Support systems are vital for university entrants and one established means of support is peer mentoring, which has the potential to improve student engagement and retention. Peer mentoring models are generally based on face-to-face contact. However, given the increasing number of higher education institutions using social media, might online models be beneficial in a peer mentoring context? This article describes a literature review and case study that considers the advantages and disadvantages of three potential virtual models to facilitate a peer mentoring scheme. The case study, undertaken at Northumbria University, UK, involved an investigation of mentoring needs and current usage of electronic media where special attention is afforded to a diverse student body. The three models discussed are virtual learning environments (VLE), social networking sites and virtual worlds. We find that the VLE is established within institutions but lacks excitement; social networking is popular particularly with younger students but there may be resentment if this appears to be appropriated by the institution; whilst virtual worlds are unfamiliar to many students and require advanced skills to use successfully. Based on these findings the social networking model is now being run as a pilot study by business programmes at Northumbria University.
Peer mentoring – is a virtual form of support a viable alternative? Research in Learning Technology (2011) 19(2): 129–142 DOI: 10.1080/21567069.2011.586675