Learning in community: Experiences in mentor training

SchoolNet SA is currently involved in Information and Communication Technology projects that are supplying computers to 300 schools that were historically disadvantaged.  One of the catch phrases of the projects is, “We are not learning to use computers, we are using computers to learn.”  However, the most radical departure from previous projects is the mode of delivery of teacher support and development.  This intervention uses an e-mail system, networking peer groups of teachers and mentors. So, although our current projects clearly involve the other three themes of this symposium, in that they are school-based, classroom-based and certainly territorially based I would like to focus on the aspects of our projects, which concern the theme of Virtual Learning Communities in Networks.  More specifically I would like to outline our experiences of the learning communities that were developed among the mentors while engaged in training for their roles as mentors in these projects.

Rationale for the e-mentor model

The most effective model for teacher education that is now widely accepted is a mixed mode of delivery; a combination of contact and distance modes, with improved student teacher support being identified as an essential ingredient of this model. School-based mentor support has come to be considered as a most effective mechanism, not only in the area of student support but more recently in educator development and appraisal.

Our findings from previous national projects indicated that the face-to-face training was inadequate and in some cases inappropriate. (SAIDE, 1998) There was a low retention rate of learning and teachers were not implementing what they learnt on training courses.  Not only did we realise that teachers require contextualised learning material but that they also require ongoing long-term support. Therefore just-in-time face-to-face training combined with mentored distance modules was identified as the most appropriate model for educator development in ICT's at this time in our country.

Risks associated with this mode of delivery, such as the loneliness and motivation of the distance learner, were acknowledged. Strategies to address these risks were incorporated; both the mentor system and the development of a community of learning being the most significant.  Gerald Roos’s paper outlines the role of the community of learning.

The role of community

Much research has been conducted into the concept of community and the different interpretations it has in different cultures. (Michelson, 1997)  In some cultures, the community defines the individual whereas in others there is scarcely any sense of community.  In Africa we all know that there is a very strong emphasis on community, as evidenced by such concepts as “It takes a village” and in South Africa there is the widely-used expression of  “Ubuntu”,  which means that a person exists only because of his fellow men.  This concept is held in such high regard that it was once a compulsory subject on the curriculum of all schools in KwaZulu where I work.

As we all know, South Africa has a diversity of cultures within the country itself and therefore cross-cultural interaction has been a crucial consideration in our mentor training course.

Without falling into the trap of stereotyping a nation, I would like to make the point that the task of creating a community in South Africa is easy because there is a natural predisposition of its people to be communal and friendly.  This was proved to be correct by our early experiences in the pilot phase of our projects when teachers from very disadvantaged schools, expressed a real need to form relationships with those outside their immediate geographical location.  They were so excited at the prospect of making friends around the country.

The project benefited from having this inherent characteristic in the South African mentality but a potentially negative attribute was the propensity of our teachers to prefer face-to-face and physical contact rather than using technology.  When given a choice, many teachers, especially those in rural areas would prefer to see the person or even be able to touch the person with whom they wish to communicate.  This need could be a result of such communities being historically excluded from advanced tele-communication facilities. However, this was an obstacle that had to be overcome.

How the e-mentor system works

The philosophy underpinning this model provides learners (teachers) with e-mentors for each module, who support them through their work, as well as facilitating online discussion between a small community of learners (a maximum of 15 learners).  All communication takes place via e-mail, using a sophisticated database and a mail server to route mail to the appropriate location and filter out any potentially project-crippling computer viruses.

Mentors are all professionally qualified educators with classroom experience and varying degrees of ICT background.  They emanate from a variety of educational backgrounds. They all have some experience in using computers in education.   All mentors have their own email address and are expected to be available for a maximum of 9 hours per week at flexible times.  SchoolNet SA has appointed mentors all over the country as well as some based in other countries. 

The role of the mentor

The role of the mentor in these projects is one of providing encouragement, constructive feedback and supportive care to the learners. The emphasis is on making it easier for each learner to follow the process of working with the materials and interacting with the group.  Mentoring not only provides valuable support of the teachers in their learning, but also offers a growth opportunity for the mentors themselves. 

Mentors are evaluated on their ability to maintain and nurture their groups of learners, to develop the relationships between themselves and the group and very importantly to encourage interaction between the group members in order to develop their sense of community.  The task of developing a learning community via e-mail is a daunting one but one of our participants circulated this quotation recently,

According to Ralph Waldo Emerson: ' It is one of the most beautiful compensations of  this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself '.

