Burgstahler, S., & Cronheim, D. (2001). Supporting peer-peer and mentor-protege relationships on the internet. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 34(1), pp. 59-74.
Sheryl Burgstahler and Deb Cronheim
University of Washington
This study explores whether computer-mediated communication can be used to initiate and sustain peer-peer and mentor-protégé relationships and alleviate barriers to in-person communication faced by individuals with disabilities. It also compares peer-peer and mentor-protégé e-mail interactions. Content of e-mail messages exchanged between high school students with disabilities (49) and adult mentors (35) along with survey and focus group data were analyzed. Results support the electronic community as a favorable environment in which to provide peer and mentor support for high school students with disabilities. Results suggest that peer-peer and mentor-protégé relationships perform similar functions; however, peer-peer relationships are more personal. Conclusions can guide programs that wish to help youth advance their personal, academic, and career goals. (Keywords: communication, disability, e-mail, Internet, mentoring.)
In our society, education is often key to success in employment and to an overall high quality of life. However, individuals with disabilities experience less success in education than their peers without disabilities. Young people with disabilities are less likely to complete high school and to enroll in higher education programs, and those who do enroll in postsecondary programs are less likely to attain a degree (Blackorby, Edgar, & Kortering, 1991; Blackorby &Wagner, 1996; Fairweather & Shaver, 1991; Harris & Associates, 1998; Henderson, 1999; Horn & Berktold, 1999). Adults with disabilities also achieve less success in employment. They are more likely to be unemployed and often experience underemployment, dislike their job status, work in jobs with low socioeconomic status, and hesitate to pursue further training (Blackorby & Wagner; Harris & Associates; Horn & Berktold; Hasazi, Johnson, Hasazi, Gordon, & Hull, 1989; MacLeod-Gallinger, 1992).
Several factors contribute to low success rates of people with disabilities in postsecondary programs and careers. Some individuals with disabilities are not accepted by their peers and experience isolation as a result. They have few friends or little contact with other students with disabilities and thus have limited access to positive role models with disabilities (Hahn, 1991; Seymour & Hunter, 1998). The low expectations and lack of encouragement from those with whom they interact can impede the realization of their full potential in challenging fields such as engineering, science, and technology (Seymour & Hunter; The Task Force on Women, Minorities, and the Handicapped in Science and Technology, 1989). Support systems employed in high school are no longer available after graduation, and many students with disabilities lack the self-determination, self-advocacy, college and employment preparation, and independent living skills necessary to make successful transitions to adulthood (Burns, Armistead, & Keys, 1990; de Fur, 1999). Youth with disabilities more often continue to live with their parents or in other dependent living situations after high school than their peers without disabilities; they also engage in fewer social activities (Blackorby & Wagner; Harris & Associates). The effect of social isolation can be far-reaching, affecting not only personal well-being but also academic success (Seymour & Hunter; Smith & Nelson, 1993).
Supportive relationships with peers and adults can positively affect the transition period following high school when a student's structured environment ends and precollege support systems are no longer in place. Within social support systems, participants provide what has been defined as communication support behavior, "whereby individuals within a formal social system offer and receive information and support from one another in a one-way or reciprocal manner" (Hill, Bahniuk, Dobos, & Rouner, 1989, p. 356). Communication support behavior (CSB) can occur in both mentor-protégé and peer-peer relationships.
The term mentor originated in Homer's Odyssey, where a man named Mentor was assigned the task of educating the son of Odysseus. Protégé refers to the person who is the focus of the mentor's efforts. Mentoring is associated with a variety of activities, which include counseling; role modeling; job shadowing; providing personal, academic, and career advice; and networking (Beck, 1989; Kram & Isabella, 1985; Saito & Blyth, 1992; Templin & Doran, 1999). A young person with a disability can be positively influenced by observing role models with similar disabilities successfully pursuing education and careers that they might otherwise have thought impossible for themselves. Mentors can help their protégés explore career options, set academic and career goals, examine different lifestyles, develop social and professional contacts, identify resources, strengthen interpersonal skills, achieve higher levels of autonomy, and develop a sense of identity and competence (Beck; Kram & Isabella; Saito and Blyth). Information, guidance, and emotional support provided by mentors can help young adults successfully transition from high school into less structured environments of postsecondary education and employment (Beck; Moccia, Schumaker, Hazel, Vernon, & Deshler, 1989). Protégés are not the only ones who benefit from mentoring relationships. Adults can also find satisfaction in their helping roles. As summarized by Saito and Blyth, "mentoring is a win-win situation... Young people win, adult volunteers win. It is, quite frankly, society at large that is eventually the real winner" (p. 60).
