Mentoring versus monitoring

Our discussion of digital learning in districts (see here and here) touches on how a common digital learning scenario in high schools involves the use of online courses taken by students in a computer lab. The students may be taking online courses for credit recovery, because they wish to take a course that is not available in the school, to address scheduling conflicts, or for other reasons. Usually these schools have an adult in the computer lab with the students. The role of that adult can vary in important ways, however. I was reminded of this fact while listening to a panel discussion during Michigan Virtual University's online learning symposium last week. Julie Howe, Online Learning Coordinator at Michigan’s Three Rivers High School, made this point very succinctly when she said:

“Students (taking online courses in a computer lab) need a mentor, not a monitor.”

Julie went on to explain the difference. Monitors determine that students are in attendance, and watch to make sure that students are not actively ignoring their online courses. Mentors take an active role in students’ learning. They don’t necessarily need to be subject matter experts. Instead, they show an effective interest in students, find out where students are having problems, and suggest strategies for success.

We have seen similar differences between monitors and mentors in schools that we have visited. In Amphitheater Public Schools in Arizona, for example, we interviewed a mentor who worked in a computer lab for students recovering credit. We also watched as she engaged with every student in the room at some point during the period. In many cases the students came up to her, and it was clear that they valued her opinions and knowledge. She initiated a conversation with the students who didn’t come up to her, to find out how they were doing. Based on the interactions it was clear that she wasn’t doing this simply because we were there watching.

We've written before that most students need personal attention from teachers, but never captured it as succinctly as Julie’s statement does. Students need a mentor, not a monitor.