An online learning lifeline in stormy times

Will Chambers, founder of Bramble and Nathan Sansom, CEO of The Access Project, discuss the powerful role online learning is playing in helping disadvantaged students achieve their goals

Every educator will be worried about the impact of the lockdown and its aftermath on the progress of students. And there will be particular concern for the young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who now face even greater challenges as they strive to achieve their goals.
The risks the lockdown has created for these students were recently highlighted by the Sutton Trust. In the charity’s April brief on the impact of COVID-19 on social mobility, the differences in home tutoring and engagement in online lessons between children in middle-class homes and those from less advantaged backgrounds were made very clear.

The lockdown doesn’t have a close parallel in our lifetimes, so we can’t be certain of the long-term implications for disadvantaged students.
But we do know about the summer learning loss, in which disadvantaged students fall further behind their peers over the normal six-week summer break. We fear that we will see this effect on an even more concerning scale.

Striving for digital equity

The work of The Access Project (TAP) to get disadvantaged students into top universities provides a good example of what can be done when online learning is used to address these inequalities.

TAP uses volunteer tutors – professionals who benefited from a quality university education who want to give something back – to help disadvantaged students achieve the grades they need to get into a top university, while staff members help students prepare good applications.

“The lockdown doesn’t have a close parallel in our lifetimes, so we can’t be certain of the long-term implications for disadvantaged students”

Before the lockdown, 90% of this tutoring – including English, maths, chemistry, biology and physics – was in-person, either at the volunteer’s workplace or in a public space.

Since the pandemic, that support has moved entirely online, with Bramble providing more than 450 TAP tutors and their students with a simple and easy-to-use platform which has been freely available during the lockdown.

In a world where face-to-face tuition simply isn’t possible, this online platform has proved to be a vital support, providing students and tutors with all the tools they need for fully featured tutorials, as well as fully searchable recordings – an invaluable aid for consolidation.

Using an online teaching platform like this also means that those students who would benefit from a volunteer tutor but who don’t live in areas with a high professional graduate population are still able to access that support.

A pillar of strength in times of adversity

TAP has been piloting online tuition for two years now. Although the sample sizes are relatively small, initial indications are positive that students with online support are making as much academic progress as those receiving tuition face to face.

The shift online over the last few months has been a huge support for students who otherwise, without that connection, would have felt incredibly isolated.

When a TAP University Access Officer got in touch with one of his students to ask her how she was doing, she burst into tears as she expressed her thanks for all the support she had been receiving. For her, the online learning and support she was receiving was a lifeline during very uncertain and stormy times. It’s vital this support continues during these tough times, and that students continue to get extra support when we emerge from lockdown.

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