In many workplaces, coworkers sit next to each other in cubicles or meet at conference tables. They share gossip at the water cooler and run into each other in the elevator.
But higher education is different. Faculty teach in independent classrooms and lecture halls, have different schedules, and have workspaces spread out across sprawling campuses. Today, many colleges and universities offer online classes, with faculty who may not even live in the same state.
These barriers to communication and collaboration can be particularly isolating for new faculty, and speak to the importance of faculty mentorship programs.
In today’s digital age, online faculty mentorship programs, are becoming more and more common, and for good reason. They bridge the gaps brought about by differing schedules and far distances, allowing faculty to come together for the betterment of academia, the students, and the institute of higher learning.
For administrators who want to create effective online faculty mentorship programs, here are eight recommendations that can provide guidance:
1. Introduce Participants to the Online Platform
An effective online faculty mentorship program should use a platform for streamlining communication and tracking a program’s success. While it’s best to choose a platform that is user-friendly, it’s still beneficial to make sure mentors and mentees know how to optimize the program.
Take into account that the first meeting, or several meetings, between a mentor and mentee might be largely focused on comfort with the online communication, and that’s ok.
2. Consider a Flexible Model
A successful mentorship is not necessarily one size fits all. Especially when it comes to time and distance, the best program might be a flexible one.
For example, most program participants found some benefits to meeting early and often and engaging in at least one face-to-face meeting (Hundey et al., 2020). However, this might be physically impossible for some mentoring relationships.
Ideally, establish expectations for frequency of meetings and how long a mentorship relationship can last, but keep in mind any limitations due to distance.
3. Clarify Roles and Responsibilities
Mentors can take on a lot of roles for their mentees, including confidante, coach, and content resource. They may know their mentee’s insecurities and perceived weaknesses, inspire them to take risks, and help them navigate the world of higher education.
But despite their expertise in certain fields, mentors aren’t their mentees’ mental health professionals or financial advisors, and the focus of a mentorship program should still be complementary to higher education (Hundey et al., 2020).
Additionally, mentors shouldn’t feel that they are accessible anytime, anywhere, which is a common expectation in a digital world. An effective online faculty mentorship program will help mentors establish these boundaries and clarify roles for all participants.
4. Seek Diverse and Culturally Aware Mentors
There are many benefits to forming relationships with people who differ from us, notably gaining new perspectives and global empathy. The University of Pennsylvania (2007) reported that mentors should be encouraged to support and encourage any coworkers, but especially women and minorities.
These faculty may have a harder time finding other successful women or minority faculty in their fields, and an effective online faculty mentorship program can acknowledge this hurdle and use the digital platform as a way to overcome distance barriers and find strong mentors for all new faculty.
5. Incorporate All Aspects of Academic Life
Many new faculty are experts in their fields but have likely never taught a class. Pedagogy is one of the areas where mentors can provide advice that encompasses classroom management, teaching skills, curriculum, and grading.
But full instructional support can also include navigating departmental responsibilities and understanding the academic culture (Williams, Layne, & Ice, 2014). After all, a full schedule of classes and research responsibilities is a lot to learn and balance with the norms, values, and culture of higher education.
6. Foster Relationship Building
In an effective online faculty mentorship program, mentees have the opportunity to build relationships with mentors, be vulnerable, and get honest advice and feedback about their careers (University of Pennsylvania, 2007). For online colleges and universities, these might be the only strong relationships a new faculty has.
Without trusting and collaborative relationships, mentees may hold back and ultimately gain little out of the program.
For this reason, it’s best if supervisors don’t serve as mentors to their own faculty (Hundey et al., 2020). Mentees are less likely to be honest about stress, career goals, or perceived weaknesses if their mentor also evaluates them.
7. Develop Communication Skills
Because an online faculty mentorship program occurs through devices instead of in person, communication skills are especially important for mentors to develop. Meeting online often feels different than meeting in person, and it can be easy for mentors or mentees to hide behind computer screens.
When mentors are better at communicating, they can help their mentees develop successful practices.
Good communication skills include active listening, eye contact, showing understanding of a mentee’s thoughts and ideas, and sharing common experiences (Williams, Layne, & Ice, 2014).
8. Encourage Mentors to Provide Social Support
Mentorship is about more than helping a new faculty member learn how to teach and contribute to research. Mentors can be guides for the social and emotional challenges that come with employment at a college or university.
In almost any career field, new workers are likely to feel stressed and need social support for stressful situations (University of Pennsylvania, 2007). Additionally, psychological support helps reduce feelings of isolation (Williams, Layne, & Ice, 2014).
An effective online faculty mentorship program allows new faculty easy access to an experienced mentor who can provide guidance and support. With a device and internet, mentees can form strong, effective, collaborative relationships that support their growth.
By establishing guidelines and preparing mentors with the skills they need, an online faculty mentoring program helps new faculty feel connected and develop strong practices that will benefit their students and institute of higher learning.