12 minute read 12 Nov 2020
Two children use laptop outside for remote schooling

Five ways organizations can better support young people virtually

By Anne Sawyer

EY Global Supporting the Next Generation Leader

Education devotee and advocate. Operations professional. Gardener. Crossfit weakest link.

Contributors
12 minute read 12 Nov 2020

Virtual mentoring is on the rise. Insights from youth-focused organizations show how it can be done more effectively and inclusively.

Three questions to ask
  • Virtual mentoring is helping limit educational disruption caused by COVID-19, but could it also deepen educational inequality?
  • How can we leverage the strengths of virtual models to scale more equitable access to mentoring services?
  • How can agile, user-centered design help preserve the vital connection between mentors and students?

Widespread school closures to slow the spread of COVID-19 have adversely impacted the learning outcomes, and social and behavioral development, of more than 90% of the world’s 1.5b student population, according to the United Nations.1 To maintain continuous learning in some measure, educators and youth-focused NGOs have understandably rushed to virtualize classes and mentoring sessions in recent months.

In doing so, they have faced a number of challenges. They’ve not only needed to continue learning in the face of unprecedented disruption, but have also had to consider all the requisite aspects of making learning and mentoring effective in a digital space: curriculum structure, digital literacy of students and mentors, roll-out of platforms that enable virtual connections, digital access and more. Beyond that, parents, teachers, student support organizations and mentors alike have wrestled with how they can replicate less tangible aspects of school life, such as nurturing social interaction and emotional resilience, through the medium of a phone or computer screen.

COVID-19 impact

90%

of the world’s 1.5b student population have been adversely affected by the pandemic

Nurturing resilience and other vital 21st century mindsets and skills — such as initiative and self-direction, creativity and innovation, and communication and collaboration — is a key aim of EY Ripples  and its focus on supporting the next generation workforce. Through both EY-operated initiatives and programs run by some of the world’s leading youth-focused organizations, EY people support hundreds of initiatives throughout the school year that provide students with the mentoring and guidance needed to build these crucial skills. Since almost all of these programs occurred in person at the beginning of 2020, pivoting to virtual delivery has required careful deliberation, recalibration, and communication.

We surveyed eight of the leading youth-focused organizations we work with to glean and share their insights into how virtual mentoring and education can be provided as effectively and inclusively as possible. Below are five recommendations for educational and mentoring organizations as they go about virtualizing their programs.

COVID-19 amplifies the need to develop young people’s adaptability to change. Vital skills such as communication, collaboration and critical thinking are among the best served by ed-tech innovations.
Asheesh Advani
President & CEO, JA Worldwide

1. Take advantage of new opportunities to reach students in need

While concerns about the digital divide existed long before COVID-19, the pandemic has sharply exacerbated them. In poor and marginalized communities especially, the pivot to virtual poses a real risk of widening existing gaps, and not just in educational outcomes for 2020. Studies suggest that each year of school missed equates to a lifetime earnings loss of 7%-10%,2 which could have devastating long-term impacts on students’ prospects of rising out of poverty.

The risks of virtual models widening educational inequality are real; but so, too, are the opportunities to reduce inequality by using them to reach greater numbers of students. That’s one of the strongest messages coming out of all responses to our survey. Whether organizations were born virtual or have pivoted from in-person to virtual services, all have seen a significant uptick in demand in recent months and note an array of other benefits to virtual delivery models.

Freedom from the geographical and logistical limitations of in-person sessions obviously means greater potential for scale. It not only offers the opportunity to substantially increase the number of mentees, but also the number of mentors and the number of interactions between them. No longer having to commute to schools or other mentoring locations removes barriers to participation and allows time saved on travel to be converted into additional sessions with students.

Perhaps less obviously — but just as critically from an inequality reduction perspective — freedom from geographical limitations offers the chance to more equitably distribute mentoring services. When corporate mentoring programs take place in person, this tends to concentrate services in and around the cities where those companies are located, leading to a greater supply of programs in these areas and scarcity in others. By contrast, virtual mentoring models can connect people irrespective of location and background, and offer greater opportunities for mentors and students from different backgrounds to share their experiences with one another.

Of course, the digital divide is still a significant hurdle, and making the most of these opportunities requires additional support to provide underserved students with the technology and devices they need to access virtual opportunities. For example, Strive for College, a nonprofit that has offered virtual mentoring since 2012 and focuses on reducing inequity in access to higher education, addresses this by providing students with information about where they can apply for free devices and about organizations, including local schools, that offer free Wi-Fi hotspots. In similar fashion, the Australian Business and Community Network (ABCN) has introduced a new COVID-19 response initiative, which provides disadvantaged students with access to laptop computers.