Peers can offer some of the same benefits as mentors. Like mentors, peers can coach and counsel, offer information and advice, provide encouragement, act as sounding boards, function as positive role models, and promote a sense of belonging (Kram & Isabella; Shapiro, Haseltine, & Rowe, 1978). Peers of the same age offer unique opportunities for sharing, are easier to locate and approach than mentors, and typically develop relationships that are longer lasting than mentor relationships. Though mentoring relationships are primarily one-way helping relationships, peer relationships offer a higher degree of mutual assistance, where both individuals give and receive support (Kram & Isabella; Shapiro et al.). Peers facing similar challenges related to their disabilities can share strategies to overcome disability-related barriers (Byers-Lang & McCall, 1993). A peer support group of students with disabilities can discuss issues such as whom on campus to tell about a disability, how to communicate with professors about accommodations, how to live independently, and how to make friends. Peers can become empowered as they come to see themselves as contributors and role models.
Both mentor and peer support have the potential to provide students with disabilities psychosocial, academic, and career support, thereby lessening or eliminating some of the unique challenges they face. However, these types of relationships can be limited by physical distance, time, schedule constraints (Noe, 1988), and disability-related communication barriers (e.g., speech impairment, deafness). For these relationships to be successful, it is often necessary to match peers with peers and mentors with protégés in close geographic locations (Clark & Zimmer, 1989). Even if such relationships can be established, communication, transportation, and scheduling problems must be resolved. Arranging traditional in-person mentoring and peer support for this population is problematic.
Computer-mediated communication (CMC), where people use computers and networks to communicate with one another, makes communication across great distances and different time zones convenient, eliminating the time and geographic constraints of in-person communication. CMC facilitates the development of communities for people with common interests, regardless of their physical locations. Using computer technology to sustain meaningful relationships between people who are geographically disconnected allows us to reconsider the concept of "community" as a physical locale (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). The lack of social cues and social distinctions like gender, age, disability, race, and physical appearance in CMC can make even shy users feel more confident (Rheingold, 1993). With the development of computers and adaptive technology, electronic communication allows participation by all individuals, regardless of disability. For example, a blind person can read text on a computer screen by using speech output; an individual with limited use of his hands can use a track ball, headstick, voice input, or an alternative keyboard to control the computer; and a person with a speech and/or hearing impairment may be able to participate more fully in communications conducted electronically (Anson, 1997; "Closing the Gap," 1999; Seymour & Hunter).
Previous work (Burgstahler, Baker, & Croheim, 1997) concluded that relationships between peers with disabilities can be supported using CMC on the Internet. Further study was required to compare the function of peer-peer and mentor-protégé relationships where CMC is the primary means of communication.
The research questions addressed in this study are:
It is anticipated that the results of this study will (1) support the electronic community as a favorable environment in which to initiate and sustain mentoring and peer support for people with disabilities and (2) yield differences in the nature of communications between peers and between mentors and protégés. The result will be useful to people with disabilities, service providers, parents, educators, and others as they explore ways to provide youth who have disabilities with experiences that enhance success in academic programs and careers. In addition, other groups with common interests and challenges could benefit from the information about successful practices employed with individuals with disabilities.
To answer the research questions, online communications and responses by participants to surveys and in focus groups within the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) program at the University of Washington were analyzed. Funded by the National Science Foundation, DO-IT works to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in postsecondary academic programs and careers through outreach programs to students with disabilities, disability awareness training, and information dissemination.
The protégés, peers, and mentors in the study are participants in the DO-IT program. Protégés and peers are DO-IT Scholars, college-bound high school students with disabilities who are interested in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Through Do-IT, Scholars use computers, adaptive technology, and the Internet year-round to communicate with each other and with DO-IT Mentors as well as to access information resources. Scholars meet face-to-face during two live-in summer programs at the University of Washington, one lasting two weeks and the other lasting one week the following summer. Training on the use of adaptive technology, computers, and the Internet is provided during the Summer Study sessions. Academic, career, and college transition topics are also included in the curriculum.
