Virtual Interns In The Field:
Pre-Service Educators As Online Mentors to At-Risk Middle School Science Students


Joseph Winslow
Douglas Smith

Coastal Carolina University


The World Wide Web has become a popular Internet technology for use in the classroom (Quinlan, 1996). Graphical browsers, such as Netscape or Internet Explorer, provide students and educators with simple "point and click" access to numerous types of online resources, including networked databases, publications, multimedia files, and various discourse media.

Of this last type, electronic mail is perhaps the most widely used. An asynchronous system, e-mail does not require message sender and receiver to be online at the same time, and numerous studies have noted that this technology can be used successfully in the classroom. Pitt (1996), for example, found that frequent use of electronic mail as a means for submitting undergraduate assignments facilitated assessment and improved class discipline. Anderson (1996) indicated that e-mail was effective in managing group projects. Others have noted that the technology could be used effectively to build collegial relationships. Tannehill et al. (1995), for example, found that e-mail was an efficient medium for exchanging information between doctoral-level physical education students and in-service physical education teachers.

A newer, related technology, computer conferencing, has also been found to benefit students and teachers in instructional environments, especially in writing-intensive courses (Essid, 1996). Like e-mail, computer conferencing is asynchronous, but the technology allows users to post messages in "threaded" discussion forums--electronic bulletin boards that group or "thread" together messages of similar content to provide a visual heuristic to the user. Another key difference is that most computer conferences require the user to come to the designated "board" or "news group" and post the message, instead of the message being sent to individual users via e-mail or list-serv. Shriner et al. (1996) has indicated that this increased convenience of access has facilitated the acquisition of undergraduate composition skills. Yeoman (1995) found similar results for students involved in collaborative writing projects. Other studies have noted improvements in moral reasoning (Harrington, 1996), oral presentation skills (Anderson, 1996) and critical reflection (Harrington, 1994).

Several studies have indicated that computer conferencing technologies can effectively build and sustain mentoring relationships; however most of these studies examined mentorship of undergraduate-level students by working professionals. O’neil et al (1996), for example, found that conferencing software was useful to networking professional scientists with undergraduate science majors interested in a particular field. The working scientists answered field-based questions posed by students and critically reviewed assignments submitted via e-mail. In a similar study, Sanchez (1996) connected content experts with in-service school teachers to serve as consultants on student learning projects. No published studies were located on computer mediated mentoring relationships between pre-service educators and public school students.

In this exploratory study, the researchers examined several emerging questions relevant to this under-investigated field using a newer Internet discourse technology--world wide web based "chat." Unlike conferencing and e-mail technologies, chat systems use a synchronous messaging protocol that enables users to "talk" to each other by typing in real-time; dialogue appears as a screenplay, with user names highlighted and comments posted immediately adjacent. The researchers were interested in exploring the efficacy of this technology as it relates to knowledge acquisition, mentor relationship development, concept visualization, and discourse content. Specifically, the following research questions were addressed:

(1) Does online mentoring facilitate students’ beliefs that they are acquiring science concepts?

(2) Does real-time chat technology facilitate the development of online mentoring relationships (as perceived by participants)?

(3) What discourse patterns emerge as participants discuss visual scientific concepts using a text-based communication medium?

(4) What topical patterns of content discussion emerge over time?


Five undergraduates were selected from a pool of students (N=47) enrolled in an intermediate level educational technology course required of all students enrolled in the Teacher Education program. These students were selected by the researchers based on expressed interest and screening interviews. Each undergraduate was a university sophomore having previously completed two entry-level education classes but no science methods course work. The six at-risk students matched with the undergraduates were selected by the researchers working in coordinated effort with a science teacher at a local suburban middle school. No scientific assessments were administered to identify which middle school students were "at risk." The cooperating science teacher selected six students from three different classes for the study based only on anecdotal evidence of "at risk" behavior, and convenience scheduling. The researchers fully acknowledge that this limited selection process inhibits the generalizability of the study to other at-risk students.

Four of the five undergraduate mentors were each randomly assigned to one of the middle school students; the other mentor was assigned two middle school students. Both mentors and mentees underwent separate training in using the web-based chat system. The student mentees used web-enabled computers available in their science classroom at school, while mentors used web-enabled computers in a lab at the university’s School of Education.

