Going to school is not necessarily synonymous with learning. UNICEF estimates that 617 million children and adolescents worldwide do not reach minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics, despite the fact that two-thirds of them attend school. In Latin America and the Caribbean, according to UNESCO, 60% of children in the sixth grade of primary school do not reach these levels. Further complicating this situation, school closures caused by the COVID-19 health crisis increased the risk of dropout, educational exclusion and learning loss (IDB, 2022).
Of course, the data tell us that it was the most vulnerable populations who were most affected by these learning losses (IDB, 2022). The growing educational gaps between advantaged students, those with access to digital resources, or those who have managed to attend school face-to-face show the importance and above all the urgency of the challenge.
In this context, remote tutoring is presented as a cost-effective alternative to improve students’ learning, and to ensure that students, regardless of the region, income or internet connection in their area, have access to the basic knowledge corresponding to their level of study.
Tutoring is an educational intervention strategy that enables the accompaniment of students, based on a direct, regular and sustained interaction over time, between them and a tutor that enables the construction of knowledge in a reflective way (Díaz et al., 1999 and Roscoe and Chi, 2008 cited in IDB, 2022).
What are the advantages of this working dynamic? How can we ensure its quality? What are the challenges of implementation? To discuss these issues, the education division of the Inter-American Development Bank organised a debate with the presence of several experts in the field. In this article we summarise some of their discourses.
What are the reasons for considering the application and implementation of this tool in education systems in vulnerable countries? There are several reasons for this, which are set out below:
A context marked by inequality. The large educational inequalities in terms of quality and access that already existed before the pandemic in the least resourced countries have been exacerbated after the health crisis, leading to school closures (in the Latin America and Caribbean region they suffered the longest closures in the world) and huge learning losses, especially for the most vulnerable students. For example, in the LAC region, eight out of 10 primary school children do not have the minimum skills they are expected to achieve by the end of primary school (this number is two out of 10 in OECD countries and even one out of 10 in some Asian countries). Furthermore, we know that there are very important technological “digital” gaps in the region: for example, we have a difference of more than 60 percentage points in access to and use of computers between favoured and vulnerable households, where less than 30% have access to these computers.
They’re flexible. Remote learning is a flexible tool that can be adapted to the specific context and priorities of each government in the different countries where it is implemented. Its flexibility extends to the setting (primary or secondary); the subject matter (cognitive or socio-emotional skills); the profile of the tutor (some are volunteers, some are teachers, some are a mix of both); and the mode of delivery (some use telephone or SMS messaging, some use online tutoring).
They allow for learning personalisation. Remote tutoring allows instruction to be directed according to the level of the students, rather than the course. This is one of the key benefits for Noam Angrist, executive director and co-founder of Youth Impact, which has implemented remote mentoring in a number of countries in Africa and Asia. Therefore, students can be grouped according to what they need to learn or reinforce and tutoring can be targeted accordingly.
They go where no one else goes. Another great advantage of this type of tutoring, according to Michela Carlana, Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and co-founder of TOP (Tutoring Online Project), is that “they are able to reach those students who are very difficult to reach” (those who, for example, live in remote, hard-to-reach areas or those who cannot attend school on a daily basis for various reasons).
They are very cost-effective. Remote tutoring yields very significant positive results, both in the academic or cognitive area and in other aspects related, for example, to socio-emotional skills or mental health. For example, according to Angrist, “evidence shows how some interventions in Botswana produced improvements in learning equivalent to one year of instruction, with as little as $100 spent per child”. Michela Carlana also stated that “Evaluations of interventions in Italy showed that remote tutoring had a very positive influence on standardised test scores such as PISA, with an equivalence also of one year of learning, at a cost of $50 per student”.
More than just cognitive skills. Beyond these substantial gains in cognitive skills, remote tutoring also provides students with important improvements in terms of well-being. In this sense, according to Carlana, “Evaluations of these interventions have shown evidence of decreased depression and increased happiness”. In the case of vulnerable children, “being able to interact with a qualified tutor helps them stay connected to the school system and increases their ‘aspirational level’, helping them to stay in school. Even when they come from a very disadvantaged background. Finally, the evidence also states that “it helps them to have a method of study, increases their locus of control and improves their ability to complete tasks”.
Having established the advantages of this type of intervention to reduce learning gaps, it is important to establish the characteristics that must be in place for these tutorials to work properly in order to produce the beneficial effects we have discussed. How can we ensure its quality and performance?
