Mentored Online Seminar: A Model for Graduate-Level Distance Learning


Institutions, like my own, are grappling with how to utilize new technologies to develop distance-learning strategies that would be equivalent in methodology and outcome to traditional residential programs. Many educators, fascinated by the glamour, ask themselves, "How can I use this awesome technology to do distance learning?" The result is often strong in the "Gee-Whiz!" factor, but it remains to be seen whether or not students learn.

Another approach, one which I have chosen to follow, is to attempt to isolate the educational methodologies that have proven most effective in traditional situations. These methods would then be implemented in a distance-learning form using whatever technology best accomplishes the educational goal.

The "Simulated Lecture" Model

For example, consider the lecture-that venerable relic of the information-starved Middle Ages. If students back then could have photocopied or electronically transmitted information with the ease with which we can do so today, I doubt whether the lecture would even have survived as an educational medium. Yet it is one of the most emulated models in modern distance learning programs.

The typical high-tech simulated-lecture is one in which satellite classes participate remotely in a class held on the home campus. Watching the presenter on a video screen, the remote class has an audio (and/or video) link with the instructor, who-in the most advanced implementations of this model-is able to view the remote audience(s) as well as local students. While this model d'es make classes available to certain satellite locations, it d'es not make them accessible from virtually every location.

Furthermore, the need to hold the satellite classes at the same time as the home campus means that working students may not be any more free to attend a satellite class than a normal residence class. I referred to this model as the "simulated lecture" because such great emphasis is put upon the presenter. The instructor presents the information, technology conveys it to the student, who then-we hope-absorbs the information. Interaction with the instructor is typically limited to questions and answers, and it is this rather modest degree of interaction that distinguishes this mode of instruction from a videotaped lecture.

The Correspondence Course Model

Another popular educational model adapted to high-tech distance learning is essentially a high-tech form of the correspondence course. Technology is used to deliver course materials, interact with the instructor/grader, deliver assignments for grading, take exams, etc. Yet the basic limitations of the postal form of correspondence course remain in effect: students study in splendid isolation, maintaining a tenuous touch with their grader/instructor by means of e-mail or telephone.

While the correspondence course model allows students to take classes anywhere the underlying technology will reach, and to participate according to their own individual schedules, the model lacks the crucial ingredient of interaction with other students. Since one instructor may be working with many dozens of extension students, the level of student-instructor interaction is often not particularly high.

In fact, my first exposure to correspondence course instruction acquainted me with the cursory style typical of the genre. A red-inked "Nice work" was often the sum total of feedback resulting from 14 hours of study, research and writing.

A final objection to the correspondence model is its inherent lack of credibility from an accreditation point of view. While it may be argued that a well-run correspondence course can produce a better outcome than a mediocre residence class, the perception remains that correspondence programs are not educationally credible.

The Online Mentored-Seminar Model

A third educational methodology seems to me to be superior to either the lecture or the correspondence course model. I refer to the small group seminar, where students-guided by a faculty mentor-discuss course material with which they have previously grappled individually. Following are some criteria for a well-conducted graduate-level seminar: Credentialed mentors guide small groups of students.

The seminar leader must have the academic qualifications necessary to anticipate group discussion, and the small-group discussion skills to guide it without chilling the free flow of thought. Students participate with a high degree of involvement after individual interaction with course material. The difference between a graduate seminar and a dormitory bull session is that participants in the former have individually interacted with material before gathering to share opinions. Discussions are moderated. As the mentor guides a discussion, there is an agenda: to ensure that all course objectives are met and that all participants have equal opportunities to benefit from the discussion.

How can a mentored seminar be adapted to meet the needs of a geographically diverse student population that must interact asynchronously? In other words, students must be free to choose when they participate and from wherever they live. The obvious medium that springs to mind is electronic mail. Can mentored seminars be implemented using e-mail as the sole instructional medium?

Case Study of an Online Seminar

In an effort to investigate the possibilities of online mentored seminars, I arranged to conduct an experiment that merged a distance-learning module with an already-scheduled resident school course: Church History Survey. The objective was to simulate a geographically diverse group of students who would participate at times of their own choosing.

