Mentor Guide to Online Learning

Mentor Guide to Online Learning

Table of Contents

About this Guide

This guide has been prepared by Michigan Virtual™, through its Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute®, with the assistance and insight of experienced mentors, instructors, administrators, and customer service representatives from Michigan Virtual. While Michigan has a few full-time online programs or cyber schools (schools that deliver 100% of their instruction online), at this point in time the majority of online learning is delivered by traditional public schools that supplement their face-to-face offerings with online enrollments, allowing students to take a small number of online courses as part of their class schedule. This guide focuses primarily on the issues and circumstances related to the role of a mentor in a supplemental online learning program, though much of the information applies equally to full-time online programs and schools as well as blended instruction.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to mentors across the state who devote time, effort, and energy to supporting online learners. Special thanks to Michigan Virtual™ mentors who contributed to the best practices presented in this resource: Danielle Beller, John Burnett, Lyn DeCarlo, Leona Hein, Brendan Howard, Julie Howe, Kim Killinger, Mary Lafrenz, Jonathan Logan, Jay Miller, Sherie Manzo, Susan Rathburn, Leisha Shaler, and Joseph Wenzel. Additional thanks to Jered Borup, an Associate Professor in the Division of Learning Technologies at George Mason University, for his contributions.

Introduction

Mentors are critical partners in ensuring student success in navigating the virtual learning journey. The mentor, student, parent, and online instructor form a team to help students become proficient online learners and successfully complete their courses. Mentors are also known as online or on-site facilitators, learning coaches, and local supports. 

This resource is intended to provide an understanding of the fundamental elements of mentoring or coaching students for success with online courses. The guide describes the roles and responsibilities of the mentor and contains tools to prepare mentors for working with online learners. We hope you find this resource helpful and, if you are a mentor, that you enjoy mentoring. Thank you for your dedication. 

Whether you are a teacher, mentor, parent, student, counselor, administrator, or someone else who has an interest in mentors and mentoring, please send questions or provide feedback to [email protected].

Mentors know that parental involvement and support of online learners is extremely important. From determining if online learning is a good choice, to providing a space for studying at home to monitoring student progress every week, to communicating with mentors, parents have a great impact on student success. Companions to this guide, the Parent Guide to Online Learning and Student Guide to Online Learning, contain detailed information about online learning, the characteristics of a successful online learner, and how to prepare for learning online.

Online Learning Options

The Michigan Legislature, in Section 21f of Public Act 196 of 2014 established that Michigan public school pupils in sixth through 12th grade (with the consent of a parent or legal guardian, if the student is under 18, or an emancipated minor) may enroll in up to two online courses during an academic session. This Virtual Learning Infographic was developed to provide a visual representation of the law. 

Michigan’s Online Course Catalog

Michigan’s Online Course Catalog contains syllabi information (such as state academic standards, prerequisites, instructor contact time expectations, available academic support, and outcomes and objectives) as well as enrollment and course dates for online courses made available by Michigan school districts and Michigan Virtual. All courses in the catalog include results of a quality assurance review using nationally recognized standards. The information in these reviews will assist parents, students, and school personnel in making the best possible choices for students.

Michigan’s Mentor Requirements for Online Learning

Current Michigan legislation requires that online learners have a mentor under the conditions as described in the Michigan Department of Education’s (MDE) Pupil Accounting Manual (PAM). A mentor is defined as a professional employee of the district, who monitors the pupil’s progress, ensures the pupil has access to needed technology, is available for assistance, and ensures access to the teacher of record. A mentor may also serve as the teacher of record under certain circumstances.

By requiring that each online student be provided with an on-site mentor, Michigan has provided important leadership. However, research specific to the impact a mentor has on a student’s success in an online course is relatively new. It is known that on-site mentoring is not being implemented with the same fidelity across students and schools in Michigan. The same holds true for training a mentor for their roles and responsibilities. As research is conducted and best practices for mentoring emerge, policies can become more specific and mentors can become better prepared to mentor students.

Mentors shared best practices in several sections; their contributions are indicated by Lightbulb graphic.