It is critical to do this through schools. All experts agree. It is essential to work with schools, says Susanna Loeb, founder of the National Student Support Accelerator at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute. “Mentoring must be seamlessly integrated into the school programme to create equitable and coherent access in coordination with school efforts. For his part, Lucas Gortázar, director of education of EsadeEcPol and head of the Spanish programme Menttores, he adds that “If management teams do not understand the purpose of this tool, they will not transmit it well to their teachers or to families”, who must also be informed and committed to mentoring.
The pedagogical approach. It is also important to take into account the pedagogical approach to tutoring. Michela Carlana explains: “It’s not just a matter of carrying out the tutorials and that’s it. There must be a team of pedagogical experts behind the design of these tutorials. A pedagogical team in each country with context-specific knowledge to support tutors in every challenge they face while ‘tutoring’ their students. Likewise, it is not just about technology. According to Noam Angrist “The pedagogical approach will always come first. We often pretend that technology is the solution for everything, but we need the platform and the pedagogy. Technology can be online or software or a phone, but you’re always going to need pedagogy: instruction has to be directed.
Reaching students in the right way. The type of technology to be used is a key issue for the success of the programme and here it should be borne in mind that it is not only a question of “teaching at the right level”, as mentioned above, but also of “reaching the students in the right way”. According to Noam Angrist, “While this may seem obvious, it is too often overlooked and overlooked. There are some contexts where there is access and internet connection and online can work very well. But there are other environments where there is no such access and so we have to resort to other technologies such as the telephone. In low-income countries, 80% of students have access to a telephone (and this is also technology).
Adequate training of tutors. Susanna Loeb explains that “One of the most interesting things that has come out of the studies on mentoring is that there are many people who can be effective teachers, provided they have the right support, training and materials”. For example, it is important to provide them with good training on classroom strategies, didactic planning, how to involve students in an online dimension, on socio-emotional work… In vulnerable environments, adds Carlana, “Training is also essential to deal with students with very low incomes and major challenges at home”.
Challenges from the Public Policy Perspective
What are the challenges, from a public policy perspective, when implementing these types of programmes and interventions? Two public authorities from governmental entities that are implementing these programmes in their education systems spoke on this topic: Lucía Feced, Undersecretary of Pedagogical Coordination and Educational Equity of the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Gonzalo García Pérez, Undersecretary of Basic Education of the State of Guanajuato, Mexico.
Complementarity to the education system. That is: how teachers react, how schools react to the extent that they feel (or not) part of this system as a complement to what happens in school but in dialogue with them. And, as we mentioned before, in this sense it is essential that these programmes are implemented with the collaboration and participation of schools and school and education authorities. It is possible and necessary to establish a positive construction, in which nobody is threatened in their role and where it is perceived that this is a tool that helps the eminently educational task of the school.
Identification of the recipient. On many occasions, the difficulty of access has to do with external accessibility conditions (internet connection, availability of devices…), but other times it has to do with the mere identification of the students who need tutoring: knowing who needs it and how they need it, which, in the end, is one of the main interests of a public policy.
Family commitment. The education community should be conceived as a meeting between the school, the student and his or her family, especially in these proposals that usually take place outside school hours and in which the mediator between the tutor and the student is usually within the family nucleus (usually the mother or father, although it can also be an older sibling or another member of the family). It is necessary to involve families beyond direct intervention, leaving a certain “installed” capacity among family members so that they continue to accompany their children in the learning process once the tutoring has ended.
The time available to families: in vulnerable environments, it is common for tutoring to take place via a mobile phone, usually the parent’s, as students do not have their own. This poses a challenge related to the time availability of parents who may be working or delayed in coming home when the child needs the phone for tutoring.
Here you can watch the full video of this panel discussion:
IDB. (2022). Remote tutoring to accelerate learning. Inter-American Development Bank. Washington D.C.
IDB. (17 May 2022). How to accelerate learning in the region? Remote tutoring as a cost-effective tool. [Video file]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TvtjSVJWYiA
Carlana, M. and La Ferrara, E. (2021). Apart but Connected: Online Tutoring and Student Outcomes during the COVID-19 Pandemic. HKS Working Paper No. RWP21-001.http://dx.- doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3777556
Redes de Tutoría (s.f.). La relación tutora. https://redesdetutoria.com/la-relacion-tutora/