For a period of six weeks, mentors and mentees met three times a week for 30 minutes in preassigned chat rooms accessible over the World Wide Web to discuss issues relevant to the science curriculum. Mentors had been briefed during training by the normal classroom science teacher regarding curricular content to be covered during the six week period. In effort to help mentors anticipate some of the questions that would arise during the online sessions, each was also given a copy of the science textbook used.

At the conclusion of the six week period, online transcripts of all chats were merged into a single hypertext document and then printed. In addition, all participants were administered a survey consisting of 15 open-response items generated from a preliminary analysis of the transcripts. Traditional content analysis techniques were used to examine all data accumulated during the study.

Analysis and Discussion

Perceptions of Attitude and Improvement

Survey, transcript and interview data suggest increased positive attitudes toward science and a perception of an improved ability to understand science concepts. Two mentees noted on their exit surveys that their grades rose. The classroom teacher, in a personal interview with one of the researchers, verified these claims; Travis and Dale both improved their grades by at least one level. Erin, whose grade went from 54% (F) to 82% (B-), reported:

Yes, this experience helped me raise my grades...on the computer, these [mentors] have helped me a lot. I went from almost failing my science class to passing my science class. It helped me a lot and it was also a lot of fun to be the one asking the questions. I would probably still be failing if it was not for this program

Ashley was equally grateful, "This has helped me... It brought my grade up from a C to a B...It helped me in science [and] I think it should be in every school." Travis agreed, "Talking on the computer helped me learn more about science," as did Ebony, who not only reported that she understood science better, but also that, "...It was fun talking to Al because she taught me a lot of things I needed to know… She helped me understand things more… I know I learned more."

It is interesting to note that although Ebony admits she learned more about science, her grades, as reported by her teacher, did not improve by the end of the project. The data do not explain this apparent contradiction, but at least suggest the possibility that online mentoring may correlate with science attitude and achievement for some students. Further study is obviously necessary.

Asking Better Questions

Analysis of chat transcripts revealed that the depth and complexity of the mentee questioning increased as the project progressed. Consider the following example from the first day of the project between Jason and Ebony (mentees) and their mentor, Al:

Jason: What is the two layers of skin called?

Al: Dermis and Epidermis

Ebony: What is waves of the muscular system called?

Al: What chapter are you looking at?

The level of questioning here is literal and conceptually unfocused. In fact, Ebony was asking a question from the previous chapter in the text. Compare those questions to the following question by one of the same students several weeks later.

Jason: How do you get parilized?

Al: You get paralyzed when there is a break in the connection between the brain and the motor nerves, usually happens with the spinal cord.

This mentee is requesting an explanation of a process and has moved well beyond asking the definition of "paralysis." The mentor appears to predicate her answer on the assumption that the mentee is familiar with some of the anatomy of the nervous system. Although this does not guarantee that the mentee is increasing in conceptual knowledge, it seems reasonable to posit that the mentee is becoming more sophisticated in his general ability to ask science questions. Ashley (mentee) and Alex (mentor) had a similar exchange also early in the project.

Ashley: What does the appendix do?

Alex: The appendix has no known function. Scientists believe that the appendix used to have some function but they are unsure of what it was.

Alex: Scientists think that the appendix may help fight off diseases.

Ashley : O.K. Thank you. My next question is what do the capullaries do in your system?

Alex: Capullareis connect the arteries to the veins. They are the smallest blood vessels.

This excerpt delineates straight-forward questions and equally direct answers. There is very little development of a concept evident; rather, the tenor of the exchange is at the level of definition. The tone seems mechanical, perhaps indicative of disinterest or lack of engagement, especially when compared to the following exchange three weeks later.

Ashley: I have a question for you on the nervous system. You know when you burn yourself and it hurts? How fast can the nerves carry the information to the nervous system?

Alex: It takes one tenth of a second for the nerves to carry information to the brain.

Ashley : That is amazing how fast that can take to get some information to the brain. Is it true that your left side of your brain controls your right side of your body and the right side of your brain controls the left side of your body???

