From Reluctant Online Contributor to Mentor: Facilitating Student Peer-to-Peer Mentoring Online

Denise Beckton, Donna Lee Brien, Ulrike Sturm

Abstract


Introduction

As the teaching staff working in a university postgraduate program—the Graduate Certificate of Creative Industries (Creative Practice) at Central Queensland University, Australia—an ongoing concern has been to ensure our students engage with the digital course content (delivered via the Moodle learning management system). This is an issue shared across the sector (La Pointe and Reisetter; Dargusch et al.) and, in our case, specifically in the area of students understanding how this online course content and tasks could benefit them in a program that is based around individual projects. As such, we are invested in enhancing student engagement both within the framework of this individual program and at an institution level. Like many institutions which now offer degrees which are either partially or fully online, the program in question offers a blended learning environment, with internal students also expected to engage with online materials (Rovai and Jordan; Colis and Moonen). The program was developed in 2011, first offered in 2012, and conducted two and sometimes three terms a year since then.

Within the first year of delivery, low levels of student participation in online learning were identified as problematic. This issue was addressed using strategies that made use of characteristic strengths among our creative industries students, by developing and linking a peer-to-peer mentoring approach to our blended learning course design. Our challenge in this (as project facilitators and as teachers) has been to devise strategies to shift the students from reluctant to engaged online content users. A key strategy has evolved around introducing peer-mentoring as an intrinsic behaviour in the courses in the program. While not using a full case study approach, we do offer this singular instance for consideration as “much can be learned from a particular case” (Merriam 51). The below is based on our own observations, together with formal and informal student feedback gathered since 2012.

Mentors and Mentoring

The term mentor can have different meanings depending on the context in which the phrase is used. Ambrosetti and Dekkers note that “it is evident from the literature that there is no single definition for mentoring” (42). Drawing on an array of literature from a number of disciplines to qualify the definition of the term mentoring, Ambrosetti and Dekkers have identified a series of theorists whose definitions demonstrate the wide-ranging interpretation of what this act might be. Interestingly, they found that, even within the relatively narrow context of pre-service teacher research, words used to identify the term mentor varied from relatively collegial descriptors for the established teacher such as supporter, friend, collaborator, role model, and protector, to more formalised roles including trainer, teacher, assessor, and evaluator. The role to be played by a mentor—and how it is described—can also vary according to parameters around, and the purpose of, the mentoring relationship. That is, even though “mentoring, as described in literature, generally involves supporting and providing feedback to the mentee without judgment or criteria” (43), the dynamics of the mentor-mentee relationship may influence the perception and the nature of these roles. For example, the mentoring relationship between a teacher and pre-service teacher may be perceived as hierarchical whereby knowledge and feedback is “passed down” from mentor to mentee, that is, from a more authoritative, experienced figure to a less knowledgeable recipient. As such, this configuration implies a power imbalance between the roles.

The relationships involved in peer-to-peer mentoring can be similarly defined. In fact, Colvin and Ashman describe the act of peer-mentoring as “a more experienced student helping a less experienced student improve overall academic performance”, and a relationship that “provides advice, support, and knowledge to the mentee” (122). Colvin and Ashman’s research also suggests that “if mentors and mentees do not have a clear sense of their roles and responsibilities, mentors will find it difficult to maintain any sort of self‐efficacy” (122)—a view that is held by others researchers in this field (see Hall et al.; Reid; Storrs, Putsche and Taylor). However, this collective view of peer-to-peer mentorship was not what we aimed to foster. Instead, we wanted our courses and program to both exhibit and inculcate practices and processes which we felt are more in line with our understanding of the creative industries, including a more organic, voluntary and non-hierarchical approach to peer-to-peer mentorship. This could use Ambrosetti and Dekker’s less hierarchical descriptors of supporter, friend, and collaborator listed above.

Student Cohort

The student cohort in this program regularly includes on-campus and distance education students in approximately equal ratios, with those studying by distance often geographically very widely dispersed across Australia, and sometimes internationally. The students in this program come from a diverse spectrum of creative industries’ art forms, including creative writing, digital media, film, music, and visual arts. Most enter the program with advanced skills, undergraduate or equivalent qualifications and/or considerable professional experience in their individual areas of creative practice and are seeking to add a postgraduate-level of understanding and scholarly extension to this practice (Kroll and Brien; Webb and Brien). Students also utilise a wide range of learning styles and approaches when developing and completing the creative works and research-informed reflective reports which comprise their assessment. All the students in the program’s courses utilise, and contribute to, a single online Moodle site each term. Some also wish to progress to research higher degree study in creative practice-led research projects (Barrett and Bolt) after completing the program.

