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Using a mentor model to enhance learner experience

Christina Wocintechchat Com Zfd1l Xtrte Unsplash

A short summary of the research paper ‘Genomic Education at Scale: The Benefits of Massive Open Online Courses for the Healthcare Workforce’, which appeared in Frontiers in Genetics in November 2019.

Written by Dr Ed Miller, Dr Michelle Bishop and Amelia McPherson


‘Whole Genome Sequencing: Decoding the Language of Life and Health’ was launched on FutureLearn in 2016 by Health Education England’s Genomics Education Programme (GEP). The three-week course forms part of the programme’s strategy to educate the current and future NHS workforce about the importance of genomics in today’s healthcare practice.

Having selected FutureLearn as the most appropriate platform, the GEP course development team was dedicated to making best use of the opportunities for social and connected learning it offers. In particular, the team considered the mentor model – which allows designated mentors to interact with and guide learners as they progress through the course – and decided to recruit a team of external expert mentors who are enrolled on genomics training programmes and working on the front line within the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), in addition to the course team. 

To date, the course has run seven times, attracting over 10,000 learners. Evaluation of the course, recently published in Frontiers in Genetics, suggests benefit to both learners and the team of expert mentors who are recruited to help run each course. 

The process of being a mentor itself allowed me to reflect on how I can improve my own training skills, ways of using open questions to stimulate independent thought.”

The decision to use specialist mentors was based on the hypothesis that these experts would add value by bringing real-life experience of using genomics in healthcare, as well as having the knowledge and experience to add to discussions and clarify any misconceptions that arose. Recent evaluation also showed, however, that the experience of mentoring additionally benefits mentors by allowing them an opportunity to engage with other healthcare professionals and patients that they wouldn’t ordinarily interact with as non-patient-facing professionals. The work can also be counted formally towards education and training competencies within their training programmes.  

Mentors are drawn from a pool of clinical scientists and clinical scientists in training on HSST and STP programmes. Ahead of each launch, they are given a short training session, based on a model by Leon Urrutia et al, 2015, which covers the course content, expectations of the role, and their duties. Mentors are then allocated shifts to ensure that there is a constant support network for learners, as well as making the commitment manageable for mentors. On average, 10 mentors oversee every run and have one 1.5 hour shift per week. 

The GEP’s recent report in Frontiers in Genetics is based on the evaluation of 440 learners who provided end-of-course reflections, 360 learners who completed the post-course survey and 14 mentors who facilitated the course. Key findings regarding the mentor model in particular include: 

  • Learners valued the mentor’s contribution and felt that it enhanced their experience by engaging with professionals working at the ‘coalface’ of genomic medicine. 
  • Mentors felt the training received prior to the courses starting prepared them for the role. Equally, the support and guidance given by the GEP during the runs also enhanced their experience.
  • The mentors found their experience to be an unexpected learning opportunity, discovering how genomics was perceived by patients, and learning from the course participants, in addition to developing skills that could be used in their own clinical practice.

“Realising I’m part of a group of genomics professionals involved in work that other health professionals and the public/patients view in wonderment and amazement”. 

In recruiting mentors externally and developing a structured approach to training them, the GEP believes it has developed a sustainable mentor model that adds value and could be applied to other MOOCs. Likewise, the use of frontline professionals as mentors is a model that could be replicated and has been shown to add value to the experiences of both learners and mentors. The authors encourage the use of this model in the development of other MOOCS.

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