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Feature: The 24/7 Benefits of Online Mentoring


Alice Lamey, head of the online IT mentoring teams for SkillSoft, offers an insight into the challenges and successes of this form of learning support.

Why opt for online-mentoring in the first place?
The 24/7 availability and the depth and range of experience available are the two biggest benefits of online mentoring. For example, all our mentors are vendor-certified in their area of specialisation and the majority of them are even cross-certified. Add to this the team members have spent in further or higher education and you’ve got a massive knowledge-pool. Many learners also cite the fact that they are far less embarrassed to ask lots of questions in an online environment than they would be if they were being mentored face-to-face in the workplace.

What makes a good online-mentor?
The ability to communicate well both verbally and in writing is critical, as is the knack of listening properly and interpreting what learners actually need. It’s also important to be a strong team player: online mentors generally work as a group and are always sharing experiences and knowledge. You need to be able to wear lots of hats too, as a teacher, a coach and sometimes, as a guidance counsellor.

What’s the best thing about being an online mentor?
Personally, I just get a huge buzz from helping people be the best that they can be so I really love my job. As a team we get lots of emails from students thanking us when they’ve passed an exam or gained a promotion, there’s nothing more satisfying.

How can learners get the most out of online mentoring?
Learners with an open mind who aren’t afraid to ask questions and who contact their mentors from the outset are the ones who usually benefit most. These people will get in touch immediately to tell us what certification goals they have set, which enables us to suggest courses and learning paths from the outset to help them achieve their objectives; and then keep them on track and motivated throughout the process. We know we’ve succeeded when we’ve got them to the point where they are able to find their own resources and solve problems on their own.

Describe a typical online-mentor’s day
No two days are ever the same, probably because no two learners are ever the same. We have rotating schedules but will generally start by sending out a daily email to students who are working towards particular certifications. We develop these in-house and gear them towards each exam - incorporating multiple-choice questions, which provide supplementary information for the student. We send out around 1,400 of these email questions every day. The rest of the day will be divided into dealing with general emails and answering queries in the chat sessions. In the course of a month we’ll deal with more than 1,200 freeform emails and generate about 60,000 lines of online chat. Interspersed with this we’ll have students who want additional help with specific topics so we set them mentored exercises – a bit like homework. In a typical year we will respond to around 17,500 mentored exercises.

Throughout any one shift we will deal with a good mix of general queries and tough questions - so it’s always really stimulating. The range of people we interact with is huge; from total beginners through to those with existing experience who want to switch disciplines later in their careers. Then there are school leavers, university graduates, and people in their 40s and 50s with masses of expertise who just want to make sure they have all the latest certifications.

What challenges do you come up against?
Language barriers are the most typical. English might be the universal language of IT, but not everyone working in IT speaks English as a first language. We’re dealing with learners from all over the world so we have to make sure that we have a proper understanding of what they want from us and they have a proper understanding of what we’re telling them.

What are the most popular queries you’re asked to help with?
A lot of queries are geared to certification; although project management skills are universally popular. In the first instance, people just want to know what they can achieve by doing the training and where it can lead them professionally. Once they’ve made a start, one of our main roles is to help bring the topics together so that people can see the bigger picture. On the certification front, the most popular ones are Microsoft MCSE, MCSD, MCDBA and MOS designations; Cisco CCNA and CCNP; Java and the ICDL certification exams.

What are the main benefits to businesses of having e-mentoring?
Apart from the obvious savings in training fees and costs, the biggest measurable benefit is proving to be the cost-savings in exam fees due to significantly increased pass-rates. Because we’re online 24/7, learners can prepare right up to the last minute and refresh their knowledge. We’ve had students contacting us at 3am in the morning preceding their exams to clarify particular points. Then there are the intangible benefits such as increased employee satisfaction and loyalty. People are gaining their certifications more quickly too which typically leads to an increase in productivity.


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