Mentoring and Training of Colleagues: A Descriptive Report

Background 
     Penn State University is a public non-profit university. The unit I work in is located in University Park, PA, but includes cooperation with several commonwealth campuses and conducts its business online through the World Campus. The World Campus offers more than 60 degrees and certificates in either a fully online or blended (online and face-to-face) format. World Campus distant students expect the “same high-quality, academically challenging courses” they would attend on campus and “the flexibility to study wherever you are (World Campus Web site, 2008).”
Teaching colleagues moving into a new position 
    The teaching situation I will describe is part of a long process that took place over the course of about two years from its inception to its evaluation. I was working in a relatively new role for the World Campus in which I supported course instructional designers in the design of new online courses and the management of repeat (existing) online courses. Some of my colleagues were in roles called “technical typists” or “production assistants”, supporting courses that were at the time print-based, rolling enrollment, 8-month independent learning (a.k.a. “correspondence”) courses. Their duties were primarily in the administrative and production support involved in delivering these courses, and were largely clerical in nature. My work, on the other hand, while similar in some of the more fundamental aspects of production, also required a moderate level of understanding of Web technologies and of our online learning management system. A decision was made at the high-level administrative level that Penn State would be discontinuing its offering of the independent learning courses and that they would be phased out over the course of two years and replace in most cases by online versions. Thus, my colleagues in the technical typist or production assistant roles would no longer be needed in their old roles, but would instead be required to move into the role that I had been in for a couple of years. Management in the instructional design unit made this decision. With my agreement, management put me in charge of mentoring and training my colleagues in the new skills they would need. Little guidance was offered in the specifics of what would be needed; it was assumed that my colleagues would be doing the same or similar job as mine.
    I began my task by analyzing the then-current skill level of my colleagues. This was done through observations coming from being in close quarters with these colleagues (we were in an open cubicle arrangement and were all grouped together). Through informal conversations, e-mail, instant messenger chats and more formal questioning and surveying, I was able to grasp the skill levels of my colleagues and begin to identify areas where training was needed. These included:
  • our learning management system (LMS)
  • HTML, CSS, file management and file transfer
  • Adobe Dreamweaver
  • certain internal systems essential for operations
I arranged monthly one-hour meetings at which this training would take place and at which any other topics particular to our group would be discussed. The immediate supervisor of our group would attend these meetings as well, and would answer any operational or human resource related questions the group might have. I arranged for training to be conducted by others on our internal systems and certain aspects of our LMS. I conducted much of the technical training on our LMS and Web technologies myself. I did so by preparing handouts and presentations, conducting question-and-answer sessions, and designing activities for hands-on practice. Feedback at the time of training was generally positive. To supplement these training sessions, I often wrote documentation on an internal wiki (a Web site that’s editable by everyone) for later reference by my colleagues, who I encouraged to make edits on their own when they discovered errors.
    Over the course of several months and while these meetings and training sessions were taking place, my colleagues began to move into their new roles of supporting online courses. I remained a resource for on-the-fly questions; being in close quarters helped with this. Staff gained practice in many of the technologies on which I had provided training and thus became even more proficient. Yet I found that in some areas the training had not “stuck”; this was particularly the case in technologies that staff did not use right away or very often. This was a source of frustration for me and for them, and a few members of the group reported this frustration to management. Directives sometimes came back down from management that training ought to be offered again for everyone in the group. Occasionally this follow-up training was optional and at times it was part of the required monthly meetings.
References
Penn State World Campus. (2008). Penn State | Online Degrees, Online Courses, and Online Certificates offered by Penn State. Retrieved October 8, 2008, from http://www.worldcampus.psu.edu/.