The Mentor Role

The importance of the mentor in an online course is grounded in the understanding that learning online requires different skills and knowledge than those in a more traditional in-person setting. A conversation with Jered Borup, an Associate Professor in the Division of Learning Technologies at George Mason University, discusses the mentor practices crucial to ensuring successful student outcomes.

Mentor Fundamentals

Mentors serve as the liaison between the student, online instructor, parents, and administration. Some mentors are part-time paraprofessionals, and mentors often fill other roles in the school, such as a teacher, counselor, media center specialist, and even an administrator. Many people have the misconception that online learners don’t have the benefit of the traditional human relationships established in the face-to-face classroom. In fact, the mentor provides that personal connection for students learning virtually: effective mentors work with the students every day, support them and build trusting relationships. Many students come to see their mentors as teachers, regardless of the mentor’s educational preparation to teach. 

In some schools, mentors are part of the school’s multi-tiered system of support and do more than support online learning. They engage with others in the school, contributing to a vision of the whole student and his/her personalized learning. Mentors are one more adult who knows the student and provides perspective and support.

Common Mentor Responsibilities 

  • Assist with enrollment.
  • Ensure the chosen course is approved by the school and meets the student’s graduation requirements.
  • Monitor student progress weekly and help the student stay on track to complete the course successfully and on time.
  • Manage classroom/labs.
  • Establish and communicate clear expectations and guidelines.
  • Communicate with the online instructor, school administrators, and parents using email, text messaging, and phone.
  • Establish rapport with students and encourage academic success.
  • Meet with the student as needed (in person when possible or virtually if necessary) and keep records of the meetings.
  • Assign final grade to the student transcript after the score is submitted by the online instructor.
  • Respond to instructor email.
  • Act as liaison between the course, the course instructor, and the student.
  • Advocate for the student.
  • Help interpret instructor feedback by reviewing the assignment and the rubric or grading standards with the student.
  • Teach and encourage students to be self-directed, independent learners who are responsible for their coursework, but ensure resources are available to help them succeed.
  • Create a learning environment that is welcoming, supportive, and flexible enough to meet individual student needs.
  • Connect students to a teacher in the building with subject area knowledge when necessary. 
  • Report virtual learners for pupil count days and archive records for audit purposes. 

The Benefits of Online Learning

Students take online courses for a variety of reasons. As outlined in a blog post by Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute®(2017), online learning is being used with K-12 students to:

  • Expand the range of courses available to students beyond what a single school can offer;
  • Allow flexibility to students facing scheduling conflicts;
  • Afford opportunities for elite athletes and performers, migrant youth, pregnant, at-risk, or incarcerated students, and students who are homebound due to illness or injury, to continue their studies outside the traditional classroom;
  • Provide credit recovery programs for students that have failed courses and/or dropped out of school, allowing them to get back on track to graduate;
  • Help students who are currently performing below grade-level to begin catching-up through blended learning;
  • Personalize instruction for the needs of individual students;
  • Provide on-demand online tutoring; and
  • Increase the teaching of technology skills by embedding technology literacy in academic content. 

Students may be online full time, taking all their courses over the Internet, or they may be part-time online students, that is, supplementing the courses they take at their school with online courses – including during summer. From the student’s point of view, online learning is attractive because it is:

  1. Personalized to my needs and learning goals. When students select their courses, they take greater ownership.
  2. Flexible so that I can try different ways to learn. Online learning allows scheduling to accommodate health, athletic, job and family circumstances.
  3. Interactive and engaging to draw me in. Students meet people outside their community in a safe environment, and multimedia used in online learning provides different ways of learning.
  4. Relevant to the life I’d like to lead. Students gain more experience using the 21st century technology tools used in college and in the workplace.
  5. Paced by my own progress measured against goals I understand. Students can move faster or slower through assignments and track their own progress toward their goals.
  6. Constantly informed by different ways of demonstrating and measuring my progress. Educational technology can measure and share student progress quickly.
  7. Collaborative with faculty, peers, and others, unlimited by proximity. Students can access learning materials and resources – including local, state, and national experts – using online communication tools.
  8. Responsive and supportive when I need extra help. Communicating outside the typical school day is supported by the online learning culture. Many students – and teachers – report they spend more time interacting online than in the face-to-face classroom.
  9. Challenging but achievable, with opportunities to become an expert in an area of interest. Online learning reinforces lifelong learning skills and promotes information literacy and communication skills as well as thinking and problem-solving skills.
  10. Available to me as much as it is to every other student. Online learning can direct the talents of some of the most skilled educators to the most underserved populations. A zip code does not have to determine learning options any more.

