Developing digital tutoring solutions: What we learned

Written by Lucy Turner Programme Manager, A Fairer Start mission, & Isabel Newman, Senior Programme Manager, A Fairer Start mission

Tuition is a vital part of supporting children whose education has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, access to tutoring is often limited to the schools and parents that can most afford it. It’s estimated that around 80 per cent of disadvantaged pupils don’t have access to quality tuition.

Nesta is proud to have been part of the National Tutoring Programme, which supports schools in addressing this by giving them access to high-quality subsidised tutoring for as many disadvantaged pupils as possible.

In addition to providing capacity building support to the 33 approved tuition partners, our role has been to support five of them in particular to improve their virtual offering in the face of school closures and the shift to online provision in January 2021.

Having worked intensively with these tuition partners over the last six months, this is what we learnt:

Develop the right partnerships

Our grantees have all taken different approaches to the technical development of their projects; FFT has used in-house expertise, TalentEd and Manning’s Tutors have worked directly with the online tuition platforms they are using; and SPT and Brilliant Club have used out-of-house developers. There have been pros and cons to each approach, but key points include:

  • Working directly with a tutoring platform can increase the reach and impact of the developments e.g. the BirdseyeView created by Manning’s Tutors on Bramble is now accessible to any organisation using Bramble, which is a great return on investment all round. Organisations that have made developments for their own use must decide whether or not to share their creations for social good or to protect their own commercial edge and requirements.
  • Working with third parties (whether platform or developer agency) means nurturing and managing new relationships and working methods to complete projects on time and to budget, often against competing priorities. We found the partnerships that worked best where those that pre-dated our funding; the organisations involved had already built solid working relationships and could hit the ground running with fast-paced ambitious projects.
  • Irrespective of where the tech development has taken place, best practice has shared the same characteristics of regular communication, transparency on timelines, detailed product planning, allowing time for bottlenecks, and a shared sense of purpose for the project, to help keep everyone aligned and motivated.

Take the time to understand the user

Absolutely central to each grantee and their projects has been the focus on user needs, both to accurately identify the problem that needs solving and then to design (and test, test and test again) the solution. Indeed, The Brilliant Club undertook detailed user research at the outset of their project to ensure it fully understood the needs of its users and tested their preexisting (and pre-pandemic) assumptions while FFT repeatedly checked with its tutors the functionality and effectiveness of its low bandwidth developments, in particular the balance / trade off between accessibility and quality.

By doing this, we believe the grantees have produced higher quality products that translate into more effective and impactful tuition. We think this has been most effective when users have been involved from the very start, and when a wide range of users had their voices included — so engaging pupils as well as tutors and teachers to get a full view and hear opinions that may differ from each other or from what was originally assumed. It has also required management to be really open to listening and responding to the feedback they’ve heard, rather than being fixed in their vision for the project.

Be flexible with changing school needs

A major challenge that perhaps we didn’t give enough attention to in advance, has been the practical constraints of working with schools, particularly during the pandemic. From the COVID-related restrictions limiting access to schools and teachers to the complete overload that teachers have experienced meaning requests to be involved with additional projects was a really big ask, the grantees have needed to balance getting the desired levels of engagement with pragmatism, flexibility, and careful relationship management.

Beyond these, other practical considerations have included device access; internet bandwidth; whether it’s better for developments to be available offline (and therefore more accessible) versus online (allowing live updates and real time data transfers); how intuitive technology needs to be for students to be independent (versus creating more workload for teachers); platform preference and/or inertia; and, in the cases of introducing a new platform, the need to onboard teachers and tutors as simply yet effectively as possible.

Create a space for collaboration without competition

Having wondered how collaborative five organisations, which are ultimately competitors, would be, we have been really happy to see them gel and work well together as a group, supporting, encouraging and challenging each other to deliver their projects to the highest possible standard. We’ve witnessed them open up about their ideas, give each other constructive feedback, ask difficult questions that only they as peers really know about, and even test out each other’s products in development. Part of this camaraderie has come from the individuals, who are each collaborative and motivated by creating social impact, but also from having a portfolio of organisations that work in the same field, serve the same customers, know the same challenges and experience the same context. This has been beneficial in terms of creating shared understandings and a common base from which to work.

Evaluate as we go

To help us understand the impact of the products being developed, we enlisted the support of experts at the Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY). They worked with each grantee on collecting baseline and endpoint data, as well as laying some of the longer term foundations for impact measurement such as developing theories of change for each product to bring intentionality (as well as assumptions) to the fore; exploring the evidence base to root the new developments in the existing knowledge of what works; and supporting with plans for longer term, more robust evaluations. They have also helped the grantees to consider the impact of the funding and projects on the organisations themselves, which has been fascinating, particularly given the challenging times.

The five organisations we worked with:

Manning’s Tutors were awarded a grant of £99,393 to work with the online tutoring platform Bramble to develop functionality called Birds Eye that allows a tutor to split the main session screen into up to four mini-views, replicating how tutors work with small groups when face to face i.e. moving from group to tailored 1–1 activities. The aim of Birds Eye is to improve the quality of online tutoring sessions. They also created an AI coach to analyse sessions and provide tutors with data on student engagement, topics covered and suggestions to improve the impact of their tutoring.

The Brilliant Club received a grant of £91,600 to undertake user research to better understand the needs of students, schools and tutors using its online platform and to make improvements to increase the quality of the platform and the user experience. It has also created user guidance videos and enhanced its support functions to ensure students and tutors have a high quality experience accessing online support.

FFT used its £99,999 grant to improve the accessibility of its online platform by significantly reducing the bandwidth needed for schools to access compressed audio, video and image content without compromising on quality. It has also developed new reports to capture data about students’ progress and allow tutors to more effectively target their support.

School Partnership Tutors was awarded £99,999 to develop the PupilKnowHow app, which can be accessed offline and provides students with both targeted academic content and wellbeing information and activities when delivered in tandem with tuition designed to complement and increase the impact of tutoring sessions and support from schools.

TalentEd received £50,000 to explore and develop new assessments to better understand the needs of students and their academic progress, confidence and engagement. These assessments allow more targeted and impactful tuition tailored to the student. TalentEd has also developed its training to support tutors to deliver high quality sessions.

The grantees have worked hard and fast to complete their projects on top of their day-job of delivering tuition for the NTP and against the backdrop of the pandemic and all the obstacles that involved.

We — and all our grantees- are delighted with the end products, particularly having heard very positive feedback from tutors and students already, and we look forward to learning more about their impact in the future.

Looking ahead

While huge progress has been made in the past year with infrastructure, devices and connections, as well as attitudes towards and experiences of working online, there’s a long way to go to ensure that all digital provision of education — including online tuition — consistently closes rather than deepens the digital divide and attainment gap. To do this, we need the providers of online education to put the impact, quality and accessibility of their products first, with particular consideration for the needs of disadvantaged children.

In the future we would like to see more demand for this from schools and other funders/purchasers of such products, and a higher prioritisation of the needs and experiences of disadvantaged groups and users by the organisations that provide online tuition and other digital education services.

More thought leadership

Originally published at https://digileaders.com on July 15, 2021.

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Informing and inspiring innovative digital transformation digileaders.com