Tuesday, October 9, 2007

E-mentoring tools: chicken before the egg or egg before the chicken?

I am writing this as a reply to a blog entry by Jennifer Lubke, who is a teacher interested in e-mentoring. First of all, I am very excited because Jennifer is the first person to ever cite me in a blog (to my knowledge) - so that must add to my online score, surely!?

As an aside to those of us who are New Zealand academics: would a mention in a reputable blog count toward PBRF? For those of you who live/work outside New Zealand, Performance Based Research Funding is a rating system and measurement of research outputs by academics, similar to RAE in the UK.

Back to Jennifer: she is looking at online tools that may be used for e-mentoring. She has developed an assessment tool for looking at the viability/effectiveness of social networking tools for e-mentoring. Jennifer talks about teachers who are linked by a common interest and want to go 'virtual'. They should think carefully about what they want to achieve and then select the appropriate tools. But in our own enthusiasm for online social networking, we must not forget the obvious; to make sure that people have the knowledge to be able to make the choice about the tool to use. I am afraid that I am very guilty of assuming that people have the same knowledge and motivation to use computer-mediated communication that I am. However, in my experience of setting up an e-mentoring email scheme for health professionals, there is a considerable reluctance to use CMC, despite the participants articulating an appreciation of the advantages of CMC, such as flexibility of time management and breakdown of geographical barriers. I have even been surprised by the lack of knowledge of online tools by the teachers I work with. So when we are working with people to develop formal online systems of mentoring or teaching/learning programs, assessing participants' needs and knowledge must come into one's planning and thinking.

Another trap we must be very careful not to fall into is thinking that the latest technology has to be the best tool to use. If you are working with people who have a resistance to technology, keeping it simple has to be a key point. It's often things that we haven't considered that impedes uptake of CMC and networking tools. I have never forgotten talking to a rural midwife who always lost her Internet connection whenever her next door neighbour, who was a farmer, put his electric fence on. Jenny refers us to George Siemens who writes that 'it's not about the tools. It's about change'. Rather than focusing on the ins and outs of blogs, wikis, RSS feeds and so on, we need to think about collaboration, open communication and 'democracy of voice'. A salutary reminder.


Catherine said...

Hi Sarah,

You are totally right when you talk about the trap of using the latests technologies. In our program, Academos, we have presure from some of our users to use chat, webcams, etc. Keeping it simple by using email give us the chance to reach anybody, whatever is the speed of their Internet connexion. It also permits to reach security issues on our website. Email are archived and could be monitored. That is more difficult with syncronous means of communication.

By the way, we now have an English section on our website. I invite you to visit us! http://www.academos.qc.ca/default_en.asp

David McQuillan said...

The PBRF question is an interesting one. It seems to me that academic blogging should surely be considered a valid form of peer reviewed research as some point in the future.

Isn't it fantastic to receive feedback and other perspectives on the points of view that you put forward almost immediately.

Sarah Stewart said...

I agree with you, David; the questions is: will the PBRF committees! I just love the fact that you can network with people who you would never otherwise have heard of. I have found this so beneficial already despite the fact I have only been blogging for a few weeks. It will be interesting to see what the outcome is in say, a year's time. Will it be a fad of mine or will it become a valuable tool for my teaching development and research outcomes? Who knows? What do you see as the benfeits for you in the long term?

Sarah Stewart said...

Thanks for that, Catherine. I absolutely agree - it really surprises me just how few people even now can barely get their heads around email: anything else would be to difficult. As a researcher, email is a wonderful tool because it can be stored and there's no transcription. Nevertheless, it can still be very time consuming working through emails and threads.