The ultimate in flexible, personalised professional learning – virtual mentoring and coaching

Learning, by its very nature is change. When we learn we will have changed our skills, our behaviour, our beliefs, our identity, or a combination of all four.

Mentoring and coaching provide opportunities for education practitioners (or a small team of education practitioners) to work with a mentor or coach in a collaborative, egalitarian, supportive relationship where the desired outcome is positive change. When Professional Learning and Development (PLD) provision also makes use of the affordances of a virtual environment to offer virtual mentoring and coaching combined with an online Community of Practice (CoP), education practitioners can be supported, within their own context (location), to apply, build and shape their knowledge and skills, at a time that suits them.

In 2009 I had the opportunity to lead up a Aotearoa New Zealand Ministry of Education funded project, to develop a model of PLD that was scalable, sustainable and replicable. We wanted to offer educators an opportunity to learn by participating in virtual mentoring and an online Community of Practice. In the process, we hypothesised that participants’ sense of self-efficacy would be more positive, and their professional practice would be impacted. In turn, this may have an influence on student wellbeing and achievement. Therefore, we designed the Virtual PLD (VPLD) programme to provide multiple ways to participate, and to support mentees to identify areas of professional growth based on their own needs, as well as those of their students, school and community (Owen, 2012). The programme had no formal ‘content’, associated accredited institution, or formal assessment. This is the first of three articles, and it focuses on virtual coaching. The second will unpack virtual mentoring, and the third will pull the coaching and mentoring into the Aotearoa context with a more in-depth focus on the VPLD programme and the findings of the associated research study.

What is mentoring and coaching?

Mentoring and coaching, either face-to-face or virtual, has many definitions (Ives, 2008). In part, the sheer range of definitions is indicative of the way the mentoring / coaching dichotomy emerged, as well as the multiple influences from, for example, therapeutic and personal-development approaches (Williams, 2014). The situation is further complicated because mentoring practice includes coaching approaches (Kram, 1985), and many aspects of coaching have arisen directly from mentoring (Garvey, 2010). As a result, in the practice-related literature, there is a variety of characteristics identified as important in both a mentoring and a coaching relationship (Center of Creative Leadership, 2012), and these may vary depending on the context in which the relationship is formed. In addition, contradictory coaching techniques have emerged, some of which “strenuously discourage the coach from advice-giving, others [that] still regard the coach as a guide” (Ives, 2008, p. 100).

Insights on coaching

From this point forward I am only going to focus on coaching, and hope to follow up with an article that looks in similar depth at mentoring. As a potential coachee (or coach), given the range of definitions and approaches, I feel it is important to find an approach to that resonates with you as well as being suitable for the organisation in which you are working. The definition that feels comfortable for me is based on ‘the adult learning approach’, whereby coaching is seen as

…a human development process that involves structured, focused interaction and the use of appropriate strategies, tools and techniques to promote desirable and sustainable change for the benefit of the coachee and potentially for other stakeholders (Cox, Bachkirova, & Clutterbuck, 2011, p. 1).

In other words, within an adult learning approach a coach will work, without pre-stated aims (Cox, 2006) with a coachee to:

  • co-construct conversation (Cox, 2012)
  • further develop the coachee’s sense of self, self-direction and motivation, using a person-centred approach (Cox, 2006)
  • use questions to clarify their own, and (more importantly) the coachee’s understanding, as well as to stimulate exploration of / reflection on ideas, emerging awareness, and experiences
  • explore, identify and refine goals (Cox, 2012)
  • use experiential learning (Kolb, 1984) in an iterative cycle of stages that include: conceptualisation; experimentation; concrete experience in context; reflection and then on to a new level of experience where the cycle is repeated
  • develop reflective practice to raise a coachee’s ability to critically reflect and question assumptions (Gray, 2005)
  • draw on a coachee’s previous experiences to work with challenges (Cox, 2006)
  • stimulate deep learning (Ives, 2008)

One way of thinking about it is the following scenario where the goal is to integrate horse riding into your life, practice and career:

Working with a coach would support you to identify exactly why you are keen to learn to ride a horse, and to develop an understanding of how to go about it, as well as identify things that may help you or challenge you while learning to ride your horse. They wouldn’t tell you how to ride though. The coach would ask questions and provide feedback that would help you recognise breakthroughs, and setbacks (such as your first fall), as well as areas you need to work on the next time you ride.

One of the things that appeals to me with the adult learning approach is the developmental aspect of coaching that encompasses respect for the individual, as well as a focus on the goals of the organisation. This type of approach will support a coachee to develop personally and professionally, while also benefitting the organisation or institution.