List based on previous work of Next Generation Learning Challenges

Mentors and instructors who require more accountability from students show greater success.

Online courses are not the right choice for everyone. Students can sometimes be the best ones to talk to other students and communicate what is different from the traditional classroom.

Traits of Successful Online Learners

Assessing Student Readiness for Online Learning

Not all students are well prepared for online learning. If your school does not have a means of evaluating whether a student has the characteristics and skills required for success in learning online, quick assessments are available. Michigan Virtual’s Online Learner Readiness Rubric and Strategies for Online Success can assist you and your students in understanding how prepared they are for this learning option. Online courses require hard work and are not “easier” than traditional classes. The blog post Are online courses “easier” than face-to-face courses? discusses five important reasons behind why they should not be easier.  

In fact, they may be more time consuming because students are using a new and unfamiliar method to access the course and materials and will experience different challenges than they have with face-to-face instruction. Using the Readiness Rubric, online learners can evaluate their basic skills and competencies in the following areas:

  • Technology Skills
  • Work & Study Habits
  • Learning Style
  • Technology/Connectivity
  • Time Management
  • Interest/Motivation
  • Reading/Writing Skills
  • Support Services

School processes differ in how the student gains access to online courses. Whether this discussion takes place when the counselor and student are engaged in academic planning or as a student is being enrolled in courses for the next semester, reviewing important school information such as attendance, grades, and test records is another important step in determining whether online learning is a good fit for each individual student – regardless of the reason for taking a course online.

Attention to a student’s motivation for enrolling in an online course can go a long way toward eventual success. Students are most successful when there is a genuine desire to succeed; i.e., if I pass this course, I will reach my goal of graduation, acceptance to a particular college, a desired occupation, etc. Conversely, students are more likely to fail an online course when there is little motivation; i.e., my counselor made me take this course; I don’t need this credit to graduate; it doesn’t matter if I pass or fail, so who cares? 

Profile of a Successful Online Learner

Instructors with years of online teaching experience agree that students who have successful, satisfying experiences learning online share several critical characteristics. Review these characteristics and answer these questions for and with potential online learners.

  • Good Time Management: Can the student create and maintain a study schedule throughout the semester without face-to-face interaction with a teacher?
  • Effective Communication: Can the student ask for help, make contact with other students and the instructor online, and describe any problems she/he has with learning materials using email, text messaging and/or the telephone?
  • Independent Study Habits: Can the student study and complete assignments without direct supervision and maintain the self-discipline to stick to a schedule?
  • Self-Motivation: Does the student have a strong desire to learn skills, acquire knowledge, and fulfill assignments in online courses because of an educational goal? Can she/he maintain focus on that goal?
  • Academic Readiness: Does the student have the basic reading, writing, math and computer literacy skills to succeed in the class?
  • Technologically Prepared: Is the student prepared to use constantly evolving technology to learn? The International Society for Technology in Education  (ISTE) published a set of Standards for Students designed to empower student voice and ensure that learning is a student-driven process.

A Special Note About Time Commitment Experienced mentors and online instructors agree that time management is one of the skills most critical to success. Students who cannot manage time and assignments without direct supervision usually struggle to be successful learners online. Students should expect and be able to spend five to ten hours a week per course.

Mentor Preparation

Mentors must be knowledgeable about school policies and procedures, the courses each student is taking, and students’ technology needs. They must also support students in managing their online learning experiences. The lists below provide a starting place for getting ready to mentor.

Self-Assessment

Ask yourself the following questions as you contemplate your role as mentor.

