by Jayne Cravens from the Virtual Volunteering Project
It sounds so innovative, so easy-to-do, and so convenient: online mentoring and tutoring, which allows volunteers to work with young people over the Internet. More than a dozen programs already exist, and many more are in development.
But are such programs truly easy to set up? How does the staff of an organization decide whether it is appropriate to develop such a program? And how does an organization decide which approach is best?
Most program managers distinguish between the goals of mentoring and tutoring. The primary focus of a mentoring program is to create a supportive, caring friendship; the primary focus of a tutoring program is to help a person with a particular subject, class or project. However, mentoring can occur as part of a tutoring program, and tutoring can happen as part of a mentoring program.
Your organization needs to first decide the primary goal of your efforts to bring together youths and volunteers online. Your mission statement and current offline activities should help you make this determination. A primary goal for an online program could be as follows:
- To improve academic performance of students
- To develop career or life skills
- To explore career or education opportunities
- To encourage a healthy lifestyle
- To reinforce certain values or beliefs.
A program may contribute to all of these outcomes; however, your organization should pick ONE primary goal. Otherwise, you might "byte" off more than you can chew and make more promises about the potential effects of your program than you can realistically achieve.
Online mentoring or online tutoring takes many forms, from matching each youth with one mentor to matching groups of students with groups of mentors for specific learning activities. The program could last just a few weeks or an entire year. It could involve an online volunteer sending a few emails per week or spending several hours each week reviewing a young person's project. How do you determine what's best for your organization and where you should begin?
Here are a few suggestions:
Determine how an online program might "fit." Consider how an online program would fit within your organization's mission. How might the program be an extension of your current activity goals?
Assess your group's mentoring or tutoring experience. Do you already involve volunteers with clients, students or the public in mentoring or tutoring situations? Does your staff have experience facilitating groups, managing a mentoring or tutoring program, or running other face-to-face volunteer and client programs? Has anyone on staff ever been a mentor or tutor in an offline program? Again, you will need to have this offline expertise in-house before beginning any steps to set up a program online.
Determine whether your organization or group is ready to involve online volunteers. For instance, is your staff already using email regularly and replying to online messages promptly? Do you already have appropriate volunteer management systems in place, and are they working?
Determine whether your organization has the elements of effective practice. The National Mentoring Partnership includes "Elements of Effective Practice in Mentoring Programs" on its Web site. The site includes recommended requirements for a responsible mentoring program and a nuts-and-bolts checklist for programs. The practices are applicable to any online mentoring or tutoring program as well.
Become familiar with the dynamics of online culture. If your staff isn't savvy in communicating in text-only environments, how can you expect to manage an online mentoring or tutoring program? A great way to learn the nuances of communicating with people online is to become a part of an online discussion group.
If you work with young people (or want to), you might consider joining a discussion group for a TV show or rock group that's popular with teens to observe how youth interact with each other through written communications. You can also join groups that interest you personally to discuss a particular hobby, your favorite author, a sports team you follow, or a political issue.
As you observe (or "lurk") on the groups, notice the variety of ways in which people relate to each other through written communications and the differences in communication styles among people of different age groups, professions or geographic areas. The more you read, the more comfortable you will become in your own abilities to communicate online.
Explore existing online mentoring and tutoring programs. The Virtual Volunteering Project provides an index of online mentoring and tutoring projects and materials as well as its own online mentoring resources and suggestions.
Is online mentoring and tutoring sounding, perhaps, not so easy? Meeting the above criteria before launching a program will ensure its quality and success, give your organization lots to brag about later, and make program participation easy and satisfying from the points of view of mentors, tutors, and youths.