To gain admission to the program, high school students with disabilities must apply during their sophomore or junior year. An advisory board rates each applicant's interest and aptitude in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology; recommendations from parents and teachers; and potential benefit from the program. Each year, approximately 20 students are accepted into the DO-IT Scholars program. Disabilities of Scholars include hearing, mobility, vision, and health impairments as well as specific learning disabilities. Scholars come from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds and live n rural, suburban and urban communities across the United States. Forty-nine Scholars (20 females and 29 males) participated in this study, with data collected over a two year period.
Mentors in the study are DO-IT staff and adult volunteers who are enrolled in postsecondary institutions or are employed. Most have disabilities, and they study and/or work in a variety of fields that include computer programming, disability support services, chemistry, engineering, education, statistics, history, psychology, computer science, genetics, biology, and medicine. Their role as DO-IT Mentors is to facilitate the academic, career, and personal success of Do-It Scholars. Mentors are encouraged to contact Scholars with interests or disabilities similar to their own; however, all participants are free to communicate with whomever they choose. All Mentors have access to the Internet and, although occasional meetings with Scholars occur face-to-face, most mentoring occurs through electronic mail. Thirty-five DO-IT Mentors (10 females and 25 males) participated in this study.
Data were collected from three sources: e-mail messages, written surveys, and focus groups. As Scholars and Mentors were accepted into the DO-IT program, they were invited to participate in research activities including submitting their e-mail correspondence to a research database and completing written surveys sent by e-mail. Scholars also participated in focus groups. Participation in any of the research activities was voluntary and did not affect participation in other DO-IT activities. For each research activity, written consent was obtained from each participant and from parents of Scholars under 18 years of age.
Each Scholar or Mentor who participated in the study sent copies of his or her e-mail messages to an archive to be coded by research staff. E-mail systems of participating Scholars were configured to automatically transmit copies of their messages to research staff; Scholars were shown how to turn off the automatic message copy feature and allowed to do so freely. Messages that participants elected not to copy to the research archive were not included in the study. Participating Mentors were asked to manually submit copies of messages sent to Scholars, using the "carbon copy" feature of their e-mail software. To encourage candid participation, research staff who coded messages did not interact with the Scholars and volunteer Mentors participating in the study; they also did not share the author names of specific messages with other DO-IT staff.
When participating Scholars communicated with Mentors, they were referred to as protégés. When they communicated with each other, they were called peers. Participants sent messages to individuals, multiple participants, and to electronic discussion lists that reached either all Mentors or all Scholars. Messages collected were coded and analyzed to compare the nature of mentor- protégé and peer-peer communications. They were divided into three groups of sender/receiver relationships--mentor to protégé, protégé to mentor, and peer to peer. A coding system was designed to reflect the content of each message. Content codes were developed through a review of DO-IT program goals and through review of the literature on mentoring, peer support, and computer-mediated communication. Messages were assigned a single code or multiple codes depending on the content. Table 1 describes each code.
|Academic||Academic subjects (e.g., math, history, foreign language), references to school, extracurricular activities, homework, and so on|
|Career/volunteer/work||Employment descriptions, application processes, interviewing, work opportunities, and so on|
|Personal||Information about participants' personal lives, family, feelings, friendships, activities, hobbies, and so on|
|Disability||Self-disclosures and descriptions of disabilities, accommodations, legal issues, access issues. and so on|
|Technical/Internet||Computer and network-related content including technical support, information about the Internet and resources, hardware, software, troubleshooting, and so on,|
|DO-IT activities/opportunities||DO-IT program information including scheduling and activity/project descriptions, and non-DO-IT activities or projects such as science contests, scholarships, and presentations.|
|College transition||Financial aid, recommendation letters, references to college, resources, and so on|
Scholars who had been active in DO-IT for one year and who elected to participate in this research activity were surveyed by e-mail. Questions on the survey addressed frequency of Internet use, levels of enjoyment in exchanging e-mail with Mentors and Scholars, and the extent to which contact with DO-IT Mentors with disabilities affected Scholars' confidence in achieving success despite their disabilities, knowledge of different careers, and academic interests. The survey also asked whether opportunities to talk about disability issues with DO-IT Mentors had been helpful and, as a result of communication with DO-IT Mentors, whether Scholars felt better prepared to make the transition from high school to college. Scholars were asked if Internet resources provided a way to obtain information and communicate with people whom they would normally have difficulty communicating with because of their disabilities and to assess whether access to the Internet will help them achieve success in college and careers. Open-ended questions asked what they liked and/or disliked about electronic communications with Mentors and other DO-IT Scholars, and what they liked and/or disliked about electronic communication when compared to other modes of communication (e.g., phone, face-to-face).