Alex: Yes, that is for the most part true. The right part of the brain controls the artistic ability and the left part controls the mathematical ability.

Ashley : O.K. What does artistic ability mean and what does mathematical ability mean? I have another question for you. How long can your whole body go without oxygen?

Alex: The artistic ability means the part controls how talented a person is at drawing, painting, playing an instrument, dancing, acting, and other stuff like that. The mathematical ability means how good a person is at math, business, and logical things. A person can go about four minutes without oxygen without damaging the brain. At about five minutes, damage to the brain and other body parts will occur.

In this exchange, Ashley’s responses seem much more engaged; not only are questions directed at nervous system processes, but they also flow in logical continuity, including follow up clarifications about "artistic" and "mathematical" ability and affective responses like "that is amazing." Perhaps this indicates an increase in her level of interest toward science.

Becoming Friends

The "loneliness of the long-distance learner" (Eastmond 1995, p. 46, in Kerka, 1996) is a common concern in electronically mediated communications. Kerka (1996) reports that this is not necessarily an experience learners must have in a long-distance learning experience. She suggests that an experience with clear rules for interpretation of information by the participants, use of shared tasks, and a process of introduction of participants to one another may result in a feeling of belonging to an online community. In this study, transcript and survey data both indicate that the mentors and mentees referred to each other repeatedly as "friends." The researchers were intrigued by this finding, for if it indicated the development of some kind of social relationship or rapport, it evolved in the relative absence of personal information exchange. In fact, prior to the beginning of the project, mentors had been instructed to stay on-task and to share as little information about themselves as possible. Transcripts indicate that mentees were equally quiet about personal issues.

The data gathered are not sufficient to explain this phenomenon, but the researchers posit that perhaps both mentors and mentees discovered different intrinsic values to the project. The mentors may have felt a sense of validation at helping the students learn. Kelley, for example, noted, "What I enjoyed most was the opportunity to feel like I had made a difference to someone. To touch a child’s mind, awaken her interest, and expand her knowledge is what teaching is all about." The mentees, on the other hand, may have simply enjoyed the attention being paid to them, the utility of the information being exchanged, and the reactions of others. Consider Erin’s exit comments:

It was fun.

I learned a lot.

I made a new friend.

My grades started going up.

My mom was proud of me.

My teacher was proud of me.

I liked it so much.

I do not want to stop.

Concept Visualization

Given that the chat system was entirely text-based, the researchers had anticipated that participants would have difficulty discussing "visual" concepts, such as systemic processes, that would ordinarily be delineated in a real classroom with overhead diagrams, video clips or other graphical media. The data, however, do not suggest that participants were inhibited by the textual constraints of chat. Upon analysis, two patterns of discourse accommodation were noted when visual concepts were addressed—participants either simply referenced the text, as when Kris (mentor) directed Travis (mentee) to "turn to page 121," which contained a detailed graphic illustrating how the liver removes waste products from the blood, and then asked, "tell me one item the liver removes," or participants used metaphor, as when Kelley (mentor) described to Erin (mentee) how neurons were "little receptors in your brain, kind of like a telephone. Information from one of the five senses comes in, making it ring."

Transcripts indicated little participant disorientation when metaphor or text references were used to discuss visual concepts. In all instances, there were few, if any, follow-up questions or comments suggesting that the students did not comprehend the allusion or reference made. The typical mentee response was, as in Erin’s case, "Ok, I understand about it now." These findings are corroborated by data gathered from survey items asking participants to decide whether or not shared drawing software (such as a "whiteboard") would have been helpful to convey meaning. Participants generally agreed that it would not. However, survey data also indicated that both mentors and mentees would have preferred the use of video conferencing software (an inherently visual and verbal medium) to plain text chat.

Although an apparent contradiction, such a finding is perhaps best explained by Dale’s mentor, Al:

I didn’t find it difficult to communicate without visual aids because the book was right in front of me…but [if] I can see their reaction when we discuss something…I can tell whether they are understanding the concept. Also, if you can see the person, you are on a more personal level.

