E-mentoring: The Advantages and Disadvantages of using email to support distant mentoring

by Amanda Harrington, March 1999

Reproduced by kind permission of Hertfordshire TEC, Copyright Herts TEC

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The use of e-mentoring and e-coaching, that is mentoring or coaching via email, is increasing in an environment where many forms of computer-assisted learning are becoming widespread. Computer-based training, interactive training programmes and materials that can be downloaded from the internet - the forms of computer-assisted learning are many.

It might seem that email could be a sound way of supporting such developmental activities. However, email has supporters of different varieties. There are those who do indeed use email in a number of contexts, both social and task-based, both in building relationships and in basic functional exchanges. And then there are those who also declare themselves to be email supporters who, however, use email only in very defined contexts, often factual exchange.

What determines the perceptions of users about the possible contexts for communicating via email?

For those who have spent years building skills for face-to-face mentoring, it might seem completely implausible that email could be used for such an activity. Certainly there are some theoreticians who would support such a view, arguing that email is just too 'lean' a medium to support the deep exchanges necessary for developmental relationships. However, it is also clear, from other research, that as users gain experience of the challenges associated with email, they also evolve special techniques for establishing mutual understanding.

Indeed, we build cognitive 'maps' or 'frames of reference' to explain our views of what is possible and what is not; to make sense of the developing technology around us. When looking at new media, researchers tended for a long time to continue only to compare new media with face-to-face communication, looking at shared capabilities, rather than looking at the new capabilities of the developing media. Such an approach operates within an already established cognitive map, based on what has been, rather than on what might be. Such an approach does not allow sufficient examination of just what might be possible.

There is, to date, nothing in the psychological research literature about the use of email to support mentoring or coaching. This article, then, looks at the research on email to identify key issues that need to be addressed by practitioners and researchers when considering the phenomena of e-mentoring and e-coaching as methods for "virtual" learning or development.

This research paper has the following sections:

  • What is mentoring?: a brief summary of definitions
  • How is e-mentoring different from face-to-face mentoring?: an overview of the literature on email, looking at:
    • the text-based nature of email and how this impacts on media choice
    • computer literacy and its effects on uptake of email
    • disparate groups and learning
  • The factors impacting on the use of email including:
    • social influence on choice of media
    • learning email and using email to learn
    • research methodologies and their effect on perceptions of email
    • What are the possible advantages of e-mentoring?
  • What are the possible disadvantages of e-mentoring?
  • Issues for researchers
  • Issues for practitioners

What is mentoring?

There is considerable debate about the use of the terms 'mentoring' and 'coaching'. It is important however, to have as a base for any mentoring or coaching programme, clear definitions. This will assist in clarifying and communicating to others the focal purpose of an e-mentoring scheme. It will also help identify key components that may need to be included in any supporting training programme.

A mentor is commonly described as a critical friend, or guide who is "responsible for overseeing the career and development of another person outside the normal manager/subordinate relationship" (Clutterbuck and Sweeney 1997).

A coach is someone who plans an intervention "designed to improve the performance of an individual in a specific task" (Clutterbuck and Sweeney 1997)

Some people do not distinguish between coaching and mentoring, although Clutterbuck and Sweeney (1997) consider such a distinction important.

Coaching  Mentoring 
Focus on task  Focus on progress 
Usually short term  Usually longer term sometimes for life 
Explicit feedback  Intuitive feedback 
Develops skills   Develops capabilities 
Driven by coach   Driven by mentee/learner 
Shows you where you went wrong   Helps you to work it out yourself 

Table taken from Clutterbuck & Sweeney 1997

Mentoring requires the mentor to know which of several styles to use at any particular time. A mentor may be more or less directive in response to the needs of the mentee. A mentor may also pay more or less attention to the emotional needs of the mentee. These different focuses are represented in Figure 1 below.

Following Kram (1983), researchers have viewed a mentoring relationship as having four phases:

  • initiation (which can take as long as a year)
  • cultivation
  • separation
  • redefinition.
/Skill need
Emotional Need

Figure 1: Styles of mentoring (taken from Clutterbuck and Sweeney 1997)

In addition, while the majority of empirical research has focused on the benefits of mentoring in a dyad (one-to-one), Kaye and Jacobson (1995) propose group mentoring where one senior colleague mentors several junior protégés. This format allows protégés to benefit from the advice of a mentor as well as to exchange ideas and receive feedback from other group members.