We say we’re democratizing social capital: providing access to college counseling and professional connections, no matter where students live, how much money they have or who their parents are.
Michael Carter
Founder, President & CEO, Strive for College

2. Recalibrate lessons and learnings for a virtual setting

Several organizations stressed the importance of challenging assumptions when seeking to translate in-person programs into a virtual offering. As ABCN noted, “all of our in-person programs are highly interactive, so we were keen to test the assumption that online delivery would not be as engaging.” ABCN has found success in developing interactive sessions by utilizing digital tools such as interactive polls, music and games to keep students energized and engaged.

Session format and structure should also be reconsidered. Just because an in-person mentoring session was two hours long doesn’t mean a virtual one should be. In fact, in a virtual environment and the circumstances of the pandemic, more frequent, shorter sessions are likely a much better fit for mentors and mentees. Curricula may need revamping, so that content and activities are better suited to be provided virtually. Better collaboration with schools, program leaders and mentors may also be required, for instance to develop communications and guidance for maintaining a meaningful human connection in a virtual setting.

In thinking about how to optimize a virtual delivery model, nearly every organization we spoke with emphasized the critical importance of a modular and human-centered approach to design — of splitting content into more bite-size pieces, of creating an intuitive user experience and of actively involving participants in a continual process of testing and iteration.

100mentors, a digital mentoring and community-answering platform, built out their offering for virtual connection in the days preceding the pandemic and quickly learned that both curriculum creators and student users should be involved in the design process from the start. After feedback signaled the need for greater user input, “we transitioned toward a bold engagement of the user from the early stages of building any new features, putting the user in the center of the app building process.” 100mentors also uses surveys and focus groups to gather feedback from students and ensure the service is meeting their needs and iterates their platform as needed.

Another organization, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), leveraged curriculum improvements and technology investments made prior to the pandemic to provide more continuity of learning. NFTE staff mobilized to help educators adjust to remote learning, offering practical guidance on adapting lessons to different conditions across different school communities. Its project-based, modular curriculum design allows for implementation in a variety of scenarios — e.g., whether learning is individual or group-based, self-directed or teacher-led, in person or remote, online or offline, high tech or low tech. This offers great flexibility for both students and teachers, helping to make sure that learning could continue whether everyone was in the classroom together, online together at the same time, or working independently and at their own pace.

Coupled with clear road maps that empower students to record and track their progress, such flexibility can help provide students with a real sense of accomplishment and motivate them to reach new learning milestones — vital when you consider the importance of self-directed learning outside of a classroom environment. It can also provide organizations with the ability to more seamlessly capture and evaluate data to improve their services.

Virtual connection can be just as powerful, provided you set very clear expectations. Our biggest strength is creating a mentorship frame that respects both sides’ preferences and time limits.
Yiorgos Nikoletakis
CEO, 100Mentors

3. Be agile in your approach to technology infrastructure

Just as mentoring approaches and curricula must be shifted, so must the infrastructure that enable them. Organizations that had entirely in-person models wrestled with the question of how to quickly roll out a solution that could convey all of their services in a digital environment.

However, many soon learned that the key to doing this successfully was a matter of scoping out the essentials. As Jane Walsh, Vice President, Development, NFTE puts it, “We quickly learned not be too ambitious with our digital offering. The critical factor is enabling real connection between mentor and mentee, so we focused on ways to enhance that.”

As well as being prepared to experiment, finding the right mix of applications and platforms to support virtual delivery also requires organizations to be mindful of the disparity in students’ situations. This includes not only catering for both high- and low-tech environments, but also recognizing how a student’s home environment can shine a light on differences between them and their mentors.

To address the latter, NFTE has developed custom backgrounds for students that are fun and interesting, and help keep the focus on the virtual setting rather than the physical one. As regards the former, for example, the entrepreneurial learning community, Enactus, uses a virtual platform that allows students to participate via text, email, voice calls or video — whatever their preferences and digital capacity allow. Other have turned to applications such as WhatsApp with one global teaching organization using WhatsApp groups to connect a network of more than 1,500 teachers who can share resources for teaching students without internet access.

JA Worldwide (JA), a global nonprofit aimed at empowering students for economic success, similarly cautions against a one-size-fits-all