The frontline helping others online
Dr Amber Marshall of QUT Digital Media Research Centre writes about the importance of digital mentors.
Get Online Week 2020 has special significance against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated several manifestations of the ‘digital divide’ in our society, which isolate many Australians from the social and economic support they need to lead happy, healthy lives.
While access to affordable digital connections and technologies remains a challenge for many Australians, a key barrier to digital inclusion — and the benefits of being connected — is lack of digital skills to make good use of the internet in everyday life.
Programs like Be Connected are helping to upskill Australians who are missing out on services and opportunities because they have not been able to get online and learn how to use digital devices. While we often focus on the journey of learners, one of the most vital roles in the process of digital upskilling is the digital mentor.
According to LEEP, “digital mentors are the heart of the digital revolution”. And we tend to agree.
At the QUT Digital Media Research Centre we’ve undertaken research to understand the role of digital mentors in assisting others to learn new digital skills.
In collaboration with Australia Post, we discovered that being a digital mentor is a multi-faceted, challenging and rewarding role. It can be formal or casual, paid or volunteer, in a home or classroom. Digital mentors can be young or old, professionals or retirees, experts or learners.
Digital mentors encounter many issues in the process of helping learners to get online. They deal with sensitive situations, for example, learners disclosing sensitive information (e.g. passwords); they often provide emotional support to learners who lack confidence or have a fear of technology; and they need to keep up with technological changes to connections, devices and platforms.
So, what makes an effective digital mentor? How can digital mentors tailor their approach to the learner? And how can digital mentors manage risks and keep themselves and their learners safe?
Our research pointed to ‘eight principles of effective digital mentoring’.
- Your mentoring style: Adopt an approach that is kind, patient, empathetic, generous and flexible
- Motivating your learner: Get to know your learner and use this understanding to motivate them
- Creating safe spaces: Create a welcoming space for learning — physical, technical and social
- Interest-driven learning: Teach knowledge and skills that are interesting and relevant to the learner
- Defining learning goals: Work with your learner to set and achieve goals
- Overcoming challenges: Be prepared to negotiate and overcome challenges together
- Making connections: Help your learner to made new digital connections to broaden their world
- Measuring impact: Seek feedback on your mentoring from learners and peers.
You can read about these eight principles, and access related activities, in our Digital Mentor’s Handbook.
Through our research, we gained a deep appreciation for the importance and complexity of digital mentoring in the pursuit of digital inclusion. It is our great pleasure to support Good Things Foundation’s Get Online Week campaign and, in doing so, we particularly acknowledge the marvellous work of digital mentors in helping Australians get connected during these challenging times.
Dr Amber Marshall, QUT Digital Media Research Centre
Amber is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow researching digital inclusion in Australian communities, with a special interest in regional, rural and remote areas and industries.