Online education: turning graduates into a community of mentors?
August 12, 2014 10:56 AM   Subscribe

I am part of an online philosophical community with an optional mentoring scheme. Those who complete enough lessons from a bank of hundreds graduate and can then become mentors to others, but few stay; how can I foster a sense of community amongst these graduates and encourage them to stick around to become valuable mentors to the waiting students?

I'm about to complete a mentoring scheme for an online philosophical community. We study a wide range of material, from spiritual classics like the Tao Te Ching and other ancient texts like The Art of War, through the work of people like Jung and Joseph Campbell, to things like the documentaries of Marcus du Sautoy and the contemporary ideas of Alain de Botton. We have a large community of active members but most are mentees.

The scheme is optional in the community and involves mentors assigning lessons with a point value (decided by the leading council) from a bank of hundreds, dependent on the interests and direction of individual students; once a mentee has accumulated a sufficient number of points and after a minimum of six months, they can be put forward for an interview with the council and, if successful, graduate.

On graduation, it becomes possible to become a mentor. However whilst the number of graduates is high (and has built up over years), few actually take on this role with most leaving the site on graduation. As such there is a large build-up of those awaiting a mentor, and a high turnover within the community.

I'm looking for a way to encourage graduates to stay, to strike up a community amongst themselves and to take on the awaiting mentees. Whilst we aim to have no more than two mentees to a mentor, several mentors have ten or more people working with them at the moment, with many awaiting an opportunity and some leaving the site in frustration.

I wouldn't want to coerce anyone to stick around, but I'd like to do something to make it an environment which people WANT to stay in. Unfortunately, whilst people seem hugely keen right up to the point of graduation, they often take something of a sabbatical after their period of study and never return. It's strange to me because many of these people are very active in our community right up until this point. There's no obligation to be, and no benefit of doing so beyond the ordinary social benefit of talking to other like-minded people - you don't "gain points" for being sociable.

I should add there is a secondary scheme for graduates, in which they can assign themselves lessons as they wish with higher "ranks" available, some of which require the successful mentoring of other students. In other words, there is stuff to do after graduation; it just doesn't seem to be motivating people to stick around.

Any advice or ideas would be much appreciated!
posted by tzb to Education (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
1. What diploma are they graduating with?
2. How much do they pay for classes?
3. Do you offer any kind of undergraduate mentor in training program?
4. Is there a mentor manager?
posted by parmanparman at 11:03 AM on August 12, 2014

How many of the mentees currently see value from their mentors? From your description, it sounds like they could be superfluous (why can't I just pick my lessons myself within some guidelines of what I need to be successful at an interview with the council? Just because someone has been through this process once doesn't necessarily mean they are experts at this). Make the mentor program something truly valuable.

Of course, then you will absolutely need competent mentor training, because even if the program ideally offers some value, having mentors who don't really know what they're supposed to be accomplishing or how to do it -- on a real, day-to-day basis -- are useless.

And people won't volunteer to become mentors if they were part of a process that they saw as without meaning or usefulness.
posted by brainmouse at 11:09 AM on August 12, 2014

1. None as such, it's a purely on-site scheme. People are free to decide for themselves if they would like to participate and there is certainly no problem with applicants.
2. Nothing, ever (the site has one of those paypal "donate" buttons but that's it), and we aim to provide all texts online for free where these can be legally sourced.
3. We have a beginner's course which covers a broad range of basics. Most students take between 1 and 3 months to complete this but there is no time limit; it is a prerequisite for admission into the mentoring programme.
4. There's the community's leading council which is comprised of 8 senior members, but not as such, no.
posted by tzb at 11:10 AM on August 12, 2014

@brainmouse I believe most members see considerable benefit from their mentors; whilst there are no "set lessons" in the mentoring scheme most follow a basic pattern of study (Getting to know you - core ideas - specialisation based on learner's interests and mentor's expertise - training in being a mentor - graduation) and most active mentors have been doing this for between 1 and 5 years now, so have a good basis of experience.

People are free to leave at any point so it's in mentors interests to ensure the programme remains interesting and relevant to their mentees... that's sort of the point anyway, as the whole enterprise is voluntary.
posted by tzb at 11:14 AM on August 12, 2014

I believe most members see considerable benefit from their mentors

Have you asked them? This is a good use case for surveying, actually. At various points in their training (including when they're done, and whether ), ascertain whether or not this is actually true, and what exactly that value is for people (i.e., are there things that work and things that don't). Experience doesn't necessarily correlate with skill.

Also, find out if they think that mentoring will give them any value, and what that value would be or what value they want, and see how you can make your mentoring program nurture that. Not just the people who became mentors, but especially the people who didn't.

It's a good idea to get someone who knows a bit about how to write surveys to help you with this, as inexperienced survey writers often ask the wrong questions or ask them in the wrong way, so you won't get useful advice.
posted by brainmouse at 11:21 AM on August 12, 2014

Thanks brainmouse, good idea and we actually recently got together with a member who creates surveys professionally for charities to do just this - it's something we'll launch in a month or two when it's all put together.

It covers all aspects of the community but has a large focus on the scheme, and I've no doubt it will guide the direction going forward. Glad to hear someone off-site advocating this idea, it makes me feel more confident it will be useful.
posted by tzb at 11:27 AM on August 12, 2014

Great! I'll note that your response rate can also be informative all by itself. Mostly, 4 types of people will answer surveys:
1) People who had exceptionally fantastic experiences
2) People who had exceptionally terrible experiences
3) People who always answer surveys like this or who you caught at a good time when they were bored (this is a relatively small group)
4) People who are especially engaged and care about your program.

It's group 4 that's the most variable and can therefore be the most eye-opening about how engaged your community is as a whole. If you come back with a 2-3% response rate on a 10-question survey then, well, your students just don't care that much about the program. If you come back with a 50% response rate then you have a very highly engaged community. If you are working with someone who does surveys professionally they can better help you interpret the number you come back with based on the survey you send out.
posted by brainmouse at 11:34 AM on August 12, 2014

If your site is to any degree community forum-based, and you don't have a part of your site that is locked off to mentors-only for private discussion, add that.
posted by deludingmyself at 1:16 PM on August 12, 2014

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