Why Student Mentoring is to Higher Ed what Google is to the Internet

Before taking up the challenge of helping Boston University harness the opportunities of educational technologies and digital learning, I spent several years researching how the Internet had disrupted news and journalism.

What happened there was that, thanks to digital technologies, a once-scarce resource – access to news, became abundant (one might say, overabundant) as digital newspapers, bloggers and tweeters, all now compete to provide ever more timely news and commentaries.

In this new world, access to information is no longer a bottleneck. The key bottleneck is our limited attention span. We must focus on how to best allocate our attention to news that is of both high quality as well as relevant to our personal needs and objectives.

As a consequence, the entities that organized and curated news (such as Google) became far more important than the entities that produced it (such as the New York Times). In addition to acting as gatekeepers of quality, such digital curators enabled highly personalized interfaces, through which readers can now choose the set of news that is optimally suited to their personal tastes, needs and objectives.

I believe that a somewhat analogous shift is taking place in higher education. The equivalent of Google in higher education is advising and mentoring, the process of helping students make educated choices from among the available activities in the University to optimize their career and life goals. Of course, all Universities already advise and mentor students. Nevertheless, student advising is usually a second-order activity, clearly not as prominent in students’ (and administrators’) minds as that of taking and completing courses.

A number of forces at play are increasing the relative importance of advising and mentoring and require us to take it much more seriously than before.

First, the world is changing ever more rapidly (and what does not change, gets automated). This means that many well-defined careers which were lead to by structured University curriculums, are no longer the safe bets they used to be. Success is increasingly based on creativity and innovation, in other words, on being different and on finding one’s personal niche. And finding that personal niche at eighteen requires help – more help than ever before.

Second, the diversity of activities that young people can engage in to develop and signal the competencies that will help them succeed in life is rapidly growing. In addition to courses, students can now consider adding to their skill set by taking Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) or enrolling in online badge programs. They can do University-sponsored internships or build skills by participating in open source projects. They can build personal reputations by participating in online contests or knowledge exchange communities, such as Stackoverflow, where the most prominent contributors are acknowledged through digital badges and reputation scores that are visible to all. The possibilities are increasing every day. Understanding the space of possible paths, let alone choosing among them, becomes a task that requires serious help.

As a result of the above, more than ever, young people need effective and individualized guidance in order to put together not just a study plan, but rather, a life plan. As some of the traditional “bread and butter” of residential Universities (such as lectures and standardized assessments) are becoming commoditized through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and similar technologies, engaging in effective and personalized mentoring/life coaching will fast emerge as one of the more compelling reasons to attend a residential University, and a potentially important strategic differentiator for those that succeed in doing it right.

Rethinking the mentoring and advising component of the experience we offer to students is a big task that requires interventions at multiple levels. It will always remain an activity that requires individual attention by a trained and caring human mentor – be it a faculty member or a professional advisor.

I see several opportunities for technology to play a role in this space. For example:

  • Visualization: Technology can help students visualize the various paths that are available to them, increasing their understanding of a potentially complex set of choices and helping them make better connections of how different actions affect one another. For example, visualizations can help students understand why taking calculus is an important foundation to many other courses, or better assess the consequences of dropping a course and choosing a particular elective.
  • Analytics: Given the range of available opportunities and the rate of change in almost every field, it’s difficult for even the most dedicated mentors to reliably know what paths work best for what purposes. Just as the use of data has enabled better decision-making in almost every aspect of life, I envision systems that can analyze the educational and career trajectories of large numbers of recent graduates in order to identify patterns that can inform human mentoring.
  • Personalization: Personalization technologies have been successful in matching products and services with individuals. Their application in helping students create paths that are best suited to their individual personalities, strengths and weaknesses, is quite promising.
  • Incentives: The use of gamification has been shown to increase motivation in a variety of endeavors, from patient compliance to employee productivity. I think that they are worth exploring as a way of increasing student motivation and focus as they are putting together and following their life’s paths.
  • Community: Judicious use of social technologies has the potential to create linkages between students, faculty, alumni and recruiters that will help share experiences, answer questions and highlight role models.

We are excited to experiment with ideas in these and related areas, with the objective of developing an infrastructure that offers Boston University students an effective, personalized mentoring experience that helps them map and follow paths that lead them to success.

Chris Dellarocas is the Director of Boston University’s Digital Learning Initiative and a Professor of Information Systems at BU’s School of Management

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