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Nanowrimo: Day 2

November 3, 2014

lisa hammershaimb

Have a Mentor. Be a Mentor. Party.

One of the pivotal elements of my 803 course (and coincidentally one of the most fragmented from the previously mentioned 803 craziness that set us all on less than ideal footing at the beginning of the term) is the four to six week long teaching “internship” or “practicum” that has been built into the course. The idea with this element is that because this course is called “Teaching and Learning in Online Education” it is only natural that students who are taking the course should dip their toes into the teaching element of the equation, gaining practical experience to balance out the heavy doses of theory also being learned. Ideally the students in the course are skills assessed at some point over the summer, matched with a practicing instructor (also over the summer), and come to fall term ready to go in their practicum, bulking up whatever skills they may feel a bit low on. The student learns, the practicing instructor gets a little help….everyone wins.

As I’ve written about previously, because of a combination of lots of system level, climate level, and just plain bad luck and timing,  none of that happened with our cohort. Consequently we’re all only now (about halfway through the course) being placed in practicum relations or, as in my case, making a space and designing a study for ourselves within the structures that we are already located.

In my case, I created a four week initiative within our existing extracurricular Design Club called the “Mentor Challenge.” Initially I was super curious about and hoped to use this four week span to intentionally study how the feedback/critique that happens peer to peer differs from the feedback/critique that happens from instructor to peer. I’m still super curious but given that for this project I need to get in and out in a relatively quick manner (and I have no idea how I’d actually go about evaluating the peer to peer versus instructor to peer study) I decided to table that idea for another trial later down the road and focus instead on the much espoused but still (I would argue) much murky issue of the impact of mentor relationships in online learning programs. My particular focus for this study is on how to create, engage, and sustain mentor relationships in the relatively impersonal online learning landscape.

Design Club is an extracurricular space I started in the spring of this year a few months after my rise to program dean. As the graduate of an online masters program, I think that it is vital that students have some sort of opt in extracurricular space to inhabit to help affirm their actual humanity and offset the impersonality that an online program can have. In my view, the best parts of a traditional brick and mortar college (or should I say more personally my traditional brick and mortar college experience) are not the classes and the courses and the info, rather it is the relationships that you build and even the somewhat silly and stupid shenanigans that you do when you really should be in the library studying. Granted, there is some limit to how an online program can engage with the brick and mortar experience (an online kegger probably wouldn’t feel quite the same….) but I think that with the correct balance of creativity on the part of the administration and a whole lot of enthusiasm in presentation, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that some casual spaces for informal connections can be constructed. Thus, Design Club was first born and with it a somewhat continuous string of new ideas about how to make students feel more human, despite the fact that all interaction is mediated by a screen.

In Mentor Challenge, students self selected after my initial presentation as to first if they’d like to commit and second at what level they’d like to commit. Their three choices were:
1. being mentored by a professional
2. being a mentor to a lower level/entry student3. all of the above
4. a “mentor lite” track if they did not anticipate having the bandwidth to full participate but were still interested.

The interest ran high after the initial presentation and after two days of chatter on the Facebook page, we had a solid group of about 14-ish students who formally committed. Not surprisingly, most chose option one which was to be mentored by a professional. That said, there were a few students who said they’d be open to mentoring an entry level student and even one entry level student who confessed she’d rather have a peer than a pro mentor.

We are now two weeks into the initiative and it seems to be going well. The main question I am hoping to research out of the data collected through the event is: “How does having a professional mentor change an online undergraduate graphic design student’s experience of a school term?”

Then out of that there are several sub questions to further flesh things out like:
1. When presented with having versus being a mentor, which do students tend to choose and why?
2. Do essentially “microwaved” mentor relationships have value and potential longevity?
3. For students: did communication with your mentor help reveal something you previously did not know about the professional design world?
4. For mentors: did communication with your students help reveal something you previously did not know about the online education world?
5. What role does a preset curriculum have in bringing safety and ease of sharing in the mentor and student relationship?

For me the hardest part has been to keep my hands out of things and keep from being too present, emailing reminders and prompts to students and also emailing the mentors to ask about the conversations they’ve been having with their own students. Turns out I can be super mellow sometimes but I do have an inner control freak and just like so many years ago on Christmas eve, I am doing everything in my own willpower not to shake the presents before they’re ready to be opened which in this metaphor translates to teasing out results before they are ready to be shared. Lucky for me, all of the mentors are close friends so I have been copied on emails they have sent to their own students. I am not sure why I am included but as I said, this experience has gotten me in touch with my inner control freak so any small piece of info is very very well received!

If this all goes well (and I am feeling quite optimistic about it) I hope to both write up my official 803 final project with the results and polish it into a paper presentation at the April edition of the AIGA Design Educator conference. The hardest part for me is trying to filter it through a lens where it will not be so heavily “this is all about online education” and instead where it will have more broad applicability to all educators, whether online or brick and mortar based. I think I have gone to just enough conferences proudly flying my “online education equality” flag and while I still plan on wearing that proudly I do legit think that these ideas can transfer to all settings.

For example, having a professional mentor gives students that extra bit of insight into the “real world” of life post graduation. If students can actually go to the studio, see face to face the work that is done….fabulous! But, if students just aren’t in the place geographically to visit a studio or even more, if mentors just aren’t in the place to have students visit a studio geographically, by working at a distance, students hone their distance presentation skills, practice their professional email communication, and have a very short feedback loop from their mentor on their own digital identity creation. These things are not just benefits for online students rather they could be played out in any classroom setting and, I think, have similar benefits for the students. Perhaps they’re being done already and digital mentorship is a “thing” but there’s a pretty large part of me that is pretty sure everyone’s program has become just as insular as ours has, acknowledging mentoring as a value but doing little to actively promote the construction of relationships.

I do not say this as a condemning of others but rather because I know from my own experience that there are only so many good things one can devote themselves to. With graduation and retention metrics, staff engagement, and the always delicate balance of curriculum creation…yeah, sometimes the very things that might be the most real and human end up getting the least amount of play.

So…we shall see what happens. I am ever hopeful that all of the mentor and student pairs will become besties, that the student to student pairs will result in both students getting A’s for the rest of their academic careers, and that at the end of our four week run my inbox will be rival Niagara Falls in its flow of positive comments, feedback, and generally amazing reflections surrounding Mentor Challenge. Not too much to ask, right? : )

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