  • Do you know or are you willing to learn the skills associated with online learning?
  • Are you comfortable with computers and willing to help students that may not be?
  • Are you able to participate in a mentor training course or program?
  • Are you willing to participate in a mentor learning network?
  • Are you able to use strategies that will help motivate students to stay focused?
  • Are you a good manager of time? Can you teach that skill?
  • Are you a goal-setter? Can you teach that skill?
  • Do you know or are you willing to learn how to support and facilitate learning when you’re not the teacher?
  • Do you know how to assist students in a flexible learning environment?
  • Are you ready to recruit and screen students for online learning?
  • Do you have experience communicating regularly online?
  • Do you have experience working with students to find solutions to potential problems?
  • Are you prepared to advocate for online learning in your school?
  • Are you willing to work with parents, instructors, counselors, the technology coordinator, and administration to ensure program success?
  • Review FERPA, acceptable use, security, anti-bullying, plagiarism, and other school policies.
  • Review academic records of students requesting to take online courses.
  • Review the results of the Online Learner Readiness Rubric with the student before registering for class(es).
  • Suggest students think about their own learning style, strengths, and weaknesses, and consider how prepared they are to learn online. Strategies for Online Success is free and geared towards preparing students for the transition from taking courses in-person to taking them online.
  • Discuss academic records, rubric results, and enrollment decisions with the student (and parent(s) if the student is not yet 18 years of age or an emancipated minor).
  • Determine whether students will be working in a designated space at school (classroom or lab, for instance) or outside class hours at home or another location.
  • Consider scheduling students in the same course at the same time. Orient students to course in a group initially: read introductory email from instructor together, review syllabus, and pacing guide or assignment, and assessment calendar.
  • Review the email you may have received for each student/course that contains the course name, Learning Management System (LMS) web address, and student login information.
  • Be aware when a student is entering a course that is already in progress and assist him or her in adjusting the pacing to reflect the number of weeks the student will actually have to work on their course.
  • Prepare your own orientation resources (including check-in and reporting procedures, communications protocol, email and file management suggestions, mentor and student responsibilities, count day expectations, etc.).
  • Plan your ongoing communication strategy.
    • Request students report weekly progress to you or determine processes and expectations that work for your situation and individual students taking into account the district’s calendar for reporting student progress.  
    • Consider steps for adjustments; i.e., communicate with parents; require students work at school until back on pace if students fall behind.
  • Provide a contract for students and parents to sign. Many schools have developed their own contracts such as this Online Learning Agreement.  
  • Consider an orientation for students and parents to help them become aware of the time commitment for online courses and answer any questions. 
  • Encourage and remind parents to ask their students to log on weekly so they can view the grade book together and keep an eye on student progress. 
  • Become familiar with the LMS for each course.
  • Determine how you can view student progress in each course. Providers may have different requirements.
  • Find course instructor contact information and communicate to the instructor any student accommodations needed prior to the first day of class.
  • Prepare to proctor tests and exams. See course information from provider or contact course instructor.
  • Know where to go for help before the course begins.
  • Review course syllabi, assessment calendar, and pacing guide or assignment log as soon as possible or by the end of the first week at the latest.

One course or two?

Is this the student’s first online course? If so, it may be wise to enroll in a single course to gain experience and be successful. On average, students had the highest “Completed/Passed” rates (76%) in their virtual courses when they took one to two virtual courses in a year. Students who took five or more virtual courses in a year tended to have lower “Completed/Passed” rates (52%), according to Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report, 2019-20.

Technical Requirements

  • Find course requirements in course syllabi and/or in Michigan’s Online Course Catalog.
  • Check your school’s technology policies to ensure that firewalls are open for course websites, and pop-up blockers and add-ins do not prevent a student’s ability to progress in a course.
  • Make sure computer equipment is up-to-date and easy for students to access.
  • Review the course syllabus for any unique recommendations, such as web browser, headset for listening and recording, webcam capability, etc.
  • Determine if the student has access to a printer.

Day 1 of Course

A previous section provides detailed strategies about how to prepare to mentor online learners. Below you will find suggestions from experienced mentors that they present to students as a group or individually.