Visual confirmation of student comprehension, whether a nod or an affirming mutter, so it seemed, would have been more useful than visualization of actual content. Perhaps these and other gestures or facial expressions would help to humanize the communication, to make it feel more "real," and thus, to facilitate understanding. Put another way, this time in Allison’s words, "if you [could] see and talk to the mentees personally, you [could] have a better chance of getting your point across.

On-Task Discussions

The researchers were particularly curious about the ratio of "on-task" (relevant to the science curriculum) to "off task" discussion, and were surprised to find that over 90% of the transcript data was coded as on-task. Mentors had been coached to avoid or redirect any off-task conversation, such as personal queries, but the researchers did anticipate at least some by the mentees due to the novelty or relative anonymity of the technology. Transcript data, however, indicated otherwise. With the exception of typical greeting and goodbye statements, as well as a few random social comments, the mentees spent the majority of their online time discussing issues relevant to their science class. Analysis of post-interview data with the cooperating teacher yielded an obvious explanation; the mentees had not only been coached (and monitored) by their teacher to stay on-task, but they were also required to "prewrite" several relevant questions each day before the scheduled chat time. Several mentors indicated on the exit surveys that they suspected their mentees had rehearsed questions prior to going online and that, moreover, such rehearsal likely facilitated the high degree of on-task discussion. Such a notion is easily supported by contemporary models of composition instruction, which emphasize writing as a process, with pre-writing and drafting (rehearsal) as essential steps in conveying meaning (Lindemann, 1995; Moffett, 1992).

Challenge the Mentor

Questions asked by the mentees evolved in a consistent pattern over time. During the first two weeks of the study, transcripts indicate that all mentees immediately "challenged" their mentors with difficult or technical questions, as if to assess the expertise and credibility of their new mentors, or at least to facilitate the completion of required seatwork. Consider the following dialogue where Kris (mentor) is abruptly quizzed by Travis (mentee):

Travis: I have some questions.

Kris: Well, what do you have a question about?

Travis: The removal of wastes are know as what?

Kris: It is a process known as excretion.

Travis: The vocal cords are located in the what?

Kris: They are located in the larynx and are responsible for producing your voice.

Travis: The most important excretory organ is the what?

Kris: Travis, are you pulling these questions from a worksheet? That’s not the idea behind this. The point is for me to help you understand concepts you are having trouble with.

In the following example, Dale’s (mentee) response to Al (mentor) is almost sarcastic, perhaps suggesting an initial skepticism or apprehension about the validity of the project.

Dale: What is the difference between the lungs and respeitory system?

Al: The lungs are in the respiratory system, and the respiratory system is the combining of oxygen and food in the body to produce energy and the wastes gases, carbon dioxide and water vapor. The respiratory system is the whole system and the lungs are part of it.

Dale: That was a great answer. You must be very good, but try this one. How does the violeia work?

Transcripts indicate that all mentors underwent at least one "challenging" discussion during the first week, but the frequency of these confrontations subsided by the end of the second. The researchers would extrapolate that this attenuation likely reflected mentee satisfaction with the perceived expertise of their assigned mentor. The survey data corroborate such a notion; most mentees indicated that their mentors were knowledgeable. Jason wrote, for example, that Allison "taught me a lot of things I needed to know…She helped me understand things more. Even Dale admitted that Al’s responses were accurate, "The information was good. [She] helped me with my homework, explained clearly, and [was] a good inspiration."

Occasionally, however, mentors were unable to provide immediate answers to given questions. In such cases, mentors typically admitted that they did not know, but would look up the answer for the next scheduled chat. Kelley, for example, when asked a particular question by Erin about blood vessels, was only able to respond, "I have to look that one up. I will answer the question on Wednesday for you." Later, however, Kelley stumbled on another question, this time explaining to Erin, "Give me a few minutes. I need to look this one up. I know I am in college, but sometimes I have to find out more information." Kelley eventually did find the answer, and Erin never complained, but the survey data indicated that Kelley was a bit embarrassed at not knowing the answer.

A direct implication, then, of this tendency for mentees to challenge their mentors, intentionally or not, concerns the expertise and selection process of mentors. Although the mentors in this study were selected from a convenience population of students enrolled in a technology course, the researchers recommend that future studies implement a selection process with more fastidious screening for content and pedagogical knowledge.

