Telementoring: Using Online Communication for a Student Mentoring Project

June 1, 2000

In 1995 the rise of telecommunications capabilities was just becoming a possibility for most schools, and its potential was still unknown. At that time, researchers at the Center for Children and Technology (CCT) began asking what that new technology could offer to students that would extend, rather than replace, the resources and activities available to them. Did telecommunications have a role in the work of schools and in students' lives? If so, what was that place, and how would it function?

Simultaneously, CCT researchers were engaged in work with a specialized technical high school. This work afforded them opportunities to talk with young women taking pre-engineering classes. Those women described feeling both outnumbered and isolated in their largely male dominated courses. They often struggled with the kinds of tasks assigned in those classes and felt unprepared or unwilling to consider engineering as a field of concentration as they approached decisions about college and future work. It became clear that those young women had no female role models or mentors to whom they could look for direction, advice, or help with the questions they had about what life can be like for a woman working in the sciences or technology.

The potential was there: telecommunications could link those students to a larger community of women who had been through similar classes and experiences and who had made careers for themselves in science or technology. By linking high-school women engaged in science, engineering, or computing classes to professional women working in those fields, we hoped to offer to those students both support and guidance, enabling them to make informed choices about their futures and possibly encouraging them to continue on their technical career paths.

What follows is a description of an online mentoring project that CCT designed in response to those circumstances. Although created with our specific project's goals in mind, the information below is relevant to the design and development of any online mentoring program that attempts to bring students and adult professionals together to exchange information and create a network of support.

The Project

Telementoring Young Women in Science, Engineering, and Computing was funded as a three-year experiment by the National Science Foundation. The project was designed to address the multiple concerns and questions that high-school-age women face when considering careers in technical fields such as science, technology, or computing. The project focused its efforts on supporting mentoring relationships between students and professionals.

The project's goals were to

  • provide female role models for young women considering courses and careers in science, engineering, computing, or related fields
  • provide validation, advice, and support, which is critical for young women making decisions about pursuing courses and careers in science, engineering, computing, or related fields
  • enable young women to work through their concerns and fears when considering further studies in technical or scientific fields
  • address the isolation that young women experience in engineering, computing, and science classrooms
  • provide opportunities for young women to discuss the content of their classes and develop strategies for dealing with difficult subject matter and situations
  • provide young women with sound career advice

To address those goals, project staff developed a set of program components that built online communities that valued, encouraged, and supported young women in pursuit of technical courses and careers. Those components included

  • establishing mentor-student connections linking professional women to high-school girls
  • making resources available on a Web site to both mentors and students
  • organizing special activities, information, support, and guidance for its participants
Why Online?

One of the most important findings that emerged during preparatory research for this project was that many young women find themselves without role models in technical fields. Although our early research found this to be the case at a large, specialized high-school in New York City, educators from schools in rural and suburban areas also indicated that there was an enormous need for role models for their students. Students at those schools had few adults with whom they spoke about their experiences and concerns both inside and outside of school, and there were often few women available to act as role models, particularly in career fields such as mathematics, engineering, or computing.

At the same time, many professional women in those fields expressed interest in reaching out to high-school-aged woman. They wanted to reach out to young women who might be experiencing the same struggles and challenges they faced when they considered pursuing technology or science careers. However, many of the professional women we spoke with were unable to connect with high-school students, for a variety of reasons. Their jobs often were time consuming and demanding, these women often traveled regularly, many lived in different states from the students, and others had commitments such as young children or other family needs. All of those factors combined to create a pool of potential mentors who were willing to commit time and energy to a mentoring relationship with young women, but who were unable to do so for a variety of reasons.

Mentoring online-telementoring-offered the perfect solution for both the students and the professionals. By connecting students with mentors online, many obstacles were overcome. A student and her mentor could live in different cities or even states. Because communications occurred by way of e-mail, there were no time constraints on a student or her mentor reading and responding to messages. Communication took place asynchronously: a student could come into school at 8:30 a.m. and send a message to her mentor. When the mentor arrived at work at 9:30 a.m., she would find the message waiting for her. The mentor could then compose a reply later in the evening and send it back to the student, who would receive it the next morning. In this way, mentors maintained relationships despite hectic travel schedules, overextended work days, and family commitments. And students also had the flexibility of being able to read and send e-mail at times that fit into their school and class schedules, or, when available, from a home computer.

Online communication provided a unique opportunity for bringing students together with mentors in ways that extended far beyond the traditional school community. However, simply putting kids and mentors together online was not enough. As we developed the Telementoring Project, we realized that more structure was required to ensure a positive mentoring experience for all involved.