  • I provide each student with the details for his/her course, including the course name, LMS web address, and student login information so he/she can begin the course.
  • I direct students to read the instructor guidelines and become acquainted with how to navigate within the LMS and how the course is organized. Encourage them to play around with the system. Start clicking away and find out what each tab does, then read through the syllabus and calendar.
  • I hold a group meeting – if online learners meet in a lab, classroom, or media center – to complete paperwork and provide orientation to policies and protocols that may be different from their traditional classes (e.g., attendance, weekly or monthly report requirement, Netiquette, pacing guides, how to get help, etc.).
  • I encourage students to carefully read instructions and contact the instructor if they have any questions.
  • I sit down with them and ask what they need to be successful.
  • I gather individualized information to help personalize the student’s learning.

Day-to-Day Routine

Instructors, parents, and mentors know how important routine is in helping students develop good learning habits. Mentors have noted the following as part of their regular routine:

  • As students come in, I greet them. After they log in, I give brief reminders – including to let me know what they need, what’s important to their success. This provides a structural start to the day. They like that.
  • I settle them in, get them working, give them quiet, and do a walk-around. If I have to have more of a conversation, I ask them up to my desk.
  • I created a spreadsheet for attendance broken down by class and hour. Every day, they initial the sign-in sheet on my classroom door and go to the library to do their work. I talk with them before school, after school, or look for them during lunch if I need to follow up on an issue.
  • I seat students at assigned computers when using school resources to help with classroom management, emphasizing it is their space and their responsibility to maintain. It also makes it easier to locate keystrokes or assignments and address issues with assignments.
  • I sit where I can see the computer screens and monitor computers, if possible, to block access to games, control the screen and, see keystrokes, not only to see if they’ve been where they shouldn’t have been, but also to recover lost assignments.

Some programs have dedicated space for online learners. In those settings, mentors take attendance every day. In other programs, students use the library, hallways, student commons, or cafeteria – anywhere they are comfortable – to do their coursework. Most schools have online learners who are allowed to work off-campus, either because they are seat time waiver students, have met specific criteria for the privilege, or have arranged to work from home for health or other personal reasons.

Common Support Strategies 

  • If the students sign in for the mentoring period, they’re more likely to do work on a daily basis. It provides a little more structure and accountability.
  • On Day 1, show students how to log in, see what the rules in the class are, open tabs, access the discussion board, submit assignments – the things they haven’t done before.
  • Don’t wait to see if a student needs assistance – whether it’s tutoring or another student support service. Have something in place. Know the students and classes they have, be prepared for where you will direct them if they need something extra.
  • Maintain policy that the mentor must be able to see the student’s screen when he/she is taking a test.
  • Meet with other mentors as a professional learning community, whenever possible, to support each other, establish norms, share best practices and successes, and get ideas about alternative strategies when something doesn’t work. Michigan Virtual established an Online Mentor Community that is free and open to anyone.
  • It’s important that you establish communication guidelines with students at the start of the course.

Communication  – How often will students report progress to you? If students’ progress is not meeting expectations, what are the consequences? Will students need to report to school until courses are up-to-date? How will parents help in this matter? Please communicate often with instructors for assistance. 

  • Provide students assistance in learning to compose messages to other students and especially their instructors. This may be the first time a student has had to communicate in writing without the benefit of face-to-face opportunities for requesting or sharing information.
  • Show students how to advocate for themselves. If they don’t get a response to a message board entry, suggest the student add the comment to an email to the instructor and copy the mentor. This puts the student in direct contact with the instructor. When the instructor includes the mentor in the reply as well, it creates dialogue among all three parties. Everyone needs a reminder of the relationship element of learning, and the student learns how to send a good message, too.
  • Add student and mentor notes to mid-semester report cards. The student note to parents should include how many weeks are left in the course, how many points they have, and what they have to do to finish. Students take responsibility for action, and mentors have a chance to give parents positive feedback about their student and/or suggestions for support.