Applying Peer-to-Peer Mentoring in a Project-Based Program

The student cohort in this program is diverse, both geographically and in terms of the area of individual creative industries’ specialisation and the actual project that each student is working on. This diversity was a significant factor in the complexity of the challenge of how to make the course online site and its contents and tasks (required and optional) relevant and engaging for all students. We attempted to achieve this, in part, by always focusing on content and tasks directly related to the course learning outcomes and assessment tasks, so that their usefulness and authenticity in terms of the student learning journey was, we hoped, obvious to students. While this is a common practice in line with foundational conceptions of effective learning and teaching in higher education, we also proposed that we might be able to insure that course content was accessed and engaged with, and tasks completed, by linking the content and tasks in Moodle to the action of mentoring. 

In this, students were encouraged to discuss their projects in the online discussion forum throughout the term. This began with students offering brief descriptions of their projects as they worked through the project development stage, to reports on progress including challenges and problems as well as achievements. Staff input to these discussions offered guidance—both through example and (at times) gentle direction—on how students could also give collegial advice to other students on their projects. This was in terms of student knowledge and experience gained from previous work plus that learned during the program. In this, students reported on their own activities and how learning gained could potentially be used in other professional fields, as for example: “I specifically enjoyed the black out activity and found the online videos exceptional, inspiring and innovating. I really enjoyed this activity and it was something that I can take away and use within the classroom when educating” (‘Student 1’, week 8, Term 1 2015). Students also gave advice for others to follow: “I understand that this may not have been the original intended goal of Free Writing—but it is something I would highly recommend … students to try and see if it works for you” (‘Student 2’, week 5, Term 1 2015). As each term progressed, and trust built up—a key aspect of online collaboration (Holton) as well as a fruitful mentoring relationship (Allen and Poteet)—joint problem solving also began to take place in these discussions.

As most of the students never interact face-to-face during the term, the relative impersonality of the online discussions in Moodle, although certainly not anonymous, seemed to provide a safe platform for peer-to-peer mentoring, even when this was offered by those who were also interacting in class as well. As facilitators of this process, we also sought to model best-practice interaction in this communication and ensure that any posts were responded to in an encouraging and timely manner (Aragon). As a result, the traffic within these forums generally increased each week so that, by the end of the term, every student (both external and internal) had contributed significantly to online discussions—even those who appeared to be more reluctant participants in the beginning weeks of the term. 

Strategies to Facilitate Peer-to-Peer Mentoring

Seeking to facilitate this process, we identified discrete points within the term’s course delivery at which we would encourage a greater level of engagement with the online resources and, through this, also encourage more discussion in the online discussion forum. One of the strategies we employed was to introduce specific interactions as compulsory components of the course but, at the same time, always ensuring that these mandated interactions related directly to assessment items. For example, a key assessment task requires students to write reflectively about their creative work and processes. We duly included information and examples of reflective writing as resources online. In order to further develop this skill for both internal and external students, we adopted an active and iterative learning approach to this task by asking students to write reflectively, each week, about the online resources provided to them. In asking students to do this, we reiterated that, at the end of term, a core part of the assessment item was that each student would be asked to describe, analyse and reflect on how they used these resources to facilitate their creative practice. At the end of the term, therefore, each student could collate his or her weekly responses, and use these as part of this assessment task. However, before this final reflection needed to be completed, these reflective musings were already being refined and extended as a result of the commentaries offered by other students responding to these weekly reflections. In this, these commenting students were, in fact, playing the role of peer-to-peer mentors, assisting each other to enhance their abilities in reflective thinking and writing.

It should be stated that neither formal mentoring roles nor expectations of the process or its outcomes were pre-determined, defined or outlined to students by the teaching staff or communicated directly to them in any way (such as via the course materials). Instead, internal and distance students were encouraged to communicate with each other and offer guidance, help and support to each other (but which was never described as peer-to-peer mentorship) via their use of the Moodle learning managements system as both a group communication tool and a collaborative learning resource (Dixon, Dixon and Axmann). 

It is common for creative practitioners to collect data in the form of objects, resources, tools, and memories in order to progress their work and this habit has been termed that of the “bowerbird” (Brady). Knowing that it likely that many of our students are already proficient bowerbirds with many resources in their personal collections, we also facilitated a peer-to-peer mentoring activity in the form of an online competition. This competition asked students to post their favourite interactive resource onto the Moodle site, accompanied by a commentary explaining why and how it could be used. Many students engaged with these peer-posted resources and then, in turn, posted reflections on their usefulness, or not, for their own personal practice and learning. This, in turn, engendered more resources to be posted, shared, and discussed in terms of project problem-solving and, thus, became another ongoing activity that encouraged students to act as increasingly valued peer-mentors to each other.

