The role of peer mentoring in the design and development of online learning

Peer mentoring is an effective way to support faculty in the development and delivery of quality online courses. Jonathan Muir explains when and how best to use it

Jonathan Muir's avatar
University of Leeds
15 Jul 2022
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Since the first online degree course was launched in 1989, the sector has continued to develop, with estimates suggesting the global e-learning market will grow at 9 per cent per annum and be worth £285 billion by 2026.

Attracted by the potential financial returns, opportunities to widen access to higher education, the ability to repurpose digital materials and the limited investment required for campus facilities, an increasing number of UK universities have sought to develop their online portfolios.

The move online, beyond the temporary pivot spurred by Covid-19, is not without complications. A number of factors can lead to academics resisting the move online, including:

  • concerns over programme quality, institutional reputation and the attainment of learning objectives
  • lecturers’ perceived lack of technological knowledge;
  • a negative impact on the balance between research and teaching;
  • loss of autonomy in course development and delivery because of the involvement of instructional designers, editors, virtual learning environment (VLE) designers, external reviewers and more.  

Bearing these concerns in mind, universities can take action to support academics in the development and delivery of online courses. This might include the introduction of faculty training programmes and provision of ongoing technological and pedagogical support. Another effective measure is the use of peer mentors. In practical terms this involves providing teachers new to online learning with support from a colleague who has a proven track record in the area. Those with experience are able to advise and encourage and enhance their mentees’ learning and development.

This has several benefits:

  • It is well suited to situations where there is a need to adapt to organisational change and engage with new initiatives.
  • It allows those involved to share their experiences and examples of online practices that have (and have not) been successful.
  • Ideas, insights and potential resources can be discussed and shared, with the mentor able to provide feedback, bolster mentees’ confidence in their abilities and provide reassurance when required.
  • It can provide experienced teachers with new insights and knowledge that can lead to the adoption of innovative practices and even a renewed enthusiasm.

Having highlighted some benefits associated with peer mentoring, I’ll now provide practical advice for those interested in implementing this approach.   

Mentor selection: Instructional designers can on occasion act as mentors. However, individuals are likely to identify more with fellow academics and be more receptive to the feedback provided.

Positive foundations: The mentor-mentee relationship should be based on firm foundations and viewed as a partnership of equals incorporating two-way communication, trust and positive rapport. To achieve this, mentors need to be active listeners identifying the needs and concerns of their mentees and provide a space where ideas and issues can be discussed and feedback provided. In addition to acknowledging areas for development, mentors can bolster their mentees' confidence by identifying their strengths and successes.

Adaptable: As previously indicated, a mentor can draw on their experiences and offer guidance and practical insights on the design and development of online courses. At the same time, the mentor needs to be adaptable and appreciate that different situations may require different approaches. Even if the mentor does not agree with the approach taken, it is important that the mentee has control and ownership of course design and development. As Jim Knight from the University of Kansas suggests: “When you insist, they will resist.”

Guidance:  While peer mentoring can involve a simple exchange of information on day-to-day operational issues, the design and development of an online course can be a new and significant undertaking for many scholars. In this situation a mentor can offer guidance through:

  • helping establish specific objectives, such as producing the digital assets for an online course unit;
  • outlining how the objectives could be achieved – for example, completing a unit plan, having the plan reviewed and signed off by key stakeholders (the mentor, an instructional designer, etc) or using a template to develop video scripts;
  • playing an ongoing, active role – for example, arranging review meetings to discuss progress made and challenges encountered but when required acting as a critical friend questioning proposed actions and processes.

With the move to online learning requiring lecturers to adopt new technologies and teaching practices and learn new skills and techniques, it is unsurprising that this can be met with resistance. In this situation peer mentoring can prove useful in helping colleagues develop the required skills and competences while providing personal support, encouragement and empathy.

Jonathan Muir is an associate professor in the University of Leeds Business School.

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