Although Zoom strain is a risk, strong IT support helps to make online mentoring courses effective, writes Yvonne Williams
Pre-pandemic, I doubted the efficacy of online teaching and learning.
But as a trainer involved in delivering the Education and Training Foundation’s Advanced mentoring skills for experienced mentors programme – and having seen first-hand the value of strategic planning in supporting the human-technology interface – my eyes have been opened to the power of IT to enhance participants’ experience.
Now in its third year, the DfE-funded ETF programme provides participants with simulation exercises so they can experience advanced practical mentoring techniques in a safe space.
Participants undertake a minimum of 20 hours of mentoring in their own organisations, blended with 25 hours of online training over a four-month period.
Originally, online learning was to be combined with face-to-face sessions, but pandemic restrictions caused the whole programme to be transferred online.
However, any fears of a second-best experience were dispelled by highly positive feedback from course members and ETF’s observers.
Fears of a second-best experience were dispelled by feedback
Participants produced mentoring handbooks and presentations; projects are being implemented; and incipient communities of practice extend discussions beyond the course.
So, what can we take away from the experience to enable other organisations to synergise the human-technology interface?
Behind the scenes, high-quality collaboration enhances the learning experience. For each session, IT support was in place to set up polls and breakout rooms and to troubleshoot in case of outages.
The variety of experience and expertise within delivery teams, shared in weekly meetings, enriched delivery and pre-empted problems.
Weekly emails, discussion posts online, or simply re-booking people onto sessions because of absences maintained motivation.
The weekly “learning sandwich” starts with online, preparatory reading, followed by skills practice and further theory or reinforcement by video link.
This is rounded off by learning logs, so learners move through a cycle of experiential learning from new experiences online, to reflection and conceptualisation in the logs, to experimentation in their organisations.
Unpredictable pandemic demands tested the adaptability of the programme. So online preparation was released two weeks ahead of each session, enabling participants to plan their study time.
In effect, video conferencing is potentially more time- and cost-efficient than face-to-face training. Participants can shift quickly from work environment to training and back again, with well-being breaks either side.
Pre-recorded demonstrations showcase practical aspects of mentoring, providing a knowledge base as preparation for interactive sessions and for reference after the course finishes.
Participants use timelines – selecting, playing and replaying sections to analyse nuances of language and behaviour.
Breakout rooms provide fluid transitions from pairs to groups to full plenary, allowing participants to share experiences from across the FE sector and related organisations at different stages of development.
In the strong, safe space we’ve created, they are empowered to consider solutions and evaluate theories and case studies against their contexts.
Zoom strain is a risk. It’s defined by excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze, cognitive load, increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself, and constraints on physical mobility.
So, to mitigate this risk, groups can agree to have cameras off during lengthier presentations, reducing self-consciousness and enabling participants to concentrate on active listening.
The ‘chat’ function allows everyone to capture spontaneous responses through phrases and emojis.
Written comments are easier to track and refer to, and more than that, developed, structured inputs can be edited before posting.
Although enriching, this can be cognitively exhausting for facilitators when it happens alongside the spoken discussion.
Setting protocols to avoid tangential ‘chat’ prevents distraction from the mainstream discussion.
In fact, through self-assessment participants have revealed that the skill they had most improved was active listening.
And in action learning sets (structures that develop problem-solving skills of real situations), they said they connected emotionally and intellectually – apparently unfazed by the supposed online problems of interpreting facial expressions, cues and tone.
DfE research show that peer interaction in remote learning is highly motivating and improves learning.
Thanks to our enterprising advanced mentors, who proved to be proactive learners with sophisticated technical and interpersonal skills themselves, autonomy and enjoyment of the social learning outweighed any alienating aspects of virtual CPD.
Thus, a programme combining a strong linear online structure with flexible start points and pathways can be a valuable toolkit for CPD leads – if planned properly.