Time management – For many students, taking multiple online courses can be overwhelming. Students need guidance in managing their online courses. One strategy is to focus on two courses at a time in the first half of the term and spend the second half of the term on the other courses. To consider this arrangement, determine what your school needs regarding verification of students in courses during the state-required time period for seat time waiver reporting. Communicate with instructors to inform them of the students’ scheduling decisions. Instructors may have some ideas to assist you.

  • Add due dates to pacing guide, syllabi, and assignment and assessment calendars.
  • Help students set goals to keep current and stay on pace.
  • Review pacing guide or assignment calendar with students during face-to-face updates to keep them on pace.

Earning the right to work off-site – If you work with students who need assistance in becoming self-directed in their learning, consider starting them in a structured school environment to monitor their engagement and understanding of online learning. They can earn the privilege of working outside the school setting through consistent performance and/or by achieving a certain level of successful completion.

Contact

Mentors, instructors, and administrators present at a Virtual School Summit held at Michigan Virtual in June 2013 commented about the vital nature of the mentor’s support, supervision, and encouragement and credited the mentor with creating and nurturing an environment that leads to course completion. First and foremost, participants recommended regular contact between mentors and students, administrators and mentors, instructors and mentors, instructors and students, and everyone and parents.

Mentors interviewed for Supporting Online Learners: Michigan Mentor Program Case Studies agree about the importance of establishing contact and maintaining relationships.

Student contact

  • Daily contact between students and mentors is best.
  • Successful students receive consistent contact from mentors and instructors regarding feedback and progress.
  • A face-to-face weekly meeting between student and mentor where the student discusses her/his progress helps students develop responsibility for their own learning and an understanding of accountability.

Administrator contact

  • Administrators should check in with mentors on a monthly or weekly basis to ensure that mentors know their work and dedication is appreciated by the school.

Instructor contact

  • The online instructor should contact both the student and the mentor at the beginning of the course — preferably via a phone call or video conference since email is so easily overlooked by students.
  • Mentors suggest periodic contact with the instructor — not just because of a crisis.

Learning Management Systems 

Most online courses have a Learning Management System – commonly referred to as an LMS – that contains the tools a student uses to take an online course. Students gain access to and turn in their assignments, communicate with the instructor and other students, and keep track of their progress and grades through the LMS. The instructor uses the LMS to post announcements, communicate with the students, provide access to graded assignments and more.

Course navigation menus vary from class to class or provider to provider, but they all contain similar features. The most important items are:

  • Announcements – The instructor will post important announcements about the course here.
  • Course Information – This area includes important elements, such as the course pacing guide, assignments, and the assignment and assessment calendar.
  • Instructor Information – Look here for how to contact the instructor and other basic information about him/her.
  • Messages – Students can communicate easily with the instructor and one another from this location.
  • Grades – Information about grades, graded assignments with feedback, and rubrics can be found here.

Monitoring Student Progress 

Parents and mentors can monitor student progress and grades by asking their student to log in and explain his/her grade book progress and points. You can also request permission from the course provider for viewing students’ records. Below, several mentors shared their best practices for monitoring student progress:

  • I check in with each student every week. I ask them to pull up their gradebook and go around and look at the feedback from their instructor with them at their seat. I can pull them up to my desk, but they like that I go around to them.
  • Once a week I have an informal conversation about the progress report with each student. I seek out the ones who aren’t making progress more often. Some students I have little contact with.
  • I meet with students when necessary – in person when possible but virtually if need be. Face-to-face is preferable, although many students email weekly progress reports.
  • I ask each student to log in to his/her course and review progress, percentage score, and teacher comments in the grade book with him/her.
  • I make sure they’re on task: check with them daily, look at their grades, print out a progress report when available, and hand it to them or ask them to print it out every week and turn it in every Friday. I give an extra percentage point for doing that throughout the semester.
  • I remind them every week where we are in the semester, make sure they’re keeping track on paper and on the computer, and encourage them to get ahead.