Cox (2012) asserts the importance of a non-directive approach that sees the role of the coach as, in part, being able to comprehend a situation, recognise suitable strategies and understand the implications of using those strategies. However, the coach remains neutral, asking open questions so that the coachee develops and owns their own ideas and strategies. Even when the coachee’s approach doesn’t work, the fact that they own it means that they are more likely to reflect on themselves and their practice, rather than look to the coach who directed or guided them to undertake a specific course of action.

Other strengths for me of the adult learning definition and approach is that the coach and coachee can work with emotions and hunches to identify and make explicit aspects of behaviour, assumptions, values, beliefs and experience. By foregrounding and ‘making visible’ these aspects – helping a coachee them ‘walk around’ them and see them from different perspectives – they can analyse them more more clarity, and as a result identify alternative interpretations, as well as ways forward and areas for change. Within a professional context this is essential as it will help ensure deep long-term change in understandings and behaviour, rather than shorter term shifts in skills or practice. The overarching implication is that the coachee (further) develops into a self-aware professional, who is comfortable being within, and leading, rapid change and its associated ambiguities.

Virtual coaching

Virtual coaching is also known as distance coaching, remote coaching, tele-coaching, cyber-coaching, and e-coaching. With the exception of tele-coaching, which tends to be via a phone, a virtual coach works with a coachee using:

  •  synchronous tools: webinars, Voice Over Internet Protocol – such as Skype, and text chat; and
  • asynchronous tools: emails, discussion forums, blog posts, and comments on posts.

Why try virtual coaching?

You might be asking why you should try virtual coaching (or mentoring) as part of your own professional development. While some of the benefits are likely to be similar in a face-to-face coaching context, others are attributable to the virtual nature of the PLD, in particular those that are reliant on trust, regular and easy access, and social persuasion from a wide range of practitioners that extends beyond your immediate professional context. The PLD ‘comes to’ you, has duration, and fits within your existing professional (and personal) lives, while also challenging you (Owen, 2015). You are supported to be more open to learning, taking informed risks, and seeing non-achievement as formative.

Virtual coaching fits alongside other forms of PLD you are involved in, helping to ensure a more complementary, consolidated experience that builds toward a your goals. It also means that:

  • issues with professional isolation are addressed no matter where you live,
  • the PLD is portable (if you or your coach moves, even to another country, you can still work together),
  • you can tailor your participation,
  • timing is flexible, and
  • costs are kept low.

Existing virtual coaching (and mentoring) programmes available in Aotearoa New Zealand illustrate that PLD provision, which combines access to a virtual coach and a supportive online CoP is able to provide opportunities for social influence, feedback and modelling, build a culture of trust, support success and use approaches that positively impact personal cognition (Owen, 2014).

While it may not be for everyone, virtual coaching seems to offer a sustainable option to PLD that may just change your life!


Center for Creative Leadership. (2012). The Coach’s View: Coach and Coachee Characteristics Add Up to Successful Coaching Engagements. [White Paper]. Retrieved from

Cox, E. (2006). An adult learning approach to coaching. In D. Stober & A. Grant (Eds.), Evidence based coaching handbook (pp.193-217). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Cox, E (2012), Coaching Understood: A pragmatic inquiry into the coaching process. London: Sage.

Cox, E., Bachkirova, T., Clutterbuck, D. (2011). The Complete Handbook of Coaching. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Garvey, B. (2010). Mentoring in a coaching world. In E. Cox, T. Bachkirova, & D. Clutterbuck (Eds.), The complete handbook of coaching (pp. 341-354). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Gray, D. E. (2006) Executive Coaching: Towards a Dynamic Alliance of Psychotherapy and Transformative Learning Processes, Management Learning, 37(4), 475-497.

Ives. Y. (2008). What is ‘Coaching’? An Exploration of Conflicting Paradigms. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 6(2), 100-113.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of knowledge and development. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs: NJ.

Kram, K. E. (1985). Mentoring at work: Developmental relationships in organizational life. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.

Owen, H., (2014). Putting the PLE into PLD: Virtual professional learning and development. Journal of Educators Online (JEO), vol. 11, no. 2 [online], Available at:

Owen, H. (2015). Making the most of mobility: Virtual mentoring and education practitioner professional development, Research in Learning Technology 2015 (ALTJ), vol 23, [online] Available at:

Williams, P. (2014). Coaching vs psychotherapy: The great debate. Choice Magazine 2(1). 38-39.

Hazel Owen

I have been working within education for over 20 years, and nearly 15 years of those have been exploring eLearning. As well as working with students in a number of countries, I have managed and developed projects, designed and facilitated professional development initiatives, and conducted a range of related research studies into the efficacy of education technology. I feel that virtual mentoring and coaching provide opportunities for education professionals to participate in Professional Learning and Development that is personalisable, and able to offer learner-directed opportunities to develop practice – something that some participants have experienced as transformative.

By Hazel Owen