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Student Pathways and Mentoring Service

05 Jul, 2005
The NIIMLE project offers a pilot range of web based services to students in every FE and HE institution in Northern Ireland. Students can access data relating to their current course, run a pathways search for future study and discuss courses with a class tutor online. They can also view their personal record (including transcript) and use the PDP service to reflect on and update their current skills and competencies.

Learner activity

The learner logs onto the portal using their existing username and password for the institution they are based in. They can then select the Pathways tab to search for courses in any FE/HE institution in the N.I. region. The learner enters a keyword relating to the area of study they are interested in and selects one option from the drop down list under Mode of Attendance. One or more institutions can be selected simultaneously. Courses matching the criteria the student entered are displayed as a list showing the course title, name of institution, duration and level of course. The name of the institution is also a hyperlink to the institution homepage. Clicking on the course title will return further information relating to the course such as location, description and entry requirements.

Through the mentoring service the learner can view FAQs relating to the courses and post queries to a discussion forum. Responses will be posted by academics associated with each course to the forums. Other learner queries can be read on the forums along with the relevant responses.

Pedagogical / technical approach

The information displayed to the student is stored in the associated institution's MIS system. The student can access the NIIMLE portal not only from their institution but from any computer with an internet connection. NIIMLE is not a learning tool but a portal offering the student a range of services to assist them with their learning decisions, for example ensuring the student signs up for the course most suitable for them.

Intended outcome(s)

The main objective of the pathways/mentoring service is to aid student retention by ensuring the student signs up for the most relevant course in the first instance. A secondary objective is to eliminate the necessity for the student to search individual institutional web sites to gather information on courses, thereby saving student time.

The academic can also use the service as a means to promote their course to a wider group of students. Funding bodies and institutions will also benefit if student retention is enhanced.


For the pilot stage of the project students from a multimedia course and either a hospitality and catering or leisure and tourism course participate in each institution. Courses across the whole curriculum are included in the pathways search. It was originally intended to link the mentoring service from the pathways search results, i.e. the student would search for a particular course and drill down to the mentoring service from the results displayed. One concern was that if a course, not included in the pilot was selected, a dead link to the mentoring service would result. For this reason a separate tab was created in the portal for the mentoring service entitled 'Mentors'.

During trials it was highlighted that when most students ran a pathways search they did not select another option for mode of attendance from the drop down list other than the default of "Block Release". This hindered the result and did not return as many courses as expected. The default will be changed to a more relevant selection and the number of choices will be reduced to reflect those most commonly used.

Established practice

Prior to the pathways service, students would need to contact each FE/HE institution via their web site or by writing or phoning to check course details individually. No mentoring service was offered although students could contact course tutors for further information. This meant the academic was replying to the same frequently asked questions, which impacted on efficient and effective use of time spent.

The e-learning advantage

The major benefit of the pathways service on the NIIMLE portal is that the student can search for courses on one or more FE/HE institutions simultaneously. Prior to the mentoring service, students could need to contact the course academic by phone, e-mail or letter.

Course mentoring benefits to the academic include the ability to create FAQs relating to their course, thereby eliminating the necessity to repeatedly answer the same questions from students. It is also a means of promoting their course.

By encouraging student retention, NIIMLE also offers benefits to course funders, by ensuring more students complete the course they enrolled on.

Key points for effective practice

The following points were important in setting up the Pathways and Mentoring service:

  • The NIIMLE team visited every FE college in Northern Ireland individually to encourage them to sign up for the project. The two HE institutions were also part of the NIIMLE consortium. It was crucial to the success of the project to have everyone on board.
  • Academic staff in the two subject areas were then approached to act as mentors for their courses and to use their students in the trials. It took the team some time to get the right people, who were then trained on the use of the portal and setting up their discussion forums and FAQs.
  • Servers were installed in each institution which meant cooperation with technical staff was a key requirement.
  • Collaboration with other bodies such as NICIS, BIC, NIMAN, RSC-ni, etc. was also very important to ensure that all interested parties were aware of the NIIMLE plans and activities.

Conclusions and recommendations

  1. Making personal visits to each institution created awareness of the project and encouraged their participation (e.g. enabled installation of the NIIMLE servers on the institution's network). The collaborative nature of such a project is dependent on the development and maintenance of such links.
  2. Identifying key academic contacts within each institution and making direct contact with them facilitated the appointment of mentors. Commitment in terms of time and training is required on the part of the academics and with no tangible reward it is important to identify interested individuals who will commit to the project.
  3. Collaboration with existing service providers helps to keep everyone informed.
  4. Maintaining awareness of the project within the sector has been and still is an issue. Forging links with organisations within the sector has facilitated the project's attendance at events and conferences and had the project featured in publications targeted at the sector.

Trials of the Pathways service were conducted in the 16 FE colleges throughout Northern Ireland in December 2004 and January 2005. More than 200 students in total participated in the trials. In a few cases there were local network difficulties or problems with firewall configuration that needed to be overcome before the students could access the NIIMLE portal.

The overall feedback from participants indicated that they found the portal straightforward to use and although few comments were made, those noted were that the portal was 'interesting' and useful. Some participants suggested they would like to choose their own log-in passwords; however this is an issue for their own institution rather than the NIIMLE project.

A recommendation for the future would be to conduct more in-depth evaluations with users/participants (learners, academics and MIS developers). Such evaluation would provide a basis for identifying and developing the strengths and weaknesses of a project. The project team has designed a better feedback form for use in the imminent trials of PDP and transcript services.

Members of the NIIMLE Project Team
April 2005


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