Protecting Student Assignments

  • Students need access to saved files from any location. Help them establish a place to save work – a flash drive, web storage, etc. – and develop a regular habit of backing up their assignments. This safeguard may prevent loss of content and frustration if an LMS refreshes while students are working on assignments.
  • Students are encouraged to develop assignments in a word processing program, save the document in rich text format, and copy/paste to the LMS to submit work. 

Characteristics of a Good Mentor

From Mentors of Online Learners in Michigan High Schools

An effective mentor is someone who is dedicated to the success of his or her students and creates a learning environment that is welcoming and supportive and more importantly — flexible — to meet individual student needs. The mentors in Michigan contributing to this guide shared their thoughts on those characteristics they practice that have a positive influence on their students’ experience in learning online. 

“Being able to put yourself in the student’s shoes and listen. Being sympathetic and encouraging – especially with those students who are not doing well. Bringing the human aspect into the online world.”

John Burnett, Houghton Lake High School

“The key is having a relationship with the students. The students have to trust you and like you.”

Mary Lafrenz, Mattawan High School

“Have some knowledge of the hardware and software, or at least knowledge of resources to call for help. Some knowledge of the course material is helpful, too, and the ability to research and find information to help guide students through their courses.”

Leona Hein, Niles Senior High School

“I know the students and the other classes they have. I already know where I’m going to send them if they have problems. I don’t wait to see if a student needs tutoring, I have that in place. I make sure they know, ‘I always have your back; I am always here.”

Leisha Shaler, Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy

“Pay attention to email, know the kids, help select courses that are a good fit, and do what you can to help this be a positive experience for the student.”

Danielle Beller, East Grand Rapids High School

“You need to be a full-time mentor, and you need to be available. They will come to you for help. Check-in with each student every week: pull up your gradebook, go around and check their progress, see their feedback — at their seat. They like that. You ask ‘How can I help? What do you need? What’s working and what’s not?’ You want kids to come to you. You don’t want them to feel like they’re alone and there isn’t someone to help.”

Lyn DeCarlo, Coopersville High School

“Be there for the students but also act as a teacher and encourage them to be self-motivated and responsible while making sure the resources are available to help them succeed.”

Kim Killinger, Stockbridge High School

“Be a good, resilient problem solver, know about your students, and be aware of their expectations. Connect with them and develop a relationship. Look them in the eye, engage in dialogue with them, develop rapport and mutual respect, and look at the rubrics, the course, and their GPA with them.”

Jay Miller, DeWitt High School

“Be flexible and patient. Motivate them. Share your experience as an online learner with them.”

Brendan Howard, Gull Lake High School

“Closely monitor students and course content, and ensure students are engaged in activities that promote their academic progress. Have strong communication and collaboration skills. Be organized and possess creative problem solving and intervention skills.”

Julie Howe, Three Rivers High School

Conclusion

Great mentors make student learning and progress visible, empowering them to make informed decisions and understand the impact of their choices. By setting initial expectations for students and modeling the process, students gain the ability to meet or exceed goals and set high standards for themselves.

Mentors are central to helping students learn in deep and meaningful ways. Whether students choose an “A La Carte” model of online learning — where students take one online course as part of their larger face-to-face curriculum, or choose online learning as their preferred method to learn, mentors provide an incredibly personalized experience for their students.

While mentors may not have subject matter expertise relevant to the online courses in which their students are participating, they still facilitate instructional support provided by an online teacher, often being the first to recognize when a student is struggling with a particular concept or assignment. The constant pulse-checking mentors do with their students allows them to work with an online teacher to customize instruction and support based on their students’ needs. This is particularly important with those who are still developing the ability to regulate their own learning. 

Furthermore, learning in an online course can take place anytime and anywhere and as such mentors must be adept at using technology and connectivity tools, working synchronously and asynchronously with students to answer questions as they arise. This ever-present support structure helps students feel a personal connection to their learning.

Perhaps the greatest benefit mentors provide for students is a deep knowledge about their individual interests, motivations, and strengths. This relationship can guide students’ choices in future online courses and learning paths, especially when school counselors do not have the resources or time to help inform enrollment decisions at such a detailed level. 

