A couple of months ago I was honored to be asked to give the annual  Ernest Boyer lecture at an all -college gathering of Empire State CollegeState University of New York. I had heard about Empire State for some years, as it was founded in 1971 – about the same time as the Open University UK and my own Athabasca University. Each of these were new initiatives devised new institutional delivery models to increase access to University programming for adults. The OUUK and many of the institutes that were spawned after it (like Athabasca) choose an industrial model of distance education to increase affordability and the access to programming. This meant that specialty course development teams created extensive and often multi-media course packages that were delivered by mostly part time tutors to students at a distance. This model created economy of scale through mass production and division of specialized labour. I had assumed that Empire State operated under a similar model, as it too emphasizes distance education programming, adult learners, flexibility and access.

I was quite wrong!

Since its founding Empire State has practiced and celebrated a much different educational model than the “Open Universities”. The model focuses on the individualized relationship between a student and a mentor. These mentors are usually full time faculty, with doctoral degrees, who engage in sustained mentoring dialog with individual students throughout their engagement and degree progress at Empire State. To be fair, Empire State also offers an increasing number of net based, asynchronous, cohort courses that are similar to LMS based courses run by most Universities these days. But the mentoring model survives and provides a fascinating alternative to the mass production model of the open universities.

When I was at Saratoga Springs for the lecture, I was fortunate to meet and have corresponded since with Alan Mandell, the Director of Empire States Mentoring Institute. Alan sent me a copy of a book co-authored by Lee Herman and himself, upon which this posting is based. The reference is Herman, L. & Mandell, A. (2004) From Teaching to Mentoring: Principles and practice, dialogue and life in adult education. New York: Routledge. Available from Amazon for $47 or previewed on Google Books

The Text helpfully begins and ends with detailed examples of the dialogue that goes on between  students and their mentor. This dialogue goes much beyond the typical course advisor dialogue where the advisor roles out the list of pre-canned courses alternatives and the student chooses from the smörgåsbord, while paying close attention to required courses, majors, minor and prerequisites. Rather the dialogue begins with students interests and aspirations and see how they can be grown, adapted and instantiated in degree equivalent learning, work and output. The book goes on to detail 6 principles of mentoring:

  1. Authority and uncertainty – I like the author’s stress on uncertainty and the evolution of truth in both individual and collective knowledge.
  2. Diversity of curriculum: No matter how large the menu, the Open Universities always offer only mass products that may well suit a hypothetical ‘middle learner’ but are rarely able to respond to the proclivities of individual interest, curiosity and expertise.
  3. Autonomy and Collaboration: This principle focuses on collaboration between the mentor and the student, with a good deal of respect for the autonomy and independence of the ‘active’ learner. The collaboration though doesn’t seem to speak to the opportunity for collaboration between and among students and the social and networked construction of knowledge.
  4. Learning From the Lifeworld: This principle flows from adult learning theory, noting that adult learners are simultaneously engaged in many life activities. Rather than seen as time competition, these life events, activities and responsibilities provide an opportunity to mold and apply curriculum into “real’ activity and learning.
  5. Evaluation as reflective learning: Unlike typical standardized multiple choice exams guaranteed to accurately assess standardized learning outcomes, this 5th principle of mentoring builds on the previous four to suggest that assessment too must be tied to the lifeworld, diversity, uncertainty and collaborative negotiation with the learner. This is of course a very sensitive topic for higher education that clings with death-grasp tenacity to its monopoly on credentials, but the authors’ believe (attested to by practice) that learners are willing to demonstrate, in authentic outputs their learning outcomes, This give rises to a hope for assessment that really is meaningful to everyone- not just the statisticians.
  6. Individual Learning and Knowledge most worth having: This principle celebrates the capacity of the learner and the mentor working together to decipher what is most important to the individual student in their personal quest for a quality and recognized education.

I found myself nodding and underlining the descriptions from these principles – mostly because they resonate with my own experience as a learner and the ideals I’ve studied for years from adult education courses and readings. Unlike many of the ‘transformative learning” theories I’ve also studied, these actually seem to be put into practice and working at Empire State! Of course theory of the 70’s needs to be adapted to survive change and the economic realities of the 21st century. These are especially apparent when one contrasts the scalability of mentoring based education with mass education of the open universities. I worry about the cost effectiveness of the model- but I’m sure these were concerns 30 years ago and remain today. Fortunately Empire State is led today by my good friend Alan Davis – newly installed President, who is well versed with struggling with financial challenges from his days at Athabasca.  The recent addition at Empire State of a ‘blended learning” model with the online student cohorts, but anchored by a mentor relationship and individualized learning plans, may offer the economy of scale needed for survival and growth of the mentoring model – I hope so.

Two other reviews of the book give contrasting impressions of the book and both are recommended for the interested reader. David Sarr-Glass writing in the Journal of Transformative Education gives a glowing review while Lis Thomka in Adult Education Quarterly pans the book as lacking in research or evidence for claims made. My own evaluation agrees with both of these reviews. The book gives concrete examples and demonstrates the ways in which sometimes lofty theory is brought into effective educational practice. The sincerity and dedication of the authors propels the dialogue and brings the reader along through this exploration of a very different way to supporting and encouraging learning then demonstrated at either traditional or open universities. However a bit more solid evidence including qualitative, quantitive and critical perspectives would be welcomed.

In summary, those seeking first hand knowledge of an educational model that is neither industrialized distance education, nor mass produced lecture hall based, will find much of value in this short book.