Mentoring can be used in a number of situations to help an individual's development. One example is during the entry of an individual into an organisation, commonly referred to as the 'organisational socialisation' of a new employee. McManus and Russell (1997) identify three phases of organisational socialisation during which a mentor could play a useful role.

  • anticipatory socialization: learning about an organisation that occurs prior to becoming an employee, including information from recruitment efforts, the organisation's reputation and job previews;
  • encounter: becoming an employee and learning through direct experience what the organisation is actually like; and
  • change and acquisition: mastering important skills and roles while adjusting to the work group's values and norms. Mentoring may be one career development tool organisations use to socialise newcomers.

How is e-mentoring different from face-to-face mentoring?

To date, there has been no research specifically focused on e-mentoring. The research which does exist tends to examine the perceived strengths and weaknesses of email as a communication medium. Whilst these are different issues the fact that e-mentoring is based on the use of email means that the characteristics of email will inevitably affect individual's experience of e-mentoring. Using research about email it is therefore possible to identify four of its main characteristics which impact on e-mentoring. Email is:

  • asynchronous (ie that there is a time gap between sending an email and it being received and read);
  • text-based;
  • dependent on computer-literacy; and
  • a mechanism for communicating with disparate groups.

Little has been written about the asynchronous nature of email except insofar as the time gap between exchange of messages results in lack of immediate feedback.

Much research has been devoted to media choice, comparing for example face-to-face communication with email. This research assumes 'channel equivalence', that is, the ability of one medium to substitute for an ideal communication medium, usually face-to-face communication. When new media are assessed on how much they deviate from such an ideal, researchers tend to focus on the shared capabilities and, as a consequence, overlook the capabilities of the new media not found in the ideal communication medium. Not surprisingly, new media frequently appear deficient in such comparisons with research often understating, considerably, the extent to which new media are actually preferred and selected for communication tasks. (El-Shinnawy & Markus 1997)

There is however, no obvious reason why text-based computer mediated communication should necessarily be a poorer medium than face-to-face communication for conveying social information. It may hinder expressively rich communication, but need not entirely prohibit it. With sufficient time, effort and attention to the task, it is perfectly possible to pack text full with social meaning. Indeed, "the world of literature makes clear that face-to-face interaction has no inherent advantage over text in this respect." (Reid, Mallinek, Stott, & Evans 1996: 1018)

Eventual medium use is predicted by a combination of:

  • perceived communication task requirements
  • attitudes towards the media;
  • social information; and
  • individual differences. (Hunter & Allen 1992)

Some argue for a need for multichannel interaction, in preference to the idea of establishing one 'best' medium. This emphasises the complementary nature of different communication modes (Michailidis, & Rada 1997).

However, until relatively recently, media richness theory was the most prevalent explanation for how people chose between media. The richness continuum is a function of four factors:

  • feedback capability;
  • cues;
  • personalisation; and
  • language variety (Daft and Lengel 1986).

Email is described as being comparatively poor in these four factors. Indeed, email has all the lean media characteristics that media richness theory predicts would lead to lean communication, specifically:

  • lack of capability for immediate feedback, needed to correct errors in the transmission
  • a single channel which filters out significant cues from the message's author, eg social cues
  • impersonality and reduced language variety (Ngwenyama & Lee 1997)

However, as users gain experience of the challenges associated with email, they evolve special techniques for establishing mutual understanding (Clark and Brennan 1991), relational and expressive communication (Walther 1992) and topic continuity (Black et al 1983, Bowers and Churcher 1989). Indeed, Markus (1994) studied managers' choices of media and found that "managers, especially senior managers, used the [electronic mail] medium more intensively than the [information richness] theory predicts and in a manner that the theory regards as ineffective and hence unlikely". Clearly then, ways have been found to compensate for the apparent leanness of email when greater "richness" is required. In addition, it should not be forgotten that it is precisely the apparent leanness of email that can be one of its attractions, so that managers do not need to be lost in detail of content or nuances of body language and tone.

