Learning in community:
Experiences in mentor training
SA is currently involved in Information and Communication Technology
projects that are supplying computers to 300 schools that were
historically disadvantaged. One
of the catch phrases of the projects is, “We are not learning to use
computers, we are using computers to learn.”
However, the most radical departure from previous projects is the
mode of delivery of teacher support and development.
This intervention uses an e-mail system, networking peer groups of
teachers and mentors. So, although our current projects clearly involve
the other three themes of this symposium, in that they are school-based,
classroom-based and certainly territorially based I would like to focus on
the aspects of our projects, which concern the theme of Virtual
Learning Communities in Networks. More
specifically I would like to outline our experiences of the learning
communities that were developed among the mentors while engaged in
training for their roles as mentors in these projects.
for the e-mentor model
most effective model for teacher education that is now widely accepted is
a mixed mode of delivery; a combination of contact and distance modes,
with improved student teacher support being identified as an essential
ingredient of this model. School-based mentor support has come to be
considered as a most effective mechanism, not only in the area of student
support but more recently in educator development and appraisal.
findings from previous national projects indicated that the face-to-face
training was inadequate and in some cases inappropriate. (SAIDE,
1998) There was a low retention rate of learning and teachers
were not implementing what they learnt on training courses.
Not only did we realise that teachers require contextualised
learning material but that they also require ongoing long-term support.
Therefore just-in-time face-to-face training combined with mentored
distance modules was identified as the most appropriate model for educator
development in ICT's at this time in our country.
associated with this mode of delivery, such as the loneliness and
motivation of the distance learner, were acknowledged. Strategies to
address these risks were incorporated; both the mentor system and the
development of a community of learning being the most significant. Gerald Roos’s paper outlines the role of the community of
The role of community
research has been conducted into the concept of community and the
different interpretations it has in different cultures.
In some cultures, the community defines the individual whereas in
others there is scarcely any sense of community.
In Africa we all know that there is a very strong emphasis on
community, as evidenced by such concepts as “It takes a village” and
in South Africa there is the widely-used expression of
means that a person exists only because of his fellow men.
This concept is held in such high regard that it was once a
compulsory subject on the curriculum of all schools in KwaZulu where I
we all know, South Africa has a diversity of cultures within the country
itself and therefore cross-cultural interaction has been a crucial
consideration in our mentor training course.
falling into the trap of stereotyping a nation, I would like to make the
point that the task of creating a community in South Africa is easy
because there is a natural predisposition of its people to be communal and
friendly. This was proved to
be correct by our early experiences in the pilot phase of our projects
when teachers from very disadvantaged schools, expressed a real need to
form relationships with those outside their immediate geographical
location. They were so
excited at the prospect of making friends around the country.
project benefited from having this inherent characteristic in the South
African mentality but a potentially negative attribute was the propensity
of our teachers to prefer face-to-face and physical contact rather than
using technology. When given
a choice, many teachers, especially those in rural areas would prefer to
see the person or even be able to touch the person with whom they wish to
communicate. This need could
be a result of such communities being historically excluded from advanced
tele-communication facilities. However, this was an obstacle that had to
How the e-mentor system works
The philosophy underpinning
this model provides learners (teachers) with e-mentors for each module,
who support them through their work, as well as facilitating online
discussion between a small community of learners (a maximum of
15 learners). All
communication takes place via e-mail, using a sophisticated database and a
mail server to route mail to the appropriate location and filter out any
potentially project-crippling computer viruses.
are all professionally qualified educators with classroom experience and
varying degrees of ICT background. They
emanate from a variety of educational backgrounds. They all have some experience
in using computers in education.
All mentors have their own email address and are expected to be
available for a maximum of 9 hours per week at flexible times.
SchoolNet SA has appointed mentors all over the country as well as
some based in other countries.
role of the mentor
role of the mentor in these projects is one of providing encouragement,
constructive feedback and supportive care to the learners. The
emphasis is on making it easier for each learner to follow the process of
working with the materials and interacting with the group.
not only provides valuable support of the teachers in their learning, but
also offers a growth opportunity for the mentors themselves.
are evaluated on their ability to maintain and nurture their groups of
learners, to develop the relationships between themselves and the group
and very importantly to encourage interaction between the group members
in order to develop their sense of community.