The mentor course

The mentors, who guide these communities of learners through these modules, first have to develop their own mentoring skills by studying a distance learning mentor course, through SchoolNet.  This mentor course consists of a series of activities devoted to the nurturing of a common understanding of the particular type of role that mentors will be expected to play.

The course simulates the format that is used for the distance modules for the teachers that they will mentor.  Therefore all communication is via email, with a peer group and a mentor.  A number of activities have to be completed within a time frame but the most important aspect being that the community of learners interact and assist each other with the same activities within approximately the same time frame.

Our experiences of the participation and the sense of community that has developed on these courses have been extremely rewarding. Here is the parting e-mail message from one of the participants,

It has been a most stimulating and valuable course thanks to all of you wonderful folk who have put so much into it. It has reinforced how important it is to share with ones colleagues and benefit from ideas from a community rather than ploughing, solo, head down along the path that you have followed for the last ten years. Gareth Fotheringham 2001-09-01

The success of e-mail in fostering community

E-mail interaction via mailing lists lends itself to open and uninhibited communication, once the initial jitters of speaking to “the whole world” are overcome.  Many mentors had never been exposed to these elements of online learning environments and found themselves on exciting learning curves.  A mechanism that we found assisted reflection and gave the mentor a truer picture of the development of participants in the groups on the mentor course was the e-diary.  The e-diary is just a document where participants record their thoughts. The following quotations reinforce some of the observations we have made about this model of learning.

The medium of e-mail facilitated a more open communication than in a face-to-face situation.

“ I wonder if I would have spoken out my past failures in a face to face group situation.  I think being able to express myself in writing gave me the courage to express myself. “

“Now I find that I am looking for other signs in the written e-mail.  But even there one has clues as to what the person is like.  It is also interesting to have a delay in responses time.  As I pointed out in my e-mail, I believe that this is a paradigm shift in communication.  It involves a new set of skills, which must be developed.”

Participants found the course to be rigorous and stimulating. They all agreed that they had learnt a tremendous amount through collaboration:

“.. it appears that Steve  seems to look at it holistically...then good.. For me there needs to be an understanding of context for the practise of every skill. Might well be easier to identify broad principles of practise, rather than skills.”

There was much interaction at an intellectual and a social level.

"I think it is time for me to say WOW!!! - So much mail - so many wonderful ideas and views. Between us we could solve any and every problem!!"

“I spent some time this evening reviewing all the mail, I see just how deeply people have been thinking about this whole topic.”

The most important successes of this course were that it thoroughly explored the process of learning through collaboration and the importance of how to build the learning community.

“We have really “bonded” and I have enjoyed the interaction.  There are some very competent and enthusiastic members amongst them…. I have felt safe with them and I think we have built up a very good atmosphere of trust and support.”

I would really like to keep in contact with the group so that we can support and encourage one another when the going gets tough.

One of the greatest findings was the ability of the communal interaction to successfully lift the confidence levels of insecure members of the groups.

Two days ago I felt quite out of my depth and I was beginning to think I had made a mistake getting into this thing. 

Participants were able to express opinions and explore them with their group; they discussed their own metacognition; they interrogated the text of their mentor module as well as scrutinizing the other modules and debated all relative merits on the mailing lists. They thrashed out all issues relating to the role they will be expected to play and their contributions will be used to improve the existing module.

The teacher as facilitator, scaffolding learning: “Just when he should step in and when he should watch from a distance, letting the mentee perhaps struggle a bit so as to learn through his own efforts.”

Strategies to encourage community: “If I reflect on how we as a group built a sense of community then I cannot remember any "tricks" or extra activities ... The series of tasks, the responses, the respect, the jokes .. these have, I think made our group a strong community.”

The future of the mentored courses

It remains to be seen whether such close relationships that developed among the mentors, can also develop among the teachers studying these modules under their guidance and more importantly whether significant learning takes place using these virtual communities.  Those educators studying to be mentors for the SchoolNet South Africa projects certainly discovered the power of learning in community.

1.       Michelson, E, Multicultural approaches to portfolio development, Ball, 1997 (http://www.el.uct.ac.za/rpl/elana.htm)

2.       South African Institute for Distance Education, Evaluation of the Telkom 1000 project, 1999

Janet Thomson
3 October 2001



Back to Educator Development Home Page

SchoolNet SA

last updated 29 October 2001