Socratic Dialogue and Chit-Chat

Transcript data also indicate a noticeable disparity in the volume and style of rhetoric between the different groups. Discussions involving one mentor and multiple (2) mentees were much longer, but less detailed than those involving one mentor paired with one mentee. Jason and Ebony, for example, together with their mentor, Al, posted 40% more messages than the average of all other groups; however, the total text generated (total words) was only 15% more than other groups. The following, for example was typical of their discussions:

Al: HELLO, how can I help you guys today?

Jason: We had a test today.

Al: What did you get.

Al: Did you pass it?

Ebony: I got a 85 on it.

Al: Ok, how did you do, did you get a 96?

Jason: I got a 83.

Al: An 85 is a good grade, what were you expecting?

Jason: I done good.

Al: 83 is good, too, next time if you take a few minutes to review the night before you might be able to get a 100.

Al: Good.

Jason: Every one made under a 85.

Al: Then you did real good compared to the rest of the class.

Al: What else are you doing in class today.

Jason: We have to see a video this week about dicecting a frog.

The rhetoric in this excerpt is much less formal, more "conversational" than that in other chat rooms where mentors and mentees discussed in pairs. In the above excerpt, mentee responses are short and expositional. The dialogue is actually led by the mentor; Al asks the questions, and the mentees respond. Note also that Ebony responds only once. In fact, over the course of the project, the frequency of Ebony’s posts is only 20% of Jason’s. Only once did she post more than two comments during a single chat—on that particular day, Jason was not at school. Survey data are insufficient for explaining this discrepancy, leaving the researchers only to surmise that perhaps Ebony was too shy or intimidated to "speak up" when Jason was also online. Available literature on gender and social interaction in computer-mediated communication supports such a notion. Mahoney and Knupfer (1997), for example, noted in several studies that "some women report they are harassed and intimidated from posting and participating in on-line conferences," and that these conferences "remain male-dominated."

In contrast to that informal style of rhetoric, typical discourse in the other chat rooms was much more socratic. Students tended to post more detailed questions and mentors did the same in response. Consider the following dialogue, for example, where Travis (mentee) is asked by Kris (mentor) to explain what he learned about the frog dissection experiment.

Travis:...that frogs can relate to humans in different ways. I liked the part when we took out the eyes. Have you ever seen the eyeballs?

Kris: Tell me, in what ways can frogs relate to humans? I have never seen the eyeballs. I don't think we took them out when I dissected a frog in school.

Travis: They can relate because they have the same organs like the kidneys, the liver, the lungs and the heart. The only thing different is that the frog has three chambers in there heart.

The implications of these discourse patterns are difficult to ascertain. The researchers are inclined to argue that pairing multiple mentees with a single mentor tends to inhibit thoughtful discussion, or at the very least, equal discussion, but the data gathered are not sufficient for such a generalization. The researchers can say with confidence however, that in future inquiry, the number of mentees should be investigated as an independent variable relative to specific learner outcomes, such as total text generated and achievement.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Given the low number of participants, the short duration of the project, and the novelty of the technology, the researchers are cautious in generalizing conclusions from this exploratory study. Transcript, survey and interview data do indicate that the participating middle school science students, over the course of the project, asked more thoughtful questions, remained on task, and perceived improvements in their attitudes toward science and their ability to understand science concepts. The real implication of these limited findings is the guidance they provide for future inquiry. Specifically, they identify several independent variables worth investigating in more controlled quantitative inquiry where achievement and attitude are designated outcomes. Will the use of video-conferencing software, for example, affect attitude, achievement, the use of metaphor, or the sharing of personal information differently than just text conferencing (chat)? What is the optimum mentor/mentee ratio relative to achievement and attitude? Does mentor prior science and pedagogical knowledge relate to mentee attitude and achievement? As Internet technologies continue to evolve, especially in distributed learning applications, the answers to these and other related questions may indicate practical strategies for teaching these students and increasing the probability of their future success in science.


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About the Authors...

Joseph Winslow is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology in the School of Education, Coastal Carolina University, Conway, South Carolina, 261954.

Doug Smith is an Assistant Professor of Education in the School of Education, Coastal Carolina University, Conway, South Carolina, 261954.

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