Computer literacy

Computer literacy is continuously growing. However, it is still the case that those who may wish to be involved with mentoring may not yet feel comfortable with using email. Better typists do appear to have the advantage and feel more capable of expressing themselves via email (Hiltz & Johnson 1990). Furthermore, the extent of an individual's computer skills contribute to their perception of the usefulness of different media, which in turn, determine media choice. In other words, someone who does not have good computer skills will perceive email as not so useful and will therefore be less likely to choose to use it. (Rudy 1996). Schmitz and Fulk (1991) found that individuals' perceptions of 'richness' increased, moderately, with the level of their keyboard skills whereas those with less computer experience did not perceive email to be as 'rich' - ie in its ability to provide feedback, cues, personalisation and language variety.

Disparate groups

While mentoring is essentially about a one-to-one relationship, the internet allows and encourages group communication. Therefore, rather than referring to one person, discussion lists on the internet make it possible to contact, communicate and exchange information with world-wide specialist communities and other researchers engaged in similar work. (Brennan and Rubenstein 1995). There are also many informal communities for learning, both on the internet and on company intranets (Goodman & Darr 1995). In some instances, these groups are led by a facilitator or group mentor.

In addition, people may provide help to others, including those they do not know, via email. This may involve a brief exchange. However, such exchanges cannot be regarded as constituting a mentoring relationship. Indeed, Bateman & Organ (1983) have referred to such behaviour as a kind of 'organisational citizenship' - where people act out of a sense of being able to help. An example of such 'citizenship behaviour' might be an individual who assists another employee (eg to meet a project deadline) without forming a long-term, developmental relationship with that person (McManus and Russell 1997). At a time when the "global village" is much discussed, instances of "global citizenship" continue to grow so that citizenship behaviour is a widely experienced phenomenon.

What factors impact on the use of email?

Given that e-mentoring is based on the use of email, it is obvious that the characteristics of email will inevitably affect individual's experience of e-mentoring. However, having identified the main characteristic strengths and weaknesses of email it is also important to understand the range and nature of factors impacting on perceptions of email and therefore its selection and use as a communication medium. These factors include:

  • social theories;
  • learning email and using email to learn; and
  • research methodologies.

Social theories

Media Richness Theory highlights some of the challenges faced by use of email. Markus (1994) however argues that the "weight of informed opinion seems to be shifting [away from Media Richness Theory] in the direction of social definition theories". For example, it has been recognised that computer experience, organisational context and social influence all play important roles in the degree of email richness, email usefulness and actual email use (Schmitz & Fulk 1991).

Social definition theories include:

  • structuration
  • social construction of technology
  • institutional theories
  • social influence model (Fulk et al 1990)
  • the emergent network perspective (Contractor and Eisenberg 1990)
  • the genre theory (Yates and Orlikowski 1992)
  • the channel expansion theory (Carlson and Zmud 1994)

All of these theories reject the idea that communication richness is an unchanging, objective property of the medium itself, independent of the social context where the communication takes place. Fulk et al (1990) criticise Media Richness Theory for assuming:

  • that a medium has fixed properties
  • that individuals make choices independently of the people around them
  • that choice-making is a purely cognitive, prospective and objectively rational process.

The alternative model offered by Fulk et al, the social influence model, proposes that media choice depends on:

  • an individual's evaluation of the media
  • the evaluation of the task in hand
  • the media skills and experience
  • a host of situational factors (such as individual characteristics, accessibility of media and time constraints)

Their key point is that the evaluation of media and of the task is partly objective and partly socially influenced. (Fulk et al 1990)

Learning email and using email to learn

There are two issues here:

  • training people to use email; and
  • using email to train people.

"most of what we know about training employees for computer-mediated work is the result of very narrow and fragmented studies" (Coovert 1995)

Nonetheless, in building 'virtual' work relationships, there is often an attempt to give some focused face-to-face time at the beginning. For example, the British Council ran a series of week-long workshops in the UK, followed by two-day roadshows for employees in each country - as a way of establishing initial contact, recognising that employees may not meet again face-to-face for two years if at all. (Merrick 1996).

Email may be the sole communication medium, but more frequently it is not. It may be used as the first medium for making contact (Binik, Cantor, Ochs, Meana 1997; Van Gelder 1991). Others have found that email is used to enhance existing relationships rather than to initiate new ones (Rubinyi 1989).