Preparation and Expectations

The possibility of having students mentored by way of online communication is still a new concept for many educators. Few schools have regular, reliable access to telecommunications technology, and even fewer provide individual e-mail accounts to their students. As a result, many students and teachers lack the understanding of what telementoring can offer, how it works, and what kind of technical requirements are necessary to ensure the program remains operational. Teachers and students need to know what to expect from an online mentoring project.

Many mentoring programs in schools focus solely on academic content such as mathematics, or on project-based work like preparing for a science fare. Others focus on personal relationships and are not school related. In our case, many teachers, and some students, had specific expectations of what a mentoring relationship should be like. Several activities and support materials were designed to ensure that participants had expectations that matched the goals of the Telementoring Project. Both students and mentors were asked to participate in a series of online activities.

Mentors agreed to join a three-week-long facilitated online preparation in which they participated in a listserv discussion with 10(15 other potential mentors, reading and responding to a series of postings. The postings guided mentors in composing introductory messages to their future mentoring partners, the students, and presented mentoring scenarios developed from student interviews.

Students also agreed to participate in a facilitated online preparation. The preparation included the students subscribing to a listserv that brought them together with other students from different geographical locations. The students were asked to compose introductory messages to their future mentors and post them on the listserv. They were also encouraged to participate in discussions with their online peers.

Those preparatory activities were designed to accomplish several tasks. For the mentors, the "prep" activities provided

  • modeling of online mentoring and communication through facilitating the tone and content that would be appropriate for online discussion with students, tolerance for differences in expectations between students and mentors, and recognition that students may not reflect the same cultures and values that mentors bring to the relationships
  • demonstration of specific issues that students may raise and multiple approaches to those issues through using scenarios excerpted from student interviews and encouraging discussion about them
  • community building through participating in a "prep" with peers and through providing ongoing support after prep activities by maintaining the listserv and encouraging discussions about mentoring and other related issues
Sample First Posting from a Mentor Prep Facilitator


My name is C.C., and I am the mentor facilitator for these sessions. By now you have all received the Telementoring Packet in your snail mail. The packet includes the basic materials that, in addition to the online mentor training sessions, support and prepare you for your online mentoring experience. This posting marks the official start of the Telementoring Project's Mentor Prep Exchange. The prep sessions are equivalent to an online orientation to and training for the project.

The training is taking place on the "list." This list, referred to as the "Mentor Lounge" is a "place" where you can exchange ideas and insights and garner support from each other in preparation for Telementoring young women. . . .

Earlier, I told you my name and that I was the mentor facilitator. But what does that mean? My task is to help prepare you for the mentoring activities online. To that end, I will moderate (1) discussions about your expectations of online telementoring, (2) discussions about what students have identified as their expectations of the project, and (3) other online exchanges with fellow mentors. . . .

Sample Mentor Prep Introduction

Hi! My name is M. and I am a fifth-year graduate student in the process of writing my dissertation. I am studying infant leukemia and the genes and proteins which are involved in the cellular processes which might lead to leukemia.

I do many things related to mentoring. I have helped to found and organize a group called the Coalition of Women Graduate Students at the U of MN. We have done several mentoring workshops at the U of MN and have worked with the Grad school to work with administration regarding mentoring. We have published several of our findings and are still working on survival in a rather cold climate (pun intended).

I also chair the science outreach group of the local Graduate Women in Science organization. I am excited to meet all of you, to meet these young students, and to hear what our collective issues are!

Sample First Scenario from Mentor Prep

Subject: Scenario 1 Self-Image

This marks our first scenario. It deals with issues of self-image and self-esteem. Fostering a positive self-image is crucial to supporting and encouraging young women to believe in themselves and to pursue technical studies. As part of our work, we have interviewed young women about their interests, concerns, and obstacles they encounter in high-school engineering classes. How would you support young women who are experiencing lack of self-esteem in these contexts and in their lives?

We ask you to put yourself in the position of a young woman or to reflect on your own experiences and react to the following scenario posed to us by one young woman in a pre-engineering course.

During the interview, the interviewer asked the student if she wished to talk to a mentor about a variety of topics, one of which was self-esteem. The young woman responded:

"Self-image and self-confidence(I don't have any of that, so I don't think that would be very important to me."

  • How do you respond to this young woman?
  • What would you say first?
  • How does one help build self-confidence and esteem? Does it have to happen at the moment the young person brings it up? What happens if you wait?

There are several ways to approach this discussion. You can role play, think of your own experiences or young women you have met, previous mentoring experiences, or anything that you find helpful. The point is to help each other build viable strategies for addressing these issues online with the students.