The task of developing a learning community via e-mail is a
daunting one but one of our participants circulated this quotation
to Ralph Waldo Emerson:
' It is one of the most beautiful compensations of
this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without
helping himself '.
mentors, who guide these communities of learners through these modules,
first have to develop their own mentoring skills by studying a distance
learning mentor course, through SchoolNet.
mentor course consists of a series of activities devoted to the nurturing
of a common understanding of the particular type of role that mentors will
be expected to play.
course simulates the format that is used for the distance modules for the
teachers that they will mentor. Therefore
all communication is via email, with a peer group and a mentor.
A number of activities have to be completed within a time frame but
the most important aspect being that the community of learners interact
and assist each other with the same activities within approximately the
same time frame.
experiences of the participation and the sense of community that has
developed on these courses have been extremely rewarding. Here is the
parting e-mail message from one of the participants,
has been a most stimulating and valuable course thanks to all of you
wonderful folk who have put so much into it. It has reinforced how
important it is to share with ones colleagues and benefit from ideas from
a community rather than ploughing, solo, head down along the path
that you have followed for the last ten years.
Gareth Fotheringham 2001-09-01
success of e-mail in fostering community
interaction via mailing lists lends itself to open and uninhibited
communication, once the initial jitters of speaking to “the whole
world” are overcome. Many
mentors had never been exposed to these elements of online learning
environments and found themselves on exciting learning curves.
A mechanism that we found assisted reflection and gave the mentor a
truer picture of the development of participants in the groups on the
mentor course was the e-diary. The
e-diary is just a document where participants record their thoughts. The
following quotations reinforce some of the observations we have made about
this model of learning.
The medium of e-mail
facilitated a more open communication than in a face-to-face situation.
I wonder if I would have spoken out my past failures in a face to face
group situation. I think
being able to express myself in writing gave me the courage to express
I find that I am looking for other signs in the written e-mail.
But even there one has clues as to what the person is like.
It is also interesting to have a delay in responses time.
As I pointed out in my e-mail, I believe that this is a paradigm
shift in communication. It involves a new set of skills, which must be developed.”
found the course to be rigorous and stimulating. They all agreed that they
had learnt a tremendous amount through collaboration:
it appears that Steve seems to look at it holistically...then good.. For me there
needs to be an understanding of context for the practise of every skill.
Might well be easier to identify broad principles of practise, rather than
was much interaction at an intellectual and a social level.
think it is time for me to say WOW!!! - So much mail - so many wonderful
ideas and views. Between us we could solve any and every problem!!"
spent some time this evening reviewing all the mail, I see just how deeply
people have been thinking about this whole topic.”
most important successes of this course were that it thoroughly explored
the process of learning through collaboration and the importance of how to
build the learning community.
have really “bonded” and I have enjoyed the interaction.
There are some very competent and enthusiastic members amongst
them…. I have felt safe with them and I think we have built up a very
good atmosphere of trust and support.”
would really like to keep in contact with the group so that we can support
and encourage one another when the going gets tough.
of the greatest findings was the ability of the communal interaction to
successfully lift the confidence levels of insecure members of the groups.
days ago I felt quite out of my depth and I was beginning to think I had
made a mistake getting into this thing.
Participants were able to
express opinions and explore them with their group; they discussed their
own metacognition; they interrogated the text of their mentor module as
well as scrutinizing the other modules and debated all relative merits on
the mailing lists. They thrashed out all issues relating to the role they
will be expected to play and their contributions will be used to improve
the existing module.
teacher as facilitator, scaffolding learning: “Just
when he should step in and when he should watch from a distance, letting
the mentee perhaps struggle a bit so as to learn through his own
to encourage community: “If
I reflect on how we as a group built a sense of community then I cannot
remember any "tricks" or extra activities ... The series of
tasks, the responses, the respect, the jokes .. these have, I think
made our group a strong community.”
future of the mentored courses
remains to be seen whether such close relationships that developed among
the mentors, can also develop among the teachers studying these modules
under their guidance and more importantly whether significant learning
takes place using these virtual communities.
Those educators studying to be mentors for the SchoolNet South
Africa projects certainly discovered the power of learning in community.
Michelson, E, Multicultural
approaches to portfolio development, Ball, 1997
South African Institute for Distance Education, Evaluation of
the Telkom 1000 project, 1999
3 October 2001