Continuing our experiences of online mentoring

By Carol Edwards, Lorraine Gregory, Liz Hardie and Louise Taylor

We previously posted a blog in October 2020 entitled ‘Setting up a Pilot Mentoring Programme on W101 – An Introduction to Law’ (Edwards, Hardie and Gregory, 2020). This explained our experiences of setting up a pilot online mentoring project in The Open University (OU) on an introductory law module. The project was set up to help tackle isolation and help students form communities of practice to aid their studies and increase their sense of belonging within both the Law School and the University. The project has since been evaluated. This blog updates readers of the key points from the evaluation and explains how we used that feedback to develop a second pilot peer mentoring scheme for the Law School.

The initial project

The initial pilot started in February 2020 and concluded in July 2020. Students who had completed the module within the last two years were invited to apply for the role of mentor. Ten candidates were successful and attended a training day at Milton Keynes. Our ethos was that the programme should be designed “by the students for the students” so a large part of the day was spent co-creating the programme. The project was piloted in two regions and students who were enrolled on the introductory module in those regions were asked to apply for a mentee place. Once launched, each mentor supported between three and seven mentees by running a forum and facilitating online coffee and drop-in events using the OU platforms. We also received funding from the Law School to employ a tutor to oversee the mentors and act as their key contact.

The project was evaluated through individual interviews and a focus group with mentors while the mentees were invited to attend individual interviews. We obtained funding from SCiLAB to employ a research assistant to carry these out. The mentees commented that it was useful to have a place where you could ask questions and the opportunity to chat to people who had done the course, but they did express concerns about the lack of engagement of other mentees. This was also a concern raised by the mentors, along with the suggestion that WhatsApp would have been a better platform for the forum, as this is favoured by students. One mentor set up his own WhatsApp group which ran outside the official programme – this ended with approximately 70 members having regular Zoom meetings. Both the mentors and mentees felt that the project idea was good and of value, but that the programme could be improved.

Statistical analysis was undertaken of the mentors’ forums and the data supported the comments that there was a low level of engagement. The average number of threads per mentor was typically 12, with 50% of the posts having no response from the mentees. In most forums one or two mentees would respond to the posts. This was disappointing but we did note that on average there would be one to five readers for each forum, with an average of two mentees reading the posts. There was limited interaction between the mentors and mentees but there was a much greater level of passive participation and it is likely that the “lurkers” would gain benefits from the posts. Statistical analysis also showed an interesting correlation between progression and attainment and participation in the project. Students who participated in the project were more likely to complete the module and gain higher marks in their assignments than those who did not participate in the mentoring project. However, we recognise that the numbers of students involved in the project were small (42 students) and it is not possible to show causal connection between the project and student success.

The second project

We subsequently launched a second, larger pilot on the law introductory module, which started in October 2020. Due to Covid-19 the mentor training had to be delivered online, but we still took a co-creation approach to designing the programme as this had proved popular in the initial pilot. This time 16 students were recruited to act as mentors. To address previous concerns related to mentee engagement, we took a many-to-many approach (sometimes referred to as group mentoring model). With this model a number of mentors will work with several mentees (Collier, 2015). We took this approach to allow larger mentee groups to facilitate discussions. In having a team of mentors, we also hoped the work burden for each mentor would be reduced.

For the second pilot we divided the country into four geographical areas, each of which included rural and urban locations. Each area had between 400 and 700 students and all students on the module had access to the mentoring forum and online event, thus ensuring a range of students with a variety of backgrounds and support requirements. Each area was assigned four mentors who worked together to manage forum threads and offer online coffee events using the OU platforms.

In addition, we invited law undergraduate students to put forward proposals for online presentations based on their experiences of studying the introductory module. Presentations were given on a wide range of subjects with emphasis on studying with a disability, wellbeing, tackling isolation and study skills. Feedback indicates that these were well received by the students who attended.

Again, we obtained funding from SCiLAB for a research assistant to conduct individual interviews with both mentors and mentees and a focus group with the mentors. We are currently evaluating the data collected for the second pilot and plan to share our findings in due course. However, initial findings indicate very similar outcomes to the first pilot, with concerns remaining about mentee engagement and the OU platform used to facilitate the forum. The platform choice could be viewed as a failure of our approach and in the future it may be necessary to consider an alternative platform, for example WhatsApp. However, one of the project’s successes was its ability to introduce students and build their confidence to interact with each other. This gave some students the confidence to continue to engage in mentoring within the OU platform and gave others the confidence to migrate from the OU platform and join WhatsApp groups.