For students, the prep activities provided

  • experience with using e-mail for communicating and recognition that communication in a text-only medium can alter how others interpret information
  • exposure to other students who are pursuing similar courses of study in different parts of the country
  • practice with expressing themselves through writing by creating a written description of who they are, to be sent to their mentor as an introduction.
Sample Student Prep Introduction and Response


My name is L.B. and I am 17 years old going on 18 on April 25. I am a senior at Selma High School. I like singing, playing the piano, talking on the phone, and tripping out [taking trips] with my friends. I take Government, Super Computer 1, English, Concert Choir, Chemistry 2, Sociology, and ShowChoir. I have no brothers or sisters. Write back soon.


Hi L.

I wish I could take as many singing classes as you. I only take one, and it's in school. I am also learning how to play the piano. You should write to Christina, she is very, very good at piano. She plays sometimes when we have performances. What types of music do you like best? Because I listen to Alternative music, you know, Nirvana and stuff, my friends think I'm weird, but I like Rap, R&B, Jazz, etc. too. I also love to talk on the phone. . . . Write back soon!

J. M.

Making a Match

Once students and mentors had completed their prep activities, they were ready to be matched, but figuring out how best to match mentors and students presented a number of challenges. Although the Telementoring Project wanted to provide an individualized approach to making a mentoring match, that was not a realistic goal. Individual matching was both time consuming and labor intensive. However, taking into account a variety of individual interests and experiences was possible through the use of a participant application that asked a set of questions that both mentors and students were required to answer. Those questions touched on issues such as fields of interest, geographic location, ethnicity, language preference, hobbies, understanding and ease with mathematics, and interest in or expertise in a specific career.

In addition, allowing students to have some say in the mentor-matching process appeared to have a positive impact on the success of a mentoring relationship. But this, too, was not realistic because it was time consuming and placed an extra burden on teachers who had to coordinate the process. To allow students to feel "heard" in the matching process, we incorporated a set of questions that asked students to indicate, on a scale of one to three, the most significant factor to be taken into consideration when being matched with a mentor. For example, a student might indicate that hobbies was most important factor; geographic location of the mentor, second most important; and career field, third.

Creating a Safe Place

Making a good match is not enough to ensure a successful mentoring relationship. Although a student and her mentor may have many things in common, discovering those similarities doesn't always come naturally, particularly online, where the discovery process takes place only in text. Both mentors and students need to feel that the online environment is a place where they can express themselves and be heard and accepted, rather than criticized or ignored. Encouraging participants to feel safe in both the prep listservs and throughout the online mentoring experience requires providing explicit information about what it means to be in a safe place and modeling the kinds of behaviors that are appropriate to create a feeling of safety.

During the Telementoring Project, students and mentors were guided toward tolerance of new or different ideas and to approach questions or comments with open minds. They were also reminded that online communication can be different from real-life conversation and sometimes difficult to interpret. Mentors were encouraged to not judge their students and to be open to discussing both personal and professional issues. That became an important aspect of creating the safe place for students. Many of them reported that they couldn't feel comfortable with talking to their mentor before getting to know them better, and that often meant knowing about their likes and dislikes, their daily activities, their family life, and so on.

Sample Student Posting to Mentor That Mixes Personal and Academic Information

Hi again,

When I read your last letter, I was amazed. I never lived in Nebraska, but my parents did, and surprisingly they went to the same college, Hastings!! What a coincidence!!!! I can't say the word college without hearing about how much they loved that school. . . .

I am taking Biology this year, but over here it's considered a 10th-grade course. (I take a lot of sophomore classes, because I came up to the high school part time last year, but I'm still a freshman). I really enjoy Biology especially right now. We're learning about the organelles within cells. To me it's really interesting, I've always liked microbiology.

I guess I do a lot of work with computers, I hadn't really thought about it before. Mostly I type, essays and such, but now I'm taking this programming class and using them a lot more. What kind of stuff do you do on the computer?

Do you play any sports? Besides skiing. I've always wanted to try skiing, but we don't really get a lot of snow here in Las Cruces.

Well, Christmas break just passed and I'm already thinking about Spring Break. My family and my friends' family are both going down to Mexico and spending the break on the beach. I'm really excited, I've never been out of the U.S. before!!!!

I think I've babbled on long enough for now, so I'll let you go. Talk to you soon!!


Summary and Other Issues to Keep in Mind

Although online communication may seem detached and somewhat inhuman, those who become familiar with the medium often find that it provides a different way of connecting with others. Many people participating in online conversations-both adults and students-find that they feel freer to discuss personal or emotional issues with an online friend or mentor than they do during a face-to-face discussion. For some, the act of writing, and the time to reflect on what one is writing, contribute to a sense of connectedness in the online environment. For high-school students, that kind of personal communication can provide a much-needed outlet for their concerns, fears, and successes during the often stressful and tumultuous transition from high school to college and adult life.

