Using virtual mentors to expand offline networks and grow career aspirations

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May 2, 2018

This August I’ll be releasing a book on a new wave of disruption in education: innovations that deepen and diversify 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.

As I mentioned in my last blog, in the coming months I’ll be looking at the promise of technology to expand students’ networks. This week I chatted with Kate Schrauth, CEO of the nonprofit iCouldBe. iCouldBe brings online mentors from all career backgrounds into classrooms where 50-100% of students live at or below the poverty line. Mentors and students engage on a technology platform and work one-to-one throughout the school year on structured activities focused on academic success, career exploration, and post-secondary planning.  iCouldBe’s program has shown promising outcomes of increased mentee self-efficacy (belief in one’s ability to succeed) and development of career aspirations, as well as networking, communication, writing, teamwork, relationship-building, and other critical hard and soft 21st Century skills.

Like Brightside, which we featured last time, iCouldBe is unlocking relationships that might otherwise be out of reach for students from low-income backgrounds. According to Kate, it’s also teaching valuable networking skills that students’ can put to work in their offline lives. Here’s more about their model in Kate’s own words.

Julia:  In our research we’re focusing a lot on how relationships – or social capital – are critical levers for social mobility. Is iCouldBe’s model building students’ networks both on and offline?

Kate: We do see that bear out. Within iCouldBe’s curriculum, mentees work on a number of activities that help them become aware of, and practice, networking skills. These activities have mentees practice these skills with teachers and other adults who can help them reach their educational and career goals. A thoughtful, goal-oriented and professional approach to networking skill-building helps mentees improve relationships and build social capital. In the most recent analysis of mentee pre-and post-surveys from the 2016-2017 academic year, mentees report that prior to the program 63% have natural mentors (in their offline lives) while after the program, that percentage grows to 81%.

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

Kate: Technology-based or enhanced mentoring has quite a few advantages including:

First, it expands access to new and sizeable mentor pools. Mentors unable to make a year-long commitment to travel to schools each week can now participate. Corporate partners can engage a local, regional, or national base of employees to participate with mentees in any geographic location

Second, it allows us to reach mentees in hard-to-reach communities. Whether in rural or urban communities, travel time is often the greatest barrier for mentors, especially working professionals, to engage with mentees. E-mentoring eliminates this challenge.

Third, we find that online mentoring can unlock mentee authenticity. We often hear from mentees, who are older teenagers, that they feel apprehensive of additional adults in their lives “telling them what to do,” and some mentees feel shy or hesitant when communicating with adults in-person. Differences in age, race, gender or differing abilities that can be prominent in face-to-face interactions are often less apparent with online mentoring. In all these scenarios mentees are more comfortable sharing information about themselves and asking the questions they really want to know about life, careers and college online. Technology offers a level playing field for mentees to develop relationships with mentors, allowing for authentic, open and honest communications.

Fourth, online mentoring allows us to use data science tools and analysis to consistently improve relationships. The iCouldBe platform gives staff and teachers the ability to review mentee-mentor online conversations and participation in the curricular activities and to intervene and celebrate as needed. Analysis of behavioral data using embedded data science tools can help predict mentee success or mentee disengagement, and can be addressed with automated and manual, staff-led interventions and celebration solutions to improve engagement and relationship development.   

At iCouldBe, we leverage all of these advantages to constantly work to improve mentoring relationships for every mentee–mentor match and drive mentee outcomes to improve self-efficacy, build 21st Century skills, and develop college and career aspirations.

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?

Kate: We are very aware of the challenge of developing the relationship value in online mentoring programs and we work very methodically to address this in a number of ways. First and foremost, it is important to define the type of relationship iCouldBe is working to develop. Our program is designed to develop professional working and networking relationships that assist mentees to develop the skills they need to be successful in school now, in all types of educational programs they will pursue in the future, and in careers that they are passionate about throughout their adult lives.

Learning from, and with, their iCouldBe mentors, our mentees focus on understanding their unique skills, talents, and challenges; and work to strengthen and deepen their self-knowledge to make positive life decisions for their futures. This can happen through activities that focus on developing better relationships with current teachers; researching post-secondary opportunities; and developing realistic road maps to meaningful and fulfilling future careers; or identifying and overcoming academic, financial, or familial challenges that prevent many young people from embracing a hopeful future.

Mentors are trained to provide unbiased, objective, professional, and caring support to their mentees so that the mentees can learn to set and reach goals and graduate from high school prepared for their next steps. Mentees learn to take responsibility for their academic and career planning because the role of the mentor is not only to be an emotional support for the mentee, but to empower them to seek out new networks of mentors and do the hard work to succeed throughout their lives. And using technology during the e-mentoring program builds strong online communication skills – the exact skills the mentees will need as they enter post-secondary institutions and the workforce.       

In a very practical sense, iCouldBe focuses on creating tools that enhance the online relationship while maintaining the needed safety and security protocols to protect children while online. Safety protocols are essential to obtain approval by school districts to allow students to participate. Mentees and mentors can share information to build a relationship, but cannot share personally identifiable information – that is any information that would allow mentees and mentors to connect physically or virtually outside of the program where no supervision is possible. To overcome the inability of mentees to share photographs, Instagram pages, etc., functionality on the site allows mentors and mentees to create custom avatars and participate with their mentor one-on-one in curricular activities that become highly personalized based on each mentee’s unique personal, academic, and career interests, and post-secondary goals. New functionality is currently being developed to create new areas on the mentee and mentor homepages for relationship-building activities, news and progress updates.    

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.