A new problem came to light with mentors working in groups of four (this was initially designed to reduce the burden for one mentor), where not all members of the group contributed equally. We recognise that this is an issue we will need to mitigate in any future mentoring scheme within the School.

For the second pilot we successfully secured external funding from the Association of Law Teachers to hold a face-to-face debrief with the mentors and project team which included lunch. Due to Covid-19 this had to be transferred to an online meeting with vouchers provided for the mentors to purchase their own lunches. From the discussion it was clear the mentors had enjoyed the project and they felt it should be taken forward to the new law degree being introduced in October 2021. It was also clear that mentors felt this had offered them a concrete opportunity to demonstrate employability skills (Andrews and Clark, 2011).

Conclusion

In conclusion we feel that a mentoring programme for the Law School, particularly for new students, is a good idea. It provides students with a safe place to ask “silly” questions. It also allows students to interact with other students at the same place in their studies and helps to develop a sense of belonging in the online university. The platform used needs careful consideration and this is something we need to explore further along with how a mentoring project can be supported long term by the Law School.

To find out more about our online mentoring project please click here.

References

Andrews, J. and Clark, R. (2011) Peer mentoring works! How Peer Mentoring Enhances Student Success in Higher Education. Available at: https://publications.aston.ac.uk/id/eprint/17968/1/Peer_mentoring_works.pdf (Accessed: 21 July 2021).

Collier, P. J., (2015) Developing Effective Student Peer Mentoring Programs. Sterling: Stylus Publishing.

Edwards, C., Gregory, L. and Hardie, L. (2021) ‘Setting Up a Pilot Peer Mentoring Programme in the Online Environment’, Journal of Rights and Justice, 2(i), pp. 7-17. Available at: https://www.ntu.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0028/1428922/Journal-of-rights-and-justice-legal-education-edition-final.pdf (Accessed: 2 September 2021).

Edwards, C., Hardie, L. and Gregory, L. (2020) Setting Up a Pilot Mentoring Programme on W101 – An Introduction to Law. Available at: http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/scilab/index.php/2020/10/29/setting-up-a-pilot-mentoring-programme-on-w101-an-introduction-to-law/ (Accessed: 2 September 2021).

Taylor, L., Edwards, C., Hardie, L. and Gregory, L. (2020) How Peer Mentoring Can Support Students During the Pandemic. Available at: https://business-school.open.ac.uk/news/how-peer-mentoring-can-support-students-during-pandemic (Accessed: 2 September 2021).

Carol Edwards is a Lecturer and Student Experience Manager within the Open University Law School. She joined the OU as an associate lecturer in 2015 and became a Student Experience Manager in 2018. She is a Fellow of the HEA and a member of the Law School’s Peer Mentoring Project. Carol’s research interests  include tackling student isolation via such programmes as online mentoring. She is also actively involved in scholarship relating to online teaching pedagogy and assessment feedback. Before joining the OU Carol worked in further education and is still actively involved in the quality management of Open Access courses.

Lorraine Gregory is an Educational Advisor and has been working with the Law Student Support team since 2014.  She specialises in supporting students with disabilities (especially those on the autistic spectrum) and is a qualified mental health first-aider.  She is particularly interested in helping students struggling with isolation issues when learning online.

Originally from an e-commerce and digital publishing background, Lorraine moved into counselling before joining the OU.

Liz Hardie is a lecturer and Teaching Director of the Open University Law School, having previously worked as a Student Experience Manager for the Law School since 2010.  She has worked for the Open Justice Centre since 2016, supporting law students to carry out pro bono projects both as part of their law degree and on an extra curricular basis.  She is particularly interested in online learning and the use of technology in legal education.

Liz has tutored for the OU since 2006.  Before working for the OU Liz originally qualified as a solicitor and specialised in family and employment claims.

Louise Taylor is a Lecturer within the Open University Law School. She teaches and researches in the fields of criminal law and victims’ rights and has an interest in approaches designed to improve student wellbeing. She is a Fellow of the HEA and a member of the Law School’s Peer Mentoring Project. She is also a member of the APP/APS Peer Mentoring Task and Finish Group and contributed to the development of the Open University Peer Mentoring Framework.  Before joining the Open University in 2019 Louise was a Senior Lecturer within Nottingham Law School.

This blog represents the views of the individual, not SCiLAB or the Open University.

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