Why Mentors Matter: A Conversation with Jered Borup

illustration of desk strewn with books and online learning devices
Why are on-site mentors so important for online students? In this article, Jered Borup, a digital learning researcher and professor at George Mason University dives into research that supports the critical role that mentors play in highly successful online learning programs.

Why are on-site mentors so important? Online students have their instructor and parents, right? So, what role do mentors fill?

MVLRI’s annual effectiveness report has found that students who take both online and in-person courses are less likely to pass their online courses than their in-person courses.

This is an important finding but perhaps not surprising to those familiar with K-12 online learning.

Learning online requires different skills and knowledge than that required to learn in a more traditional in-person setting.

In fact, some have argued that it is harder for students to “learn how to learn online” (Lowes & Lin, 2015) than it is to actually learn the course material (Roblyer, Feeman, Stabler, & Scheidmiler, 2007).

Highly-skilled and self-regulated students are able to learn online with little or no support from others. However, the majority of students require support to succeed online.

Online teachers are content and pedagogical experts allowing them to provide students with important supports that others can’t.

However, their physical separation from students combined with the high student loads that are common in online learning can make it challenging for teachers to both recognize students’ needs and provide them with all of the support they require.

This is especially true when students are not proactively requesting support or are unresponsive to teachers’ communication attempts.

Parents’ physical proximity and unique relationship with students make them an especially important source of support. However, parents are likely unfamiliar with successful strategies for learning online. Furthermore, parental involvement has been highly elusive for certain student populations making it difficult for programs to rely too heavily on their support.

While online teachers and parents each play an important role in students’ learning, their abilities to impact students’ learning can be limited.

As a result, on-site mentors (also called facilitators) play an especially important role by providing students with the support that online teachers and parents either find difficult or impossible to provide.

On-site mentors can provide students with the physical presence that online teachers can’t.

This allows mentors to be the eyes and ears for online teachers because mentors can more easily develop relationships with students, monitor their learning, and motivate them to more fully engage in learning activities.

When students need to communicate with their online teacher, the mentor can help to facilitate those communications. Similarly, mentors can help students to interpret the messages they receive from their teacher to avoid miscommunications.

Mentors also have a better understanding of how to learn online so they are in a better position than parents to familiarize students with online learning expectations and systems.

Students’ support needs are more likely to be met when they are supported by a mentor in addition to their online teachers and parents.

However, to be effective at their job, mentors need to have adequate space, time, and training to be successful.

Roblyer (2006) explained that effective mentors “are made, not born” (Roblyer, 2006, p. 34) and research has found that mentors who receive professional development are more effective than those who don’t (Hannum et al., 2008; Staker, 2011).

Research has also found that providing students with a dedicated space and time to learn allows students to be more successful compared to those students with more flexibility in when and where they work (Roblyer et al., 2008).

Michigan requires that every online student have a mentor. Do you think more states should do this?

By requiring that each online student be provided with an on-site mentor, Michigan has provided important leadership that I hope other states follow.

However, on-site mentoring is not being implemented with the same fidelity across students and schools in Michigan.

This may be in part because Section 21f of Michigan Public Act No, 60 (2013) simply stated, “an on-site mentor must be assigned and available for assistance to the pupil. The on-site mentor will monitor the pupil’s progress in the course” (p. 5-O-A-1).

As we work to identify best mentoring practices, these types of policies can become more specific and mentors can be better prepared to fulfill those responsibilities.

How can schools with limited resources (e.g., financial limitations, building space limitations) still invest in mentors?

Mentoring will not come free.

There are some things that schools can consider when selecting and preparing mentors in order to make the most of schools’ limited funds. In some contexts, the mentor is required to be a certified teacher (Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Germin, & Rapp, 2011).

However, in general, in-person teachers lack the needed understanding of online learning and the challenges that students face in those environments.

As a result, it may not be the best use of teachers whose time is especially valuable and costly to the school district.

Rather than using certified teachers as mentors, Chicago Public Schools hired candidates with associate degrees and then provided them with 10 hours of professional development prior to serving as a mentor and 20 additional hours of professional development during their first year.

These mentors then worked in a classroom with 30 students and were paid an hourly wage considerably less than what it would cost to employ a certified teacher (Staker, 2011).

Furthermore, when we (Borup & Stimson, 2019) sampled 12 of the most successful mentors in Michigan, we found that one of them only had a high school diploma.

She was highly successful, however, because she was able to easily build trusting, motivating relationships with students, in part because she was a mother who had children at the school.

Are there resources for new mentors or mentors looking for advice or help?

Perhaps the best thing that a new mentor can do is to meet with other mentors. However, that may not be possible or practical in some school districts.

MVLRI’s Mentor Fundamentals: A Guide for Mentoring Online Learners provides a helpful guide to understanding mentoring responsibilities. MVLRI has also organized an online community of mentors with virtual and in-person events.

More information about these and other supports can be found on our Mentors page.

If you are interested in reading more about the research surrounding on-site mentors, I recommend reading my review of the literature in the Handbook of Research on K-12 Online and Blended Learning (2nd ed.) (see Borup, 2018).


Borup, J. (2018). On-site and online facilitators: Current and future direction for research. In K. Kennedy and R. Ferdig (Eds.), Handbook of research on K-12 online and blended learning (2nd ed.). (pp. 423-442). ETC Press. Retrieved from: http://repository.cmu.edu/etcpress/82/

Borup, J. & Stimson, R. (2019). Responsibilities of Online Teachers and On-Site Facilitators in Online High School Courses. American Journal of Distance Education, 33(1), 29-45.

Lowes, S., & Lin, P. (2015). Learning to learn online: Using locus of control to help students become successful online learners. Journal of Online Learning Research, 1(1), 17–48.

Michigan Public Act § No. 60. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/2013-2014/publicact/htm/2013-PA-0060.htm

Roblyer, M. D. (2006). Virtually successful: Defeating the dropout problem through online programs. The Phi Delta Kappan, 88(1), 31–36.

Roblyer, M D, Davis, L., Mills, S. C., Marshall, J., & Pape, L. (2008). Toward practical proce- dures for predicting and promoting success in virtual school students. American Journal of Distance Education, 22(2), 90–109.

Roblyer, M. D., Freeman, J., Stabler, M., & Schneidmiler, J. (2007). External Evaluation of the Alabama ACCESS Initiative Phase 3 Report. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

Staker, H. (2011). The rise of K-12 blended learning: Profiles of emerging models. Learning. Innosight Institute. Retrieved from http://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/The-rise-of-K-12-blended-learning.emerging-models.pdf

Watson, J., Murin, A., Vashaw, L., Gemin, B., & Rapp, C. (2011). Keeping pace with K-12 online learning: An annual review of policy and practice. Learning. Evergreen Education Group. Retrieved from https://www.evergreenedgroup.com/s/KeepingPace2011.pdf

The Mentor Forum

In our Mentor Forum blog series, we discuss the role of mentors and mentoring in K-12 digital learning. Our hope with this series is to highlight the importance of mentoring, provide valuable resources, and further the discussion on best practices for mentoring online learners. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

About the Author

Jered Borup is the professor-in-charge of the Integration of Online Learning in Schools Master’s and Certificate programs that are devoted to improving teacher practices in online and blended learning environments. Previous to earning his Ph.D. at Brigham Young University, Jered taught history at a junior high school for six years. He has also taught online and blended courses since 2008. His current research interests include developing online learning communities and identifying support systems that adolescent learners require to be successful in online environments. A full list of his publications can be found here.

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