Scholars participated in focus groups during DO-IT Summer Study and also responded to the focus group questions by written survey. The focus groups were a regular part of the Summer Study program, but Scholars could elect to have their responses omitted from the research data. During focus group sessions, Scholars were asked to form groups of four or five. A facilitator, who was not closely associated with the participants, presented questions one at a time. Participants shared their perceptions of the effects of DO-IT activities, including their participation in the electronic community, while note takers recorded responses. Scholars responded to the same questions through a written survey sent by electronic mail. Two focus group questions relate to the first research question.
Mentors were surveyed by e-mail. Survey questions related to this study asked Mentors to rate how often they communicated electronically with Scholars, what topics they discussed, and their levels of enjoyment in exchanging e-mail with DO-IT Scholars and other Mentors. Two open-ended questions asked what they liked and/or disliked about electronic communications with Scholars and what they liked and/or disliked about electronic communication when compared to other modes of communication.
The first research question asked if CMC can be used to initiate and sustain peer-peer and mentor- protégé relationships and alleviate barriers to traditional CSB related to time and schedule limitations, physical distances, and disabilities of participants.
A total of 12,539 e-mail messages exchanged between 40 Scholars and 34 Mentors were collected over a period of two years. The actual number of messages exchanged is estimated to be much higher because messages sent to mailing lists that include the entire group of Scholars and/or Mentors were counted only once and because these numbers reflect only those messages voluntarily submitted to the study archive. A total of 2,495 messages were sent from mentors to protégés, 2,973 were sent from protégés to mentors, and 7,071 were exchanged between peers. Large numbers of messages and sustained interaction throughout the study support the conclusion that computer-mediated communication can initiate and sustain an active community of mentors, protégés, and peers.
Ten Scholars responded to the Scholar Survey. They expressed high interest and enjoyment in using their computers and e-mail and in communicating with DO-IT Mentors and Scholars. All of the Scholars said they used their computers, software applications, e-mail, and/or Internet resources. Seventy percent of the respondents used their Internet accounts at least every week; 40% used them daily. Sixty-six percent used e-mail at least once a week. Sixty-six percent liked receiving e-mail regarding upcoming activities (e.g., scholarships, science contests, newsletter articles). Fifty-five percent of the Scholars agreed the Internet provides a way to access information that was previously difficult to obtain because of their disabilities; 44% reported that the Internet allows them to communicate with people, a task which is normally difficult, in part, because of their disabilities. All Scholars agreed that access to the Internet will contribute to their success in college and careers.
When Scholars were asked in the Scholar Survey what they liked or disliked about electronic communication versus other modes of communication (e.g., face-to-face, phone), their responses included mostly praise and few criticisms.
You can meet people all over the place, whereas you couldn't meet them if you didn't have a modem.
I like it because it is quicker then sending a letter through the mail.
One advantage to electronic communication is that you can acquire more information at a time. You do not have to work so hard to write things down while someone is just talking to you. I like being about to communicate from further off with others. Since I have all the information coming up on a screen, I can go back and refer to it whenever I need to.
My reading and spelling skills make it difficult for me to read my messages and type my messages. Someone usually does this for me.
Thirteen Scholars responded to focus group questions sent by e-mail; 21 participated in in-person focus groups during Summer Study. Scholars reported many more positive than negative aspects when asked about using e-mail to communicate. Examples of positive aspects include:
Several negative aspects of e-mail were reported. Most comments related to lack of privacy, difficulties in dealing with large volumes of correspondence , and miscommunications of feelings and opinions.