My student test population differed substantially from what a genuine mentored-seminar population would look like. In an actual online course, students who register for it would either already have access to e-mail and the skills to use it, or would be sufficiently motivated to acquire them. No one in my test population had ever used e-mail; only two were familiar with the concept. Further, none had registered for the course because they were attracted to the online module.

In fact, most students initially felt the online module to be a burden; it turned out to be a very good thing to have scheduled the online module during the seventh and eighth weeks of a nine-week quarter. The first six weeks were crucial for educating the test population in the desirability of acquiring new communication skills and in helping them to attain minimal competency in using e-mail.

My test population, therefore, could fairly be said to represent a worst-case for testing the mentored-seminar model: they were ignorant and unmotivated. If the model proved effective with this group, it would likely be equally effective with a motivated group who already had e-mail skills.

The mechanics of how a "seminar" can take place using e-mail requires explaining about a "list-server." A list-server (also called a list serve) is a program that automatically re-mails e-mail messages to a list of recipients. This is what makes it possible for each participant to communicate with the "group," just as takes place in a live seminar.

Our list-server was set up so that students would address mail to it at the address CHURCH_HISTORY@SERVER. The list-server would then re-mail the message to all participants. In this way every student received what every other student posted to the group. A list-server also makes it possible for students to participate using any computer or e-mail system to which they have access. We believe that the ability to use a wide range of computers and software at relatively slow transmission speeds is important if students from Third World countries are to participate. Since the International School of Theology has sister schools in Asia and Africa, we wanted to be sure that the technical requirements were not beyond the reach of the lowest common denominator.

Key to Online Discussion-the Thread

The list-server provided the mechanics of interaction, and the use of "discussion threads" provided the framework. Each student had been assigned chapters to read, assignments to prepare, and exams to take as a part of the normal residence class. These went on in parallel with the online module, and would probably be a part of any mentored-seminar online course.

Instead of in-class discussion, however, the online discussion was stimulated by an initial, somewhat open-ended question, posted by the instructor. This question was designed to begin a "thread" of discussion that would accomplish some portion of one or more of the course objectives.

Students could respond to the thread question in a variety of ways, but each had to respond to every thread at least twice each week. Students could respond to some aspect of the thread question, challenge the validity of some assumption of it, or otherwise post a message indicative of grappling with the theme of the discussion. The first response posted gives the next student the opportunity to interact with the original question, or some aspect of the predecessor's response. In the same way, subsequent posters-now receiving in their electronic mailboxes the cumulative discussion-could interact with many aspects of the developing discussion.

Mentor Do's and Don'ts

The role of the mentor is to monitor the discussion-thread as it evolves, making sure that fruitless avenues of exploration are pinched off, and that course objectives are fulfilled. He or she d'es this by judiciously posting supplemental questions that re-orient the thread-discussion. This format presupposes that motivated students with access to information sources and who are interacting in a community of scholars are capable of educating themselves on the course content.

It is important for mentors to not assume a heavy-handed approach to moderating the discussion, or to begin to lecture. Note that students were encouraged to begin "unofficial" threads on class-related subjects of their own choosing. These threads operated exactly like the official ones except that participation was not mandatory.

In addition, students were free to interact privately with each other by e-mail-mail not directed to the list-server. Such mail is accessible only by the addressee(s)-not even the mentor can read it. This informal mode of interaction would be analogous to students whispering together during class. While usually undesirable in a residence classroom, it could have important learning benefits in an online seminar.

A final advantage of the online seminar is that all interactions can be preserved by participants. Messages can be collected by thread-topic, saved, edited and become permanent records for future reference. This contrasts with the completely ephemeral nature of verbal discussions in live seminars.

Key Observations from the Study

The results of the experiment were illuminating, and exceeded my expectations in all areas. Here are some of the issues addressed in the experiment:

- Would students assume "ownership" of the discussion, or would they merely make purely pro forma responses in order to meet the minimum requirements of the course?

While the first two or three postings appeared rather stilted, students were quick to begin interacting with each other with considerable passion. By the third day the ice was fully broken, and students had all but forgotten the original thread-question as they rushed into furious debate on thread-related issues. Even though each student was only required to participate in each thread three times a week, most participated between four and six times a week.