Zack (1993) reported that face-to-face communication tended to be used at the start and end of a work period and helped to establish a shared, agreed context. Email tended to be used in the middle of a work period, once the context had been agreed. Parallel findings might be expected when establishing e-mentoring relationships.

Hunter and Allen (1992) propose a three stage developmental sequence for learning email which could be extended to learning e-mentoring.

  • anticipation of email;
  • response to learning email; and
  • response to the experience of using email.

Stage one of this model is about the anticipation of email and includes two aspects:

  • emotional anticipation. This may be positive or negative. One person may be afraid of computers and hence afraid of email. Another "may start out excited about the idea of communicating with other people and hence excited about email." (Hunter and Allen 1992)
  • cognitive preparation. Here Hunter and Allen focus on technical skills. However, given that people's frames of reference need to change to accommodate new uses of new technology, it would seem reasonable to expect a wider area for cognitive preparation than just technical skills.

Stage two is about learning email. A positive initial attitude to learning email will mean that when faced with difficulties, the learner sees them as challenges and as an opportunity to learn. A negative initial attitude will mean that any difficulties are seen as problems and quirks. "The best predictor of the quality of the learning experience would be the expectations of the email experience." (Hunter and Allen 1992)

Stage three is about the learner's response to their experience using email. Someone who finds using email efficient and of personal benefit, will develop a more positive attitude towards email.

Research methodologies

The choice of research methodology has in itself an affect on the development of email use. The early domination of Media Richness Theory has left its legacy in current popularised stories about email.

There are three main approaches to research that are evident in the area of computer-mediated communication:

  • positivist: a 'scientific' approach to prove or disprove stated hypotheses
  • interpretivist: a more qualitative approach to explore data, thereby building theories
  • critical social: an inquiry into social activity focusing on understanding meanings from within the social context, and recognising that by the researchers' very presence, they influence and are influenced by the social and technological systems they are studying.

"The positivist IRT (Information Richness Theory) perspective, in depicting communication as a physical process of transporting a material substance from one person to another person through a conduit, treats, the latter person as nothing more than a passive receptacle of the transported symbols. In contract, the interpretive perspective (Lee 1994; Markus 1994) treats a person not merely as a passive receptacle, but as an intelligent being in a shared social context who can transform whatever 'lean' words and cues he or she receives into an understanding of what the speaker or writer meant. IS (Information Systems) research that takes a positivist IRT perspective conceptualises communication richness as a function of channel capacity (ie the flow through a conduit), while IS research that takes an interpretive perspective conceptualises communication richness as a function of mutual understanding (ie one person's reaching an understanding of what another person means). (Ngwenyama & Lee 1997: 150)

Olikowski and Baroudi (1991) divided the underlying approaches to research of 155 research papers in Information Systems into positivist, interpretive and critical social and found that the positivist approach was overwhelmingly dominant. The situation in email research is very similar. Rudy (1996) reports two exceptions to this as being Markus (1994) and Lee (1994) who show how interpretive approaches can be very valuable.

A great deal of this positivist research into email is based on laboratory-like experiments, often with students, outside of any real-life organisation, thereby neglecting contextual issues. In such experiments, measurement is an issue. Possible measurement of experiences suggested by Hunter and Allen (1992) is:

  • behavioural measurement, which might involve measuring frequency of usage as "something useful is used frequently";
  • emotional measurement, which is a matter of attitude, either satisfaction or dissatisfaction. There are two levels here: a) the extent of personal benefit in email usage and b) the level of satisfaction

A weakness in many surveys is that managers did not actually have to carry out the communication they were being asked about (eg Daft and Lengel 1986) and individuals do not always behave as they would like to behave or say they behave.

Rudy (1996) describes ethnographic approaches to information technology research as an excellent antidote to laboratory experiments. However, little work of this kind has been done on email.

Past research on email is heavily biased towards the sender of the messages, and has almost completely neglected the recipient. We need to ask recipients of messages:

  • how they felt about them
  • whether the sender had the desired effect and
  • how the message might have been improved (perhaps including whether it could have been sent using a different medium) (Rudy 1996)

Critical social theory offers a more complex interpretation of email. People are not viewed as passive receptacles of whatever data or information that is transported to them, but as "intelligent actors who assess the truthfulness, completeness, sincerity, and contextuality of the messages they receive." (Ngwenyama & Lee 1997: 151)

What are the possible advantages of e-mentoring?

