My idea is about the value of mentoring relationships, and how we can enable their organic spread across the world.
Every student ultimately bears the responsibility for orchestrating the design of their own learning journey. But it's also crucial that they have guidance, not only from parents, teachers, and formal instruction, but from mentors—people who care about the trajectory of their individualized paths, who can serve as sounding boards, guiding advisors, and confidants, helping them to plot and explore the map of their interests and potential futures.
This relationship is promoted haphazardly (if at all) at our institutes of higher learning, even the most elite ones. Great schools have amazing courses, sure—but those same courses are increasingly available online, to anyone in the world, for free.
Even the best schools frequently fail to facilitate real mentoring relationships to help students design their own learning objectives and deeply consider their future trajectories, networks, and burgeoning careers. Mentorship is something that can't be "massively open onlined" or outsourced; the relationship component at its core, one-on-one dialogue, rapport building, and empathy, can't be extracted and optimized so easily.
The most inspirational project I've come across in the past few months is the "/mentoring" project started by Diana Kimball, a distributed mentoring movement (and associated template page) by which professionals are encouraged to expand their web presences to express openness to mentoring others.
It's a wonderful start, but is also far from being widely adopted—when I mention it to people, it's rarely something they've heard of.
Despite its current shadow life as pertains to mentorship, this sort of open source, "distributed", community-driven movement is something that we're seeing more and more in all corners of the web, and in offline culture at large. Its vital importance in the very near future cannot be overstated.
What can we do to improve mentoring? My experience as a student feels like it's hardly begun, accelerating to this day, almost two years after graduating college. Learning is life-long, and doesn't stop when formal education does; the value provided by a mentor pays lasting dividends.
Students need motivation, but more than that they need people who care about their unique selves and situations. People who can validate their work and facilitate their advancement along paths concurrent to, but also slightly divergent from their own interests in unforeseen ways. People to expose them to ideas and possibilities beyond their comfort zones; to stretch their boundaries and push them into the world, lovingly.
My idea is a marketplace for mentors, a community the goal of which is to pair those embarking on a learning journey with those mentors both experienced enough to guide them and compassionate enough to change their lives. We can think of this as a Boys and Girls Club for the digital age, wherein the the algorithmic potential refined by Amazon, Netflix, online dating services and myriad others is combined with the strength of tangible, selfless relationships, bringing civic duty to the cutting edge.
This online space, as I imagine it, would improve opportunities for creating potent, meaningful relationships governed not by market expectations, but by something like the so-called "gift economy"—transacting in the intrinsic value that derives from authentic human connection, and applying the fruits of such relationships to education.
In simplest form, this would be a web application where both students and mentors could post information about their interests, areas of study, or career specialties, and could browse profiles to find and contact one another. In slightly more advanced form this would also allow searches and sorts to make the discovery process even easier.
Improving the education experience goes far beyond improving the experience in the classroom, or even improving the technologies surrounding the classroom (information delivery, hybrid classroom model, MOOCs). Most importantly we need to establish a space within which students can explore and be challenged, and I think mentors are critical to helping create this space.
When I was in college, I had some teachers I didn't know at all, and some I came to like a great deal. But even with the ones I connected with on some level, I didn't feel a deep mentoring relationship. True, I could have made more of a conscious effort to establish these relationships—but it would have run kind of counter to expectations. Dedicated mentoring isn't a top priority for most professors, and more emphasis is put on academic work than self-discovery.
Over the past few months, I've reached out to a small handful of mentors, and have already gained a lot from doing so, both in terms of general encouragement and specific, actionable advice for the projects I'm working on. It's clear to me that mentorship provides value that's not only effective, but efficient—while the potential value is great, the overhead cost is a bit of time. I've begun to experience firsthand the clarity and validation that these relationships can yield, and am eager to cultivate more of them as I continue on my learning journey.
I think it would make the world a better place if every successful professional doing innovative and important work saw the value of taking a few hours per month to dedicate their attention to mentoring a handful of promising students, or even just one person within whom they see some particular spark, drive, or kinship. This will lead to a positive feedback loop, and an increased sense of purpose and possibility for the young people it affects. Strangely enough, I think the benefits will flow almost equally in the other direction.