The Practical Application of Peer-to-Peer Mentoring

Each term, it is a course requirement that the student cohort, both internal and external, combine to create a group outcome—an exhibition of their creative work (Sturm, Beckton and Brien). For some students, the work exhibited is completed; for others, particularly part-time students, the work shown is frequently still in progress. Given that the work in the student exhibition regularly includes music and creative writing as well as visual art, this activity forces students to engage with their peers in ways that most of them have not previously encountered. This interaction includes communication across the internal and distance members of the cohort to determine what work will be included in the exhibition, and how work will be sent for display by external students, as well as liaising in relation to range of related considerations including: curatorial (what the exhibition will be named, and how work is to be displayed), cataloguing (how the works, and their contributors, are to be described), and the overall design of the catalogue and invitation (Sturm, Beckton and Brien). Students make these decisions, as a group, with guidance from staff mainly being offered in terms of practical information (such as what days and times the exhibition space can be accessed) and any limitations due to on-site health and safety considerations and other university-wide regulations.

Student feedback has been very positive in relation to this aspect of the course (Sturm, Beckton and Brien), and its collective nature is often remarked on in both formal and informal feedback. We are also finding that some prospective students are applying to the program with a knowledge of this group exhibition and some information about how it is achieved. After graduation, students have reported that this experience of peer-to-peer working across the spectrum of creative industries’ art forms has given them a confidence that they were able to apply in real work situations and has, moreover been a factor that directly led to relevant employment. One student offered in unsolicited feedback: “It was a brilliant course that I gained a lot from. One year on, I have since released another single and work as an artist manager, independently running campaigns for other artists. The course also helped make me more employable as well, and I now work … as a casual admin and projects officer” (Student 3, 2015).

Issues Arising from Peer-to-Peer Mentoring

An intrinsic aspect of facilitating and encouraging this peer-to-peer mentoring was to allow a degree of latitude in relation to student online communication. The week-to-week reflection on the online resources was, for instance, the only mandated activity. Other participation was modeled and encouraged, but left to students as to how often and when they participated, as well as the length of their posts. In each term, we have found student involvement in discussions increased throughout the term, and tended to exceed our expectations in both quantity and quality of posts.

We have also found that the level of intimate detail offered, and intimacy developed, in the communications was far greater than we had initially anticipated, and that there were occasions when students raised personal issues. Initially, we were apprehensive about this, particularly when one student discussed past mental health challenges. At the time, we discussed that the creative arts – whether in terms of its creation or appreciation – are highly personal practices (Sternberg), and that the tone taken by many of the creative individuals, theorists, and researchers whose materials we use as resources was often personally revealing (see, for example, Brien and Brady). By not interfering, other than ensuring that the tone students used with each other was always respectful and focused on the professional aspects of what was being discussed, we observed that this personal revelation translated into high levels of engagement in the discussions, and indeed, encouraged peer support and understanding. Thus, in terms of the student who revealed information about past health issues and who at one stage had considered withdrawing from the course, this student later related to staff—in an unsolicited communication—that these discussions led to him feeling well supported. This student has, moreover, continued to work on related creative practice projects after completing the program and, indeed, is now considering continuing onto Masters level studies.

Conclusion

In relation to much of the literature of mentoring, this experience of student interaction with others through an online discussion board appears to offer a point of difference. While that literature reports on other examples of peer-to-peer mentoring, most of these follow the seemingly more usual vertical mentoring model (that is, one which is hierarchical), rather than what developed organically in our case as a more horizontal mode. This is, moreover, a mode which has many synergies with the community of practice and collaborative problem solving models which are central to the creative industries (Brien and Bruns).

Collings, Swanson, and Watkins have reported on the positive impact of peer mentoring on student wellbeing, integration, and retention. In terms of effects and student outcomes, although we have not yet collected data on these aspects of this activity, our observations together with informal and University-solicited feedback suggests that this peer-to-peer mentoring was useful (in terms of their project work) and affirming and confidence-building (personally and professionally) for students who are both mentors and mentees. These peer-to-peer mentoring activities assisted in developing, and was encouraged by, an atmosphere in which students felt it was appropriate and safe to both offer support and critique of each others’ work and ideas, as well as encouragement when students felt discouraged or creatively blocked. Students, indeed, reported in class and online that this input assisted them in moving through their projects and, as program staff, we saw that that this online space created a place where collaborative problem-solving could be engaged in as the need arose—rather than in a more forced manner. As teachers, we also found these students became our post-graduate colleagues in the way more usually experienced in the doctoral supervisor-student relationship (Dibble and Loon).

The above reports on a responsive learning and teaching strategy that grew out of our understanding of our students’ needs that was, moreover, in line with our institution’s imperatives. We feel this was a successful and authentic way of involving students in online discussions, although we did not originally foresee that they would become mentors in the process. The next step is to develop a project to formally evaluate this aspect of this program and our teaching, as well as whether (or how) they reflect the overarching discipline of the creative industries in terms of process and philosophy. 

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Keywords


creative industries, mentor, online learning, Moodle



Copyright (c) 2016 Denise Beckton, Ulrike Sturm, Donna Lee Brien

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