Study explores how the transition to online mentoring and learning affected vulnerable college students

Reference: Gobec, C., Turnbull, M., & Rillotta, F. (2022). Lessons learnt from transitioning to online mentoring and learning at university during COVID-19 for adults with intellectual disability. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 26(4), 869-884.

Summarized by: Ellen Parry Luff

About the Study

The transformative period of COVID-19 highlighted the increasing role of technology in daily life. One of the many programs affected by COVID-19 was the Up the Hill Project (UTHP) at Flinders University, a mentoring program aiding individuals with intellectual disabilities in navigating university life. The pandemic compelled UTHP to transition online, disrupting their conventional approach. This study aims to understand the perspectives of UTHP participants, peer mentors, and the program coordinator during this transition. Through qualitative interviews with the program coordinator, two participants, and peer mentors, the researchers explored the challenges and benefits of online learning and mentoring for individuals with intellectual disabilities. By shedding light on this particular experience, this research contributes to a growing body of knowledge on inclusive higher education and the role of technology and mentoring in facilitating inclusion.

Key Findings:

  • The transition online did come with positive aspects. Participants were able to develop new technology skills and appreciated the flexibility of online learning. This appreciation of flexibility also extended to having more flexibility and choice about how and when participants were meeting with their mentors.
  • The rapid shift online required greater flexibility and increased availability from the program coordinator, who prioritized participants’ well-being over traditional program structures and reported that mentor-participant pairs adapted in unique ways, demonstrating the program’s resilience.
  • Challenges included technology-related difficulties, exhaustion from increased screen time, and a lack of face-to-face social interaction, which negatively impacted participants’ sense of belonging.
  • Technology access and support emerged as critical factors, with participants facing challenges related to technical skills and access to needed support for technology usage. These barriers are commonly reported in research involving individuals with intellectual disabilities and were further highlighted by the pandemic.

Implications for Mentoring

While online mentoring did have some benefits for participants involved in the study, and provided future avenues for greater support such as the potential for remote participation options for individuals in rural areas, it also revealed significant challenges. For example the participants reported reduced communication and social connection as being major issues. This finding underscores the importance of creating strategies to improve social connection in future online programs. Additionally the results highlight the critical need for increased technical knowledge and support for individuals with intellectual disabilities so they can effectively navigate these digital tools. As such the authors argue that increased use of tailored training and support with technology are vital. Focus in this area is especially important as more research is done on online mentoring programs in general. Overall this study sheds light on the complexities and opportunities of online mentoring and learning for people with intellectual disabilities. In particular this study highlights the need to work on creating accessible online mentoring options that take into account the support needs of people with intellectual disabilities. 

To access the article click here.