When Scholars were asked to list positive and negative aspects of using the Internet for people with disabilities in general, almost all comments focused on positive aspects.
Several negative aspects of Internet use for people with disabilities were reported.
Responses of the 20 Mentors who responded to the survey suggest that most DO-IT Mentors communicate with Scholars regularly. Most Mentors (85%) reported they communicated with Scholars at least twice a month; 25% of these communicated with Scholars weekly, and 15% communicated daily. Ninety-five percent said they enjoyed their communications with Scholars; 1% expressed no opinion. When Mentors were asked what they liked or disliked about the electronic communication versus other modes of communication (e.g., phone, face-to-face), many reported they liked the efficiency of communication with e-mail(e.g., time to compose thoughts, non-intrusive, reliable, and quick). Several mentioned, however, that they would prefer more face-to -face contact with Scholars, suggesting that face-to -face communication adds value to relationships between mentors and protégés.
Table 2 summarizes the e-mail data by content code into messages sent from mentors to protégés, from protégés to mentors, and from peers to peers, and total messages exchanged.
(n = 2,495)
(n = 2,973)
|Peers to peers
(n = 7,071)
(n = 12,539)
A greater percentage of protégé messages to mentors include personal information than messages from mentors t protégés. On the other hand, a greater percentage of messages from mentors to protégés include information about career/volunteer/work, disability, technical/Internet, DO-IT activities/opportunities, and college transition than do messages from protégés to mentors. An equal percentage of messages exchanged between mentors and protégés contain academic information.
The same data were categorized into content areas, collapsing "Mentors to Protégés" and "Protégés to Mentors" categories in order to compare the overall content of communications between mentors and protégés with those between peers. Figure 1 presents this summary.
Messages containing academic, personal, technical/Internet, and DO-IT activities/opportunities information are highest in frequency in messages sent between participants, reflecting academic interest, the development of interpersonal relationships, continuous computer- related training and exploration, and program participation. Topics coded as technical/Internet and DO-IT activities/opportunities appear most often in exchanges between protégés and mentors, whereas personal content is the most common topic found in messages between peers. The percentage of peer-peer messages that include personal information is higher than the percentage of mentor- protégés messages that contain personal information. The percentage of messages containing the other content codes is higher for mentor- protégé than for peer-peer e-mail correspondence.
Responses to the Scholar Survey suggest that DO-IT Mentors are valuable resources for furthering the academic and career interests of Scholars and, to a lesser extent, for discussing disability-related issues. Seventy-seven percent said contact with DO-IT Mentors has stimulated their interests in science, engineering, and mathematics. Sixty-six percent reported having learned more about different careers in science as a result of e-mail exchanges with Mentors. Sixty-six percent said they feel better prepared to make the transition from high school to college as a result of these contacts. Thirty-three percent of Scholars reported that contact with Mentors helped them believe they can achieve a lot in spite of their disabilities. Twenty-two percent said talking about disability-related issues with Mentors was helpful. When asked what they liked or disliked about electronic communications with DO-IT Mentors, Scholar responses both ease of communication and opportunities to obtain information.
I like communicating with adults and having conversations with them about their work plans for the future.
I learn a lot from those people. I learn more about activities that are coming up and I learn about different electronic resources.
Ninety percent of the Scholars reported that they enjoyed communicating with other Scholars, a somewhat higher percentage than the 80% who indicated that they enjoyed communicating with Mentors. When asked what they liked or disliked about electronic communications with other Scholars, responses focused on ease of communication.
You get to talk to people even though you don't see them that much and they're far away.
I like having a way to communicate with other students. The only disadvantage is that I get so many messages that it gets hard to reply to them all.
Mentors reported a variety of topics they discussed with Scholars including science, engineering, and mathematics; college issues; disability-related issues; careers; and computers, adaptive technology, and the Internet. When asked what they liked or disliked about their electronic communications with Scholars, Mentors reported they liked getting to know the Scholars and being there to help. Several Mentors expressed disappointment when some Scholars did not respond to their messages. Specific comments are listed below.
I have enjoyed the idea of using the Internet to connect disabled people together.
