Online mentoring, often referred to as electronic or e-mentoring, has grown in popularity as advances in social media and online communication over the last 20 years have given both young people and youth-serving organizations increasing ability to move the work of mentors into the virtual world. Online mentoring is frequently offered to isolated groups of youth as a way of offsetting their distance from potential mentors. It is also increasingly used in traditional mentoring programs to supplement and augment face-to-face interactions (iMentor is a good example of a program that takes this blended approach).
Most e-mentoring is delivered asynchronously, that is with some delay between the exchange of messages between mentor and mentee, as would be found in most email, message board, chat, or text functions using computers or mobile devices. More recently, programs that offer real-time interaction have emerged as a way of connecting participants via video chat or synchronous interaction at specific times. Some e-mentoring even involves the use of virtual environments and three-dimensional “spaces” such as those found in online platform Second Life. In many ways, the delivery of remote, technology-facilitated mentoring is only limited by the technological advancements of the current time.
There is some debate over the usefulness of e-mentoring as a broad approach to delivering mentoring relationships to youth, especially those who may benefit from the immediacy and intimacy of an in-person relationship with a caring adult. However, many in the mentoring field see tremendous potential for e-mentoring to be, at the very least, a form of mentoring that warrants further explanation in our increasingly-online world. It may hold particular potential for youth who are isolated geographically or due to physical disabilities, as well as for groups of youth in classroom settings as a way to virtually bring external expertise and professionals into the school setting.
What does the research say about E-Mentoring?
In 2017, the National Mentoring Resource Center released a review of the research base related to e-mentoring. This review examined research on the effectiveness of this approach to mentoring, factors conditioning effectiveness, intervening processes that link e-mentoring to youth outcomes, and the success of efforts to reach and engage youth and achieve high quality implementation. Only a small number of empirical studies address these questions, however, the research that does exist reveals the following preliminary findings:
- Evidence on the effectiveness of e-mentoring for improving youth outcomes is mixed, as in some effects are good and some are null; the limited number of studies that utilize a comparison group not receiving e-mentoring further complicate the ability to draw conclusions about its effectiveness.
- Although some e-mentoring formats, such as email interactions, have been successful in improving youth outcomes, it is not clear which formats work best for a given population of youth.
- Although there are several potential factors that could moderate the effects of e-mentoring, including race and gender of youth, most studies to date have only explored level and quality of interpersonal communication.
- Interaction frequency and relationship quality may be important mediators of youth outcomes in e-mentoring programs.
- E-mentoring programs that have been implemented and sustained seem to benefit from clear guidelines, structure, and organizational tools.
The review is accompanied by recommendations for how practitioners could enhance their programmatic practices for taking into account available research. It was suggested that practitioners consider:
- How will our mentor-mentee interactions be better facilitated, or perhaps hindered, by electronic communication?
- What is the role of staff in facilitating and supporting electronic communication?
- How to plan carefully for the rollout or introduction of technology into the program.
Beyond these highlights, this review offers a wealth of research-based information and actionable ideas for those looking to incorporate an e-mentoring component to a mentoring program, or if they are already doing so, to strengthen existing practices.
Much of the research on e-mentoring programs to date has emphasized program delivery and participation as much as outcomes for youth. As the technology needed to make these programs function has emerged, researchers have been as much, if not more, interested in assessing the potential for these types of programs to simply function rather than their ability to improve youth outcomes. The 2014 Handbook of Youth Mentoring (2nd Edition) offers a fairly comprehensive examination of this research and notes several factors that appear to contribute to the viability of e-mentoring programs:
- These programs tend to be centered on instrumental support, helping youth with a specific task or goal, which may help to engage both mentors and youth. However, moving forward, programs may be better positioned for effectiveness if they include or transition to more emotional or relational support.
- The viability of these programs often seems to hinge on the intrinsic motivation of the participants, youth and mentors alike. Given the asynchronous aspect of these relationships, they often require frequent and ongoing efforts to communicate that unmotivated participants may struggle to complete.
- Relationships in these programs often require considerable support from program coordinators or other staff who must provide conversation starters, meaningful activities, and other prompts to encourage full participation. Rather than being less staff intensive, e-mentoring relationships may require even more monitoring and support than in-person ones.
- Technology can be a barrier to making virtual relationships work. There are still considerable digital divides in America and not every child will have access to the hardware, software, and internet connectivity needed to make these relationships work well. Although schools and other institutions can augment that access, those options present limited times and circumstances for accessing the help of a mentor. More mobile forms of communication may not offer the safety and risk management features that practitioners would desire when offering mentoring virtually.
- Given how the communication happens in e-mentoring programs, these efforts may be most viable for youth who have strong written communication skills.
More research is needed on the potential effectiveness of programs that utilize e-mentoring, as well as participant characteristics that may moderate any benefits and details of the service delivery or online interactions that may mediate youth outcomes.
What does the NMRC offer on E-Mentoring?
Broad Evidence Reviews
- As referenced above, the NMRC Research Board has conducted an evidence review examining the research evidence on e-mentoring.
Reviews of Specific Programs
- An E-mentoring Program for Secondary Students with Learning Disabilities seeks to improve mentees’ ability to identify postsecondary career goals and the steps necessary to achieve them. Read the review and accompanying insights for practitioners.
Reviews of Relevant Practices
- Match support for mentors may look different for mentoring relationships facilitated online, but is still widely understood to be a critical component of safe and effective mentoring programs. Read the review of Match Support for Mentors, along with the accompanying insights for practitioners and the blog post below, for ideas about systems of monitoring and support for online mentors.
- This blog post, E-Mentoring: Setting a High Bar for Safety and Support, interviews Camille Stone of We Teach Science about their Remote Tutoring and Mentoring Program.
- This Research Alert discusses a 2017 study that explored web-based peer support for new fathers.
- This webinar, Mentoring in the Age of Technology, engages seasoned mentoring professionals in a discussion about considerations for mentoring and technology.
- Imua is an online tool for monitoring student or mentee progress in a number of areas related to academic achievement, college preparation and readiness, and extracurricular activities.
- “What’s Next?” Postsecondary Education E-Learning Modules provide information and activity ideas for mentors and mentees around exploring career interests and identifying postsecondary educational opportunities and are intended to help older youth on a path toward a meaningful career.