- Online mentoring is starting to grow as a viable alternative for young people
- Some say children find it less intimidating than a formal sit-down session
- The Internet also makes it easier for more people to participate
Over the past 10 years, 25,000 struggling students from poverty-stricken schools have gotten guidance, encouragement and advice from volunteer mentors. And they haven't met face-to-face even once.
I Could Be, a New York-based nonprofit, uses online tools to connect students with those willing to lend a hand. It is one of a growing number of groups that specialize in what they call "e-mentoring."
The technology, of course, has existed for years. But the movement is just beginning to find its footing as groups work through various obstacles, such as insuring privacy and safety and establishing that there is, in fact, value in such online relationships.
Kate Schrauth, the executive director of I Could Be, is convinced. She says that digital mentoring, while in some ways limited, has advantages for students who have grown up in the glow of a computer monitor.
"Kids today are digital natives," she said. "Their comfort level with building relationships online is through the roof. What we find is that the technology is such a leveler -- that the kids are not afraid to ask (mentors) the questions they really want to know: 'How much money do you make? What's your average day like? How many hours do you have to sit there at a desk?'
"It's like that, rather than sitting there across the desk from somebody that's older, somebody that's from a different world than you. All those barriers disappear."
I Could Be was founded in 2000 by Adam Aberman, who had taught at inner-city schools in New York and Los Angeles and seen the need for extra guidance there.
The program, which works with hundreds of schools across the country, has partnered with career-minded companies like E*Trade and Monster.com to provide up to three mentors for each student.
The students, in grades 7-12, spend at least one hour a week working with their mentors, who provide them with career guidance, college information and other valuable advice from afar.
"Kids who at the beginning of the school year are literally hopeless -- those are the kids that we start to see the significant improvements on," Schrauth said. "The ones disengaged from the process, from their own lives, even -- those are the kids that are doing just spectacularly."
It's an approach that has worked on a global scale for Amy Stokes, one of the top 10 CNN Heroes of 2011.
Stokes runs Infinite Family, a program that links hundreds of South African children with mentors from all over the world. Using video chat and other Web tools, the mentors spend at least a half-hour each week with the kids, many of whom have lost their parents to HIV and AIDS.
"If none of the adults you care about has ever lived past 35, then why would you think you can?" Stokes said earlier this year. "Why would you stay in school? Why would you learn skills? (With) so many children and so few adults to help them grow up, I knew we had to find a way to bring new information, resources and the caring, nurturing effect of other adults into the lives of (these) children."
'An effective and viable option'
A group of researchers from Drexel University used the I Could Be program to study the efficacy of online mentoring. The results, according to the study, were largely positive.
Online mentoring "can serve as an effective and viable option to the more traditional face-to-face model," the group wrote in the "Journal of Vocational Behavior" after surveying about 1,400 students.
"(T)he evidence suggests that there are positive outcomes associated with e-mentoring," the report said. " As such, given the changing nature of current work conditions, organizations could seek to implement e-mentoring programs as a cost-effective and timely alternative to the traditional approach."
According to the Drexel study, students who already were comfortable using computers tended to get more from the program. And students with the lowest degree of self-confidence at the beginning of the program saw the biggest gains.
Frank Linnehan, an associate dean at Drexel's Lebow College of Business, co-authored the study and said it found pros and cons to e-mentoring.
"The disadvantage is that, obviously, you're not face-to-face," he said. "But the advantage is you can connect with more than one mentor very easily. You can connect with somebody that may be 300 or 500 or 5,000 miles away."
One factor that might have slowed wider adoption of online mentoring, especially of children, is security concerns, Linnehan said. He and Schrauth both noted that the I Could Be program provides no real-time communication opportunities; it uses a program that allows the exchange of messages between mentor and mentee. The program's proprietary software monitors for any potentially inappropriate communication and does not allow users to pinpoint each other's location.
Online mentoring might not be as widespread as one might think in an era when social networks like Facebook, video-chat tools like Skype and other online resources make instant communication so easy. But more examples are emerging.
MentorNet, which promotes itself as the "most experienced Web-based e-mentoring program in the world," provides mentors to women and minorities seeking careers in the engineering field.
Linnehan said UNICEF is working on a program that would link children in troubled areas with their peers in similar situations elsewhere.
"We're not trying to replace a face-to-face methodology," Schrauth said. "That is a beautiful relationship, and it's very important. But there are capacity issues. Only so many kids get to participate. Technology allows everybody to participate, on both the mentee side and the mentor side."