- Would students be stimulated by online discussion to the point of pursuing their own educational objectives?

It became evident very quickly that the student-to-student interaction grew sufficiently intense that individual, self-directed research began to take place. Deeply involved with the course material, students began to cite authorities to buttress their arguments. Some drew from very obscure corners of the library for facts and quotations that they hoped the group would find persuasive.

It was especially refreshing to see how frequently students analogized from current events to historical situations in the period under study. I interpreted this as evidence that they were going beyond absorption of information and were actively synthesizing it with their understanding of the present.

- Would students be able to overcome the inherently "high-tech, low-touch" medium of e-mail and generate some form of class esprit?

The most surprising aspect of the online culture that developed was how it bore little relationship to the live, in-class culture that evolved during the first six weeks of the course. Students had to get to know their "e-mail-selves" all over again, with occasional misunderstandings and friction as a result. Several times a student would chide another for what was perceived as excessively strong language. Students also shared helpful tips, such as how to easily quote from previous messages in order to provide a context for their own input.

I found that the orientation to e-mail that I gave in the weeks prior to the online module was not nearly as effective as online student-to-student counsel. When I was unable to deliver a new thread-question on schedule (I was in Ukraine and my e-mail connection was not functioning), the students decided to formulate their own thread question, which they posted. This was so successful that when I rejoined the discussion I found the online debate in full swing, with several students expressing a desire to continue the online discussion into the Christmas break.

- Would the shy, reserved, generally non-participatory students find the online seminar more conducive to their personalities?

This turned out to be the case. Those who participated the least in class often posted the most thoughtful, cogently reasoned arguments in the online forum. One student wrote me private e-mail expressing his great satisfaction at having as equal an opportunity to interact with the group as those whom he considered natural persuaders. In this sense, the media of the online seminar evened the playing field quite a lot, and individuals made substantially more equal contributions than in a typical "live" seminar situation.

Further Questions Remain

While the online seminar module of the course proved to my satisfaction that most of the positive qualities of a graduate seminar could effectively be replicated in an online version, some significant issues remain:

- Quality versus quantity.

It may be argued that the total participation of an individual in an online seminar over the course of a term might amount to only a few dozen pages of text, an amount that might represent the verbal contribution of a single seminar in a face-to-face group. Can an online seminar be truly comparable to a live, real-time seminar in the face of such a disparate amount of participation?

In fact, the quality of the online discussion content was, in general, far superior to the general run of live-seminar discussion. The fact that each student had access to the whole discussion thread gave them the broad context in which to make significant new contributions. Knowing their input would be carefully scrutinized by the group caused them to think through their proposals carefully, research them fully, and argue them persuasively.

- The role of supplemental materials.

Since the experimental online seminar was piggy-backed on an existing residence class, students were exposed to live lectures and live discussion, as well as the usual reading, research and written assignments. Through the medium of e-mail, an online seminar could utilize similar reading and written assignments. Texts and supplemental course content could be e-mailed to students, just as they could submit written products for evaluation.

But what of the "face-to-face" aspects of a live seminar? Is it absolutely necessary to include videotaped lectures to supplement the online discussion? This aspect of online seminars remains undecided.


Based on this study, it is apparent that the model of the mentored-seminar, an educational model that dates back to Socrates and Plato, has enormous flexibility and educational integrity in its online form. While more research needs to be done, it seems likely that online mentored-seminars have the capability to provide an educational experience equivalent in methodology and outcome to those conducted live in an on-campus setting. Furthermore, they are based on technology that is firmly in place on a worldwide basis. Finally, this model makes great use of our greatest educational resources-motivated students-and has great potential for fulfilling the promise of online education in a cost-effective, human-centered form. J. Albrektson is a professor and Director of Accreditation at the International School of Theology. A graduate of Duke University, he holds a doctorate from the Asian Baptist Graduate Theological Seminary in Baguio City, Philippines. Active in founding and teaching at graduate institutions in that country, he has been involved in cross-cultural educational projects for over 15 years. E-mail: mailto:[email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.