I’m delighted to announce that this August I’ll be releasing a book on a new wave of disruption in education: innovations that deepen and expand students’ access to relationships. Who You Know: Unlocking innovations that expand students’ networks (Wiley, 2018) examines dramatic shifts in the way schools are empowering students to forge new connections—and ultimately opportunities—that would otherwise be out of reach. The book is now available for preorder.

Online mentoring may sound like an oxymoron. Can an online connection really can stand up to enduring face-to-face relationships we enjoy with close mentors? Indeed, there’s scant evidence to suggest that an online mentor is better than a face-to-face mentor.

But our research into technology tools designed to connect students to online mentors tells a different story. The upside of online mentoring is its unique ability to fill gaps in students’ networks. Rather than attempting to replace strong relationships in students’ analog lives, these models promise to offer new online connections in circumstances where students’ current alternative is nothing at all. Using technology, online mentoring programs can allow students who otherwise might never meet an engineer or lawyer to connect with working professionals. They can fill advice gaps for those students with shockingly limited access to college guidance in high school. They can step in to encourage and motivate students learning in isolation to persist when curiosity waivers, providing a gentle nudge to press onward.

Among those providers opening up access to new relationships is Brightside, a nonprofit, UK-based online mentoring organization. Founded in 2003, Brightside is one of the largest online mentoring models, working with 10,000 young people across the UK every year. The organization finds and trains mentors from across industries and leverages an online platform to connect them with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. I sat down with Brightside’s Chief Executive, Anand Shukla, to learn more.

Julia: In our research we’re focusing on how relationships – or social capital – are critical levers for social mobility. Have you seen that bear out in Brightside’s 15 years?

Anand: Building social capital – or trusted relationships – lies at the heart of Brightside’s service model. Our organisation started 15 years ago from a conviction that having a network of people to ask for informal advice and support would give young people knowledge and confidence about post-school pathways into higher education and careers. Disadvantaged students are far more likely to lack this social capital because they typically will not have access to this advice in their immediate family and community network. Since our founding, we have worked with over 100,000 young people brokering access to new relationships and networks for those young people. We have also started to develop an alumni network specifically to continue social capital development for our mentees once their mentoring programme comes to an end.

Julia: What are the greatest advantages of using technology to support mentorship?

Anand: There are a number of advantages. First and fundamentally, geography is no barrier. In recent years, Brightside has concentrated on more remote parts of the UK (in particular rural and coastal areas which are areas of educational and economic under-achievement) as our technology means we can connect expertise from across the UK with young people who would not normally be able to access such support because of logistical constraints. Online is a great way of connecting people with role models and opportunities beyond their immediate community.

Second, online mentoring (through written interactions) is cost-effective and flexible. We are able to provide a safe, secure, and moderated platform for thousands of conversations every year at reasonable cost. For example, 17 year-old students can receive 12 hours of personalised, focused support on their mentoring programme as they plan for life after school. This is typically much more than the support they receive in school. The flexibility provided by online mentoring also means that busy mentors and students can fit in the support around their schedules.

Third, online mentoring takes away some of the power dynamics that can occur in face-to-face relationships. It can be easier to open up and ask questions on this more equal footing. It also allows for more reflective and detailed questions and answers in a way that can be harder in a more conventional face-to-face exchange, which can have the effect of putting people on the spot.

And finally, online allows for straightforward data capture on the interactions between mentor and mentee – number of messages; conversation length; topics covered – enabling an assessment of the effectiveness of the project. In a world where measuring impact becomes ever more important, this is another advantage of online mentoring.

Julia: As technology improves we often look for ways to automate human interactions and supports. This lends scale but might threaten to hollow out relationships. How do you strike a balance?

Anand: This is a live issue at Brightside and the balance between automation and quality lies at the heart of our approach. Expressed simply, Brightside’s mentors provide information, advice, and guidance to young people at a key point of transition. Our model is an interesting combination of the personal touch (your very own mentor) delivered at scale (online). Ultimately, our aim is to stimulate a relationship which makes a meaningful difference to the mentee, and so the human dimension will always be at the forefront of our model.

There are some quick wins that we can make here – using technology to automate organisation processes that enable staff to concentrate their time and energies on the mentoring relationships themselves. However, there is a bigger question for us in how we make the best use of technology to optimise our mentoring programme for the young people we work with. For example, we know that machine learning has the potential to help us identify common topics that come up through mentoring conversations, and to identify high-quality responses to queries. We can use the findings from such analysis in our training of mentors for example.

We currently deliver much of our training for mentors through scheduled webinars which allows for questions to be asked and answered in real-time and for everyone on the webinar to learn from the exchange. However, this does represent a big cost, and we are currently exploring other ways of delivering e-learning modules. We are also starting to investigate high quality e-learning engagement for students as well.

These are just a couple of examples of the areas where we are looking to achieve the optimum balance between automation and quality. It’s a tough, but very exciting, balance to explore – and this balance will change over time. As people’s familiarity with receiving information and instruction online evolves, our thinking and delivery models must follow suit.