One of the challenges for face-to-face mentoring is to make the time available, even more so when the two people involved do not work on the same site. E-mentoring offers the opportunity to stay in contact whatever the physical distance between the people involved. At a time when more forms of mentoring are being experimented with (Eby 1997), it seems opportune to consider the role of e-mentoring as a possible contributor to the success of these different forms, for example:

  • inter-team mentoring, possibly across shifts or sites
  • mentoring for international relocators
  • mentoring to support the socialisation of new employees
  • mentoring to stay in touch with women on maternity leave
  • group mentoring
  • mentoring with an academic tutor to support continued membership of distance
  • learning programmes.

In all of these situations, e-mentoring offers opportunities that would not otherwise be available if face-to-face mentoring were the only option.

There is also, in some companies, a growing interest in different forms of computer-assisted learning systems, such as computer-based training and interactive video. So whilst email has not yet been fully exploited as a mentoring tool, there nonetheless exists an environment where computer-assisted learning is commonplace. It is possible therefore that e-mentoring could simply become one of several management development tools, alongside knowledge-based systems (Martinsons 1997) and discussion databases etc (Goodman & Darr 1996; Venugopal & Baets 1995). In such instances, email offers a cheap and easily accessible technology to support learning.

Mentoring usually involves the mentee gaining greater self-awareness, often through self-reflection and assessment. It has been suggested that such behaviour is supported by the "relatively self-absorbed" nature of email (Sproull & Kiesler 1986: 1497). That is, that sitting without interruption and not needing to take account of another person's immediate reactions, could be seen, by the mentee, as an advantage of using email. Email also allows the mentee to write her/his contributions without being 'other-focused' or in any way controlled.

As with face-to-face mentoring, e-mentoring allows a choice of mentoring either one-to-one or one-to-a-group. Within a group situation, it is possible for the group or the individual to be salient at different times. If the group is salient while they are communicating via email, they will actually shift towards their social identity and away from their personal identity. Conversely if the individual is salient he or she will shift towards a personal identity (Rudy 1996). E-mentoring, because of its accessibility across distance and location, allows possibly a greater choice of who to have in a mentored group and of who to choose as a mentor.

Media Richness Theory identifies 'feedback capability' as a weakness of email. However, broadening understanding of feedback, away from technical detail to a more psychological focus on performance, makes it possible to argue that email offers benefits over face-to-face mentoring. Indeed, there is some evidence that willingness to give feedback increases when the feedback does not need to be delivered face-to-face (Bond and Anderson 1987, Hobson 1986, Ang and Cummings 1994, Kluger and Adler 1993).

Email is frequently challenged as being incapable of supporting as deep a social contact as face-to-face communication. And it may well be that email needs to be used in combination with other media for best results. However, it should also be noted that there is a wealth of evidence of strong interpersonal relationships being built through email. For example, anecdotal and television documentary evidence, along with some interesting cases looking at the use of email to build intimate relationships, all of which demonstrate that social penetration processes (getting to know one's communication partners more closely, leading to relationship formation) occur with sustained email interactions as they do in face-to-face interactions (Van Gelder 1991; Walther & Burgoon 1992). In addition, research into MUDS (A MUD is a software program that accepts connections from multiple users across the internet or telephone lines. It provides to each user access to a shared database of "rooms", "exits" and other objects. A MUD is a kind of virtual reality, an electronically represented place that users can visit.) shows that email contact can have a deep psychological effect on the development of identity (Turkle 1997). Furthermore, there are now opportunities to communicate with therapists via computer and to join internet support groups tackling issues like sexual abuse and alcoholism. Indeed, the Samaritans began providing email assistance in 1994 (Binik, Cantor, Ochs, Meana 1997).

These uses of email can be seen as deeply personal. Such instances therefore suggest that those who argue about the 'leanness' of email are focusing not on the variety of its possibilities but on the rather limited use of addressing routine work-based tasks.

Notwithstanding, Komsky (1991) found that people who use email a lot tend to express a preference for the medium (eg over the telephone) regardless of the situation or circumstances. However, Markus (1994) found that managers used email for communications which were equivocal (ie complex, subjective messages possibly requiring managers to overcome a different frame of reference), but still preferred the telephone for maintaining social relationships.