Whether you are a teacher, mentor, parent, student, counselor, administrator, school board member, or someone else who has an interest in online learning, we welcome your feedback and questions and invite you to email us at [email protected].

Research and Resources for Online Learning Programs

Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report, 2019-20, produced annually, reflects continued growth in K-12 online enrollments in Michigan. The report provides school districts with the opportunity to benchmark their own virtual learning programs against their peers in the state. This opportunity should be an important step in a program’s continuous quality improvement activities. The report is organized into several sections. The first section looks at schools as the unit of analysis. The next section focuses on the virtual courses taken. The third section focuses on students. The fourth section captures performance on statewide assessments. There is also a brief section containing maps of virtual use. Each section is meant to capture the essential findings without being overly data intensive; however, data tables have been included in the appendices to provide those interested with more in-depth information.

For additional information and insights for developing and supporting your online and blended learning program, please visit the following web pages on the Michigan Virtual website:

  • Michigan’s Online Course Catalog contains syllabi information (such as state academic standards, prerequisites, instructor contact time expectations, available academic support, and outcomes and objectives) as well as enrollment and course dates for online courses made available by Michigan school districts and Michigan Virtual.
  • The Digital Backpack blog that shares findings and expertise related to K-12 online and blended learning from both a state and national perspective.
  • Michigan schools are obligated to address the learning needs of students of all abilities so everyone has equitable access to education. When students have the tools to learn according to their abilities, everyone wins. By learning more about accommodations, accessibility, and inclusive pedagogy, educators can apply best practices in meeting the needs of all students in their classrooms.
  • Research Publications that provide a foundation to examine, engage, and explore educational practices in the industry.
  • Research Clearinghouse contains references to important research and publications in the field of K-12 online and blended learning.
  • Michigan’s Online Learning Law page is dedicated to information on Michigan’s Section 21f legislation. It includes resources and samples developed by and for schools.
  • A family of Guides to Online Learning details the world of online learning from the perspective of the people integral to creating a positive learning experience. Each guide outlines key definitions, research and resources, and practical strategies that paint a picture of what kind of preparations and support systems are necessary to ensure students succeed in their online courses.
  • A page dedicated to Mentors, developed in partnership with school leaders and mentors, links educators to a professional learning community where they can ask questions, problem solve, and share ideas and resources with other mentors around the state including sample forms.
  • The set of national standards for quality online programs, teaching, and courses have been a benchmark for online learning for more than a decade. All three sets of standards were updated and published in 2019 by Quality Matters and the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance.
  • The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) published  Standards to provide a framework for innovation in education and help educators and education leaders worldwide prepare learners to thrive in work and life.

Limited Course Capacity

We’re sorry to inform you that we have reached capacity for several of our Semester 1 and Trimester 1 courses. You’ll notice when attempting to enroll students in our Student Learning Portal that some courses are unavailable. While we are no longer accepting new enrollments for these courses at this time, many courses continue to remain open for enrollment.

With many students across the state 100% remote, demand for our online courses is greater than ever before. Because every course we offer is taught by a Michigan-certified teacher, this high volume of enrollments has created capacity issues for our teachers who provide each and every student with individual feedback.

While the Michigan Virtual team anticipated and planned for significant increases in student enrollments this Fall, the increased demand we’ve experienced has been unprecedented. As a result, we are taking steps to hire even more part-and full-time teachers to support larger numbers of student enrollments for Semester 2 as well as for Trimester 2 and 3. 

For schools that still need online learning options this year, please fill out the form at the bottom of our virtual pathways page to meet with someone to discuss other solutions. While some of our teacher-led courses are full, we may still have the capacity to help you in upcoming terms or can discuss timing to implement a whole-school or collaborative program in which local teachers from your school/district use our online course content to teach students. We also have free course content and resources available for you to use.

We know this is an incredibly stressful time for all, and we’re sorry if the courses you’re looking for are unavailable. We never want to turn away a student who wants to learn from us. Our top concern, however, is student success, and we have a policy to not take on additional enrollments if we cannot guarantee that all students will have a quality online learning experience. 

We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate the unusually high volume of enrollments we are receiving.