The Internet has relieved barriers encountered with speech impairments of blind students. It is great to see disabled people treated as anyone else and that is possible with the use of the Internet no matter what the disability is. The use of the Internet has been a terrific support.
I like hearing about their classes, interests, hobbies, etc. Enjoy practicing my Spanish with them, too!
I can communicate, and normally I am very shy!
Often, many of the scholars are more articulate on the Internet than they are in on-the-spot face-to-face communication.
The results of this study suggest that CMC can be used to initiate and sustain peer-peer and mentor-protégé relationships. Participants in this study actively communicated using electronic mail and reported positive experience with using Internet as a communication tool. The Internet provides a vehicle for delivering peer and mentor support and providing access to a rich collection of information resources. Electronic communication is not subject to the barriers to in-person and telephone communication imposed by time and schedule conflicts and physical distances. Participants in the study consider benefits of electronic mail over other types of communication to include the ability to communicate over great distances easily, conveniently, quickly, inexpensively, and without the need to synchronize schedules. They value the ability to meet people from all over the world and to communicate with more than one person at a time. Computers help some participants overcome disability-related barriers that are present during other forms of communication. For example, e-mail allows a person who is deaf to communicate without the need of an interpreter. Many report the added value that people treat them more positively because they are not immediately aware of their disabilities.
Negative aspects of electronic communication include difficulties in clearly expressing feelings over e-mail, high volume s of messages, and occasional technical difficulties. Some express a desire for in-person contact to complement online communication.
Peer-peer and mentor-protégé relationships on the Internet both provide participants with psychosocial, academic, and career support. However, a higher percentage of messages between mentors and protégés than between peers related to academics, careers, disabilities, technical issues, program activities, and college transition. On the other hand, communications between peers include more personal information than messages between mentors and protégé s. More young people in the study report enjoyment in communicating with peers than with mentors. Responses to the survey and focus group questions also reflect stronger personal relationships between peers. These results suggest that peer- peer communications relate more to the psychosocial domain than do mentor-protégé communications. This does not suggest that mentor-protégé relationships lack psychosocial support or that peer relationships do not yield valuable academic and career support; rather, each type of relationship had unique strengths.
Limitations of this study result from study result from differences in methods used to collect messages initiated by DO-IT Scholars and those initiated by Mentors, combining DO-IT volunteer and staff Mentor responses, the influence of group members on each other in focus groups, potential inaccurate and incomplete recordings of focus group note takers, and potential inaccuracies when self-reporting methods are used. The results of this study suggest the following questions for future research.
Peer and mentor support can help students with disabilities reach their social, academic, and career potential. However, constraints imposed by time, distance, and disability make such a relationships difficult to initiate and maintain. The results of this study support the electronic community as a favorable environment in which to develop peer and mentors support for people with disabilities. Many of the positive outcomes associated with in-person mentor- protégé and peer-peer relationships can be obtained through electronic communications. Both types of support can reduce social isolation and advance the personal, academic, and career goals of youth with disabilities. Practitioners and parents should consider using the Internet as a vehicle for developing and supporting peer and mentor relationships. They can expect that communications between peers will be more personal in content and that mentors will provide protégés with a higher percentages of interactions related to academic and career pursuits.
Sheryl Burgstahler is an affiliate associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Washington (UW). She is also the assistant director of information systems and the director of DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) at UW. DO-IT has been the recipient of many awards, including The National Information Infrastructure Award in Education, the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mentoring, and the Golden Apple Award. She has authored or co-authored six books about the use of the Internet to support curriculum in the K-12 classroom. Deb Cronheim is a research coordinator for project DO-IT at UW. Her responsibilities include project evaluation, technical communication, and coordination of an outreach program for youth with disabilities. (Address: Sheryl Burgstahler, Box 354842, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98105-4842, 206.543.0622, fax 206.685.4054; firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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Reprinted from Journal of Research on Technology in Education (JRTE, formerly Journal of Research on Computing in Education), vol. 34 no. 1, pp. 59-74, copyright 2001, ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education), 8000.336.5191 (U.S. & Canada) or 541.302.3777 (Int'l), iste.org, www.iste.org. All rights reserved.