It could be concluded therefore that e-mentoring should not prove difficult for those already using email for their work and social contact. Indeed, there is mounting evidence to suggest that computer-mediated communication's impersonal qualities can be overcome in established groups and that computer-mediated communication can support expressively rich and playful interchanges (Reid, Mallinek, Stott, & Evans 1996).

What are the possible challenges of e-mentoring?

"If a person sees the present methods as easier and more efficient, then the individual rejects email." (Hunter & Allen 1992)

Many people, possibly influenced by media richness theory, see email as a poor choice for complex exchanges. Opinions about email are however dependent on the current context within which the individual operates. And there is a wide variety of contexts to be found within organisations.

E-mentoring has to be introduced thoughtfully and within an appropriate context. As with any face-to-face mentoring scheme, sponsorship will have a powerful effect (Markus 1994). Different media also have a symbolic value (Sitkin et al 1992). Therefore, the media choice of key people within the organisation is likely to have an effect on the media choice of the majority.

It may take time to introduce e-mentoring. The length of time is likely to depend on the level of email use and the prevalent attitudes towards it. Over a period of two years, Weedman found that participants within a study were discovering and putting to use the conversational flexibility of the medium: "the elasticity of a communication medium is determined in part by the expectations of the users and their willingness to experiment" (Weedman 1991: 318).

Email is seen as a medium low in richness because it is text-based. Text-based media are generally viewed as the most appropriate for processing large amounts of standard, accurate, objective and quantitative data. It is a challenge against this theory to aim to use email in mentoring exchanges which will include some negotiating, explanation and exchange of subjective views (El-Shinnawy and Markus 1997). However, this is against a background where writing has been slow and more formal. Email actually offers a cheaper, more accessible medium and should not be compared with more traditional text-based communication.

A final challenge to the use of email lies in employees' concerns about the confidentiality of email. Indeed, many companies unabashedly report that they monitor the email of their employees (Shieh & Ballard 1994). Email can also be seen as a technology that can "potentially give managers 'panoptic' opportunities to peer into their employees' conversations" (Romm & Pliskin 1998:96).

Issues for researchers:

This literature review also helps to illuminate key areas where insufficient information is available. These are presented below in the form of research questions that the TEC may wish to consider for future development.

  • How useful is Kram's (1983) four phases of mentoring in describing the development of an e-mentoring relationship?
  • What do examples of email exchanges reveal about the different roles that a mentor might play?
  • What contributes to the quality of feedback in a mentor's email, as perceived by the mentee?
  • What contributes to users' perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages of email as a tool to support mentoring?
  • What stories and 'folklore' exist in different organisations about email? How are these reflected in attitudes to actual use of email for mentoring?

Issues for practitioners:

This review of existing literature and research highlights a number of key issues or questions that need to be addressed when establishing an e-mentoring programme.

  • How can e-mentoring be best introduced to support new employees entering a virtual organisation or an organisation which makes use of teleworking or other structures where employees are not physically working together?
  • How can e-mentoring be further developed to support new and continuing learners within virtual universities? Or to support learners who are studying at a distance for at least some of their academic programme? Or to support school and university students through having email contact with a distant mentor from outside their institution?
  • What skills are needed for e-mentoring and how can they best be developed?
  • What format of feedback is appropriate for mentors to learn to use?
  • What level of senior sponsorship and support can, and should, you expect for the use of e-mentoring?
  • How can e-mentoring best fit your organisation's current needs: through group mentoring or one-to-one? Or a mixture?


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Amanda Harrington is an independent occupational psychologist. She has a passion for helping people to learn and coaching is one of the tools she trains people to use. Amanda also assists organisations in introducing team structures and developing team working.

Amanda's first degree was in linguistics and a keen interest in the use of language has informed her work in the use of email (ie text) for coaching. She completed a Masters in Occupational Psychology at Birkbeck College in 1999, and her thesis built on the work contained in the current article on e-coaching.

Amanda uses a range of feedback processes with her coaching clients, including face-to-face 360. She is currently working on a PhD at Loughborough Business School, looking at the cultural influences affecting the design and use of computer-based 360-degree feedback.

Amanda lives in Quorn, Leicestershire, England. Like many others, she sees smart use of technology as a way of improving her quality of life, by enabling her to reduce travel time and spend longer in her local community.

Amanda Harrington can be contacted at