Simply placing students online with mentors is not enough. Having the technical infrastructure to support an online mentoring project is clearly a necessity when undertaking such an activity, but encouraging and supporting the participants as they enter their mentoring relationships is equally important. Helping to establish appropriate expectations, matching mentoring pairs, and creating a sense of safety online are necessities for any online mentoring effort. We have found other programmatic aspects to be important as well:

  • Create a predictable structure.
    Because the online environment is less familiar for most people than a face-to-face encounter, providing participants with a clear structure for the online discussion can eliminate some confusion about the timing and content of posted discussions. That allows the participants to avoid many misunderstandings and to focus on developing their mentoring relationships. For example, indicate clearly to all participants the date when a mentoring relationship is to begin as well as who is to initiate contact.
  • Create a support for matches that don't work.
    Although all mentoring programs hope for perfect matches for each student and mentor, there are always matches that just don't work, despite determined efforts on both sides. It is important to provide a way for those participants to be rematched(to avoid their feeling that a failed match is a direct reflection on their ability to participate in a mentoring relationship.
  • Manage technical difficulties.
    For most schools, technology is still a relatively new venture. Because of that, it is important to be prepared for technical glitches and obstacles when the project depends on school-provided Internet connections and computers. By having procedures for dealing with server crashes or lost e-mail accounts, students and their mentors can avoid interpreting e-mail silences incorrectly. A teacher with a home account might be responsible for sending to all mentors a notice indicating a technical difficulty, or a student with a home account might send this information to a mentor. However, not all technical difficulties occur at the school end of a mentoring relationship. Mentors who depend on e-mail accounts supplied by employers or outside providers have little control over those accounts, which may become inactive at times. Both students and mentors must learn to take technical difficulties in stride as they work to develop their online relationships.

What draws participants to an online mentoring project is the opportunity to connect with others, to share experiences, to offer guidance and help, or to ask for assistance when needed. By shaping an online environment that encourages regular, informal, and supported exchanges between mentors, students, and project staff, an online mentoring project can overcome the perceived impersonal nature of a telecommunications environment and can create a unique space where students and adults can meet to share insights and help one another.

Email: Naomi Hupert

Web Sites

Telementoring Young Women in Science, Engineering, & Computing
The Telementoring Project is a three-year project that draws on the strengths of telecommunications technology to build online communities of support among female high-school students, professional women in technical fields, parents, and teachers.

Electronic Emissary
"We are teams of volunteer teachers, learners, and assistants exploring telementoring projects and techniques together. We coordinate our efforts and share what we are learning with you, and with each other, using the ever-changing areas at this Web site. The Electronic Emissary . . . is, we believe, the longest-running Internet-based telementoring and research effort serving K-12 students and teachers around the world."

HP Telementor Program
"Our goal is to help students become proactive learners by taking full responsibility for learning and assessment. Students are encouraged to develop their own academic plans and learn how to leverage all learning resources more effectively. We support 5th-12th grade students and college students from public, private and home school environments to excel in math, science and career planning."

"MentorNet is The National Electronic Industrial Mentoring Network for Women in Engineering and Science. We pair women who are studying engineering or science at one of our participating colleges or universities with professional scientists and engineers working in industry, and help them form e-mail based mentoring relationships. MentorNet is a nonprofit initiative sponsored through grants from the AT&T and Intel Foundations, the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, IBM, Cisco Systems, Ford Motor Company, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, IEEE Foundation, SPIE, Texaco, SAP Labs, and Los Alamos National Laboratory."


Bennett, Dorothy T. "Providing Role Models Online: Telementoring Gives Students Real-Life Connections in Science and Beyond." Electronic Learning 16, no. 5 (1997): 50-51. Telementoring programs - formal and informal online exchanges between students and working professionals - have flourished using e-mail. This article discusses telementoring and issues to consider (finding mentors, familiarity, frequency of exchange, preparation and facilitation, and closure) before creating a Telementoring Project.

Harris, Judi. "It's a Simple Idea, but It's Not Easy to Do! Practical Lessons in Telementoring." Learning and Leading with Technology 24, no. 2 (1996): 53-57. This article describes the Electronic Emissary Project, an Internet-based interpersonal resource coordinated by the University of Texas at Austin, which matches students and teachers by way of e-mail with subject experts from around the world. The article presents sample projects and discusses challenges, the role of the online facilitator, and guidelines for implementing successful project-based telementoring.


Two reports are available that describe findings from the Telementoring Project:

Bennett, D., N. Hupert, K. Tsikalas, T. Meade, and M. Honey. Critical Issues in the Design & Implementation of Telementing Environments New York, NY: Education Development Center, CCT Reports, 1998.

Bennett, D., K. Tsikalas, N. Hupert, T. Meade, and M. Honey. The Benefits of Online Mentoring for High School Girls: Telementoring Young Women in Science, Engineering, and Computing Project. Year 3 Evaluation. New York, NY: Education Development Center, CCT Reports, 1998.