Apart but connected

By Chiara Soriolo

In this article, I want to describe my experience as a member of the research team for the Tutoring Online Project (TOP), organized by LEAP.

The Tutoring Online Project, as the name suggests, consisted in providing a tutor from 3 to 6 hours per week to 500 middle school students in Italy, chosen among those who were more in need of tutoring. Tutors were assigned to students in a randomized fashion, exploiting the fact that there were over 1000 students, but only 500 tutors available. Thanks to this experimental design it is possible to correctly identify the effect of the project on students. The tutoring took place via video-calls, during the period of lockdown that followed the coronavirus outbreak. Baseline and endline surveys were collected to understand the impact of this project.

I start saying that being part of this project has been especially meaningful to me as I have always been captured by the “social” part of economics and by the field of education in particular. Also, I think that almost six months after the major health crisis of the last fifteen years, in Italy at least, not enough attention was given to the needs of students.

After the nationwide lockdown measures, students stopped going to school and switched to distance learning. This created different types of problems, especially for elementary and middle school students. In some cases, students suffered teachers’ lack of familiarity with modern technologies and even families were challenged by this new teaching modality. In fact, given the exceptionality of the situation, ensuring that children attended their online lessons, studied and did their homework was a more demanding task, especially in the case of children who were already struggling at school.

Indeed, this project also aimed at reducing inequality in education: we know that from an educational point of view this health crisis widened the already existent gap between children coming from poor and from wealthy families (Chetty et al., 2020). On average students coming from rich families were less likely to struggle at school in the first place moreover they probably received better support during the lockdown period. The tutoring online project was designed to provide support to students and families who were most in need of this kind of help. We saw that by having a one to one interaction with university students, children were better able to remain on track, study, and learn despite the difficult situation.

My tasks as a RA were mainly related to the data collection process, so I gained the first-hand experience on what fieldwork can entail. I learnt to perform managerial tasks that I was not previously familiar with: I had to keep the contacts with the school and the parents, then I was involved in the creation of one of the surveys and towards the end, I administered a final test to students myself.

Specifically, before the beginning of the tutoring, I contacted many of the schools that showed an interest in participating and explained in further detail the project as well as answer their questions. Most of the headmasters recognized the value of the project and tried their best to comply with the tight deadlines that we gave them in order to start with the online tutoring as soon as possible.

After receiving the list of students from the school, I contacted the families in the list, explained the project, and asked whether they wanted to have the chance of being assigned a tutor to their child. Most of the parents were enthusiastic about the initiative. However, some of them could not participate since they did not have an internet connection at home, or they had neither a computer nor a tablet to use for tutoring. Given that one of the goals of this project was to help reducing inequality in education during this crisis, the fact that probably the most vulnerable families were not able to participate in is something to keep in mind.

A point worth mentioning is that some students (roughly 20%) ended up doing their tutoring using only their smartphone anyway. The main reasons were unexpected issues with the internet connection, or other family members needing the computer at the same time of the online tutoring. Despite this fact, from the analysis of the data no systematic difference could be found between the outcomes of students using their smartphone and the outcomes of all the other students involved in the project. This is very reassuring especially in view of a future scale-up of the project, since that also students owning only a smartphone could participate.

I would say that, apart from the task themselves, in this phase, good communication and coordination with the other team members was really important. Most of the time there was more than one of us on the same job. Working in a team has been something I highly valued: many times parents or headmasters had asked me questions that I was not sure how to answer to, nevertheless, I always had someone in my team solving to my doubts and explaining to me how to do things in the best way possible.

After the project finally began and students were able to meet their tutors, I was involved in the creation of one of the endline surveys. Even if I was not in charge of formulating the survey, I could see how phrasing the survey becomes crucial to obtain good quality data and how concisely conveying precise messages or questions can be trickier than it seems.

After this phase in which the job was mainly in the hands of tutors and students, I had to contact some parents again to increase the response rate of endline surveys, especially in the case of people who were not assigned a tutor. This part was probably the less pleasant one. Even if they were made aware that participation was not ensured, I felt somehow guilty to ask these parents, who were not assigned a tutor, time and attention to fill in the survey. Luckily a very high number of people took their time to complete also this last survey.

After all the effort exerted by so many people, seeing that the project arrived more than successfully at the end of the data collection process gave me a feeling of true satisfaction and made me look forward to the results of the analysis. More than everything however I am happy to have been part of a project that could help 500 students with their academic path, and that could pave the way for other valuable initiatives based on tutoring.