Building a Better Pals Student Mentors Using Web 2.0 Concepts
Author: Markus Neuhoff
Since the beginning of the Pals Student Mentors program all records have been maintained in a strictly paper-based format. Information including child applications, volunteer applications, communication with program stakeholders, matching information, and financial records were all entirely reliant on physical hard copies. Technology use was limited rudimentary e-mail groups for all of the program volunteers. As a result, data retention and security were highly limited. Paper based records also faced other challenges including reliance on external factors such as the postal service and attempting to coordinate a dedicated drop off location for potential volunteers to return their application packets. As a student organization, Pals Student Mentors, initially did not have any office space or any type of continually available mailbox for students to place applications in. Due to these factors, matching volunteers and children was often delay for weeks, or required child applications to be submitted over the summer months, when school was out of session.
Prior to implementing a comprehensive web based management system Pals Student Mentors functioned in a fragmented and decentralized state. Volunteer applications were handed out at an informational meeting at the start of the school year and were collected at a mailbox inside of the Student Organization Center on Grand Valley State University’s campus. This approach had many drawbacks, including unpredictable access times to the mailbox and requiring that students had to attend the informational meeting in order to receive the application. Child applications were mailed to principals or, if available, guidance counselors at local schools at the start of each summer. This approach required school officials to attempt to identify students outside of the academic year who could benefit from mentoring and then provide the parents with the information regarding the program. Screening volunteers was an especially tedious process as only the coordinator in possession of the application could perform any sort of review at that particular time. As a result, the screening process was significantly more lax, resulting in a higher dropout rate throughout the school year. As with all forms of paper-based records; poor penmanship, accidental record damage or loss, and a lack aggregate statistics were secondary yet significant concerns.
In addition to the obvious need for a centralized management system several key factors made a web based approach the clear choice. The nature of web based applications is best captured in Tim Berners-Lee’s article “The Semantic Web - A new form of Web content that is meaningful to computers will unleash a revolution of new possibilities” as published in 2001 in the Scientific American. The article describes a new class of websites known as Web 2.0 create a structure and attach “knowledge” to content. Web 2.0 site feature a high level of user interaction and personalization. Due to the wide spread acceptance of the Web 2.0-style incorporating its ideals into the Pals Student Mentors management system followed a logical progression. Additionally, it is important to consider the background of the systems target audience: volunteers and community partners. In order to understand the needs and circumstances of this group a generational approach can be used. All of the volunteers and many of the community partners fall into what is known as the Millennial Generation, containing individuals born between 1982 and 2002. Members of this generation are increasingly competent with a wide variety of technological devices and approaches. As a result they expect that they be allowed to interact and be taught using methods that incorporate technology whenever possible. Combining the factors of the prevalence of Web 2.0 applications and the high concentration of millennial students involved in Pals Student Mentors a highly technological solution was the only clear answer.
The new electronic management system sought to accomplish several goals. To begin with, all applications including those for children, volunteers, and community partners are submitted and maintained electronically. By requiring community partners and potential volunteers to enter their information directly transcription and penmanship issues are eliminated. Furthermore, delays due to postal service and restrictions on application availability were also addressed. The second goal was to improve communication amongst various program stakeholders. The community partner information area allows a greater flow of information regarding mentors and the activities that they have been involved in with their chosen mentee. Volunteers are able to access contact information and record hours through a variety of means including a Facebook ® application and a mobile friendly site. A final goal was to provide access to aggregate data for planning and accountability purposes.
Since the implementation of the web based management system Pals Student Mentors has been able to provide aggregate data regarding our volunteers and the service they perform to the general public. In addition, this data has helped to shape the future of Pals Student Mentors by providing guidance on what has worked in the past as well as potential areas for improvement. Community partner communication has also increased and while a learning curve did exist, all organizations are currently updating and interacting with the mentors and mentees using the programs website. Incorrectly entered e-mail addresses have been significantly reduced and communication is conducted more efficiently. One of the drawbacks of using entirely online based applications is that potential volunteers may not necessarily have in-person contact with one of the coordinators of the program which may have an impact on the number of applications that are started but not completed prior to the volunteer acceptance deadline.
Berners-Lee, T. (2001). The semantic web: A new form of web content that is meaningful to computers will unleash a revolution of new possibilities. Scientific American, 284(5), 34.
Coomes, M. D., & DeBard, R. (Eds.). (2004). Serving the Millenial Generation (Number 106 ed. , p. 12). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Coomes, M. D., & DeBard, R. (Eds.). (2004). Serving the Millenial Generation (Number 106 ed. , p. 67). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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