicians, English professors, computer specialists, and many other types of content experts.

My function as an online facilitator is to ensure the ease of communication among mentors and the classrooms that they are assisting. I advise teachers concerning the initial logistics for on-line interactions, i. e. scheduling, hardware and software necessities, and discussion protocols for the students. My teaching background allows me to provide assistance in project planning when needed. In addition, I offer encouragement throughout all phases of the project to help prevent thecommunication from languishing. Most importantly, perhaps, is that I read every piece of e-mail exchanged among teacher, students and SME in each electronic team. In a sense, I provide an individualized, interpersonally sensitized "firewall" that guarantees the message content is relevant to and safe for all concerned.

In my work as a telementoring project facilitator, I have also received requests from both teachers and SME's to help set up Web pages that will allow project participants to post their work at interim stages, including photographs of the students and mentors. This multimedia supplement to text-based communications serves not only as a way to exchange visual material for content-based learning together, but also seems to help teams to develop closer working relationships. Emissary researchers have discovered that the exchange of personal information among students and SME's helps the students to see their mentors as real people, rather than an extension of the computer's functions.

Unfortunately, I have also facilitated many telementoring teams that have floundered at times in their communications with each other. While participating teachers recognize the advantages of electronic mail, they sometimes fail to understand the unique constraints of this asynchronous medium, and often seem to lack a commitment to seeing the job through. Scheduling computer time for students, providing access to e-mail accounts, and structuring projects that can help students benefit from the interactively-shared expertise of the subject matter expert can present complications for the classroom teacher. The Electronic Emissary offers suggestions and advice to bridge these difficulties.

What characterizes successful telementoring?

Recently, a physics teacher of advanced placement students was having problems with her school district regarding the set-up of 5 e-mail accounts, requested so that her students could communicate with their mentor from their homes. The school district had approved the accounts but would not be able to create them for several weeks. The Emissary was able to accommodate the team's needs and thus, the students were immediately able to begin working with their mentor.

This team's mentor has proven to be a dedicated volunteer. He provides problem sets for each of the five students and almost immediately replies individually to each of their responses. He has also counseled them on preparation for college and the study of various disciplines in the sciences. Beyond that which pertains directly to physics and education, the exchanges have encouraged the students to exhibit humane attitudes and practices. Recently, for example, when the expert's wife was having medical problems, the students expressed their concern and wishes for her speedy recovery.

During my service, a few Emissary teams have stood out to me as exceptional. What distinguishes them is their longevity. Normally teams stay together for one school semester (approximately 4 months), during which time they plan and complete their mutually-constructed project. Once the initial semester of teamwork concludes and participants' evaluative feedback is returned to the Emissary, only a very few teams continue to communicate.

Currently, I am minimally facilitating three teams that have been together two or more years. These teams are devoted to their projects. For two of these teams, the subject matter experts and teachers have been the driving forces that keep the conversations flowing. The SME's have become such an integral, though virtual, part of the class that the teachers automatically write them into curriculum plans and advise entering students of the projects in which they will participate. Both of these SME's have voluntarily arranged to visit their respective classrooms in order to meet the students, even though these trips often took them hundreds of miles away from home. They told me that the face-to-face visits were important to them because they were able to place faces with the student names and therefore personalize their correspondenceeven more.

Telementoring relationships: Longevity and depth

One team in particular rises above the others in my mind. The team represents the best aspects of what the Emissary provides for students and their electronic mentors. The student began communications with her SME when she was a junior in high school. Currently she is a freshman at a prestigious university and credits her relationship with her online mentor as one of the primary reasons she was accepted at that university. She also believes that her mentor was a motivating force, giving her the ability to pursue her dreams of being a literary critic. What makes this most remarkable is that the student and her mentor are both individuals with considerable physical disabilities.

The beauty of electronic mail as a medium for communication is that it transcends physical boundaries, such as time and place. Electronic mail has allowed this student to surpass physical challenges in such a way that, if she so chooses, those individuals with whom she communicates will never know of her "special needs. "Most importantly, were it not for the fact that it was mentioned in her application to the Emissary, and that the student brought it up in her correspondence, I might never have known that she lives with cerebral palsy.

Unknowingly, the student selected a SME with a disability of her own--multiple sclerosis. The mentor possesses a rare skill in that she was able to nurture the student's literary talents within an electronic environment that is normally challenging for them both. In my opinion, their individual love for and mastery of words allowed each of them to successfully communicate within a medium that is often hostile and unforgiving because of its urgency, its dependence upon electronic tools, and its lack of visual interpersonal cues. In this case, however, both mentor and mentee seemed very comfortable working within an electronic context. In fact, it was that context that gave each of them the freedom to pursue an online working friendship without fear of dismissal due to their disabilities.

Another situation comes to mind, in which a learning-disabled student engaged in an extended online conversation with a physicist mentor over a period of several months. In addition to her cognitive deficit, she came from a low socio-economic background that made her feel ill-at-ease in her affluent high school. Moreover, this student had weight and drinking problems. She felt ostracized by her fellow students. Her mentor encouraged and supported her in her efforts to overcome her problems. When she graduated she went on to beauty school with confidence that she can achieve her goals. She still exchanges e-mails occasionally with her mentor, who remains a strong positive influence for her.

E-mail has powerful potential for telementoring

I believe that much is yet to be learned about the power of electronic mail as a tool in the classroom. The Electronic Emissary project is an example of how a completely textual interface, used to connect learners and teachers with interested and knowledgeable others in a personalized way, can empower students to form beneficial working relationships with experts whom they might otherwise never encounter. E-mail is used to great advantage in the business world, and has become an important resource for interpersonal communication. The Electronic Emissary allows teachers and students to use e-mail for educational rewards far beyond what most electronic pen pal exchanges offer. It also offers professionals a way to enter and serve classrooms based upon their own schedules and using a medium in which they are highly comfortable.

My work with the Emissary has been both fulfilling and fruitful. I have been able to observe the successes of many students due to communications with devoted online volunteers. Also, I am able to gather data for my upcoming research study concerning the experiences of subject matter experts in an electronic mentoring environment.

When that study is completed I hope to be able to share more information on what I have learned from the online volunteers that affect the education and lives of students in such powerful ways. As a result, perhaps more professional experts will step forward to offer their services and more teachers will take advantage of their invaluable assistance. For this to happen, though, more funding needs to be made available so that telementoring services can continue and expand their beneficial work. If you have any ideas regarding funding, or if you would like more information about the Electronic Emissary, please visit our Web site at http://www. tapr. org/emissary.


Laura Amill, a veteran teacher of students K-12, is currently a doctoral candidate in Instructional Technology in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Electronic Emissary Project [ http://www. tapr. org/emissary/] is a very successful and well-documented national telementoring program, online since February 1993, based at the University of Texas at Austin.


 
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This is an archived version of the Virtual Volunteering Project web site from January 2001.
The materials on the web site were written or compiled by Jayne Cravens.
The Virtual Volunteering Project has been discontinued.
The Virtual Volunteering Project web site IS NO LONGER UPDATED.
Email addresses associated with the Virtual Volunteering Project are no longer valid.
For any URL that no longer works, type the URL into archive.org
.
For new materials regarding online volunteering, see
Jayne Cravens' web site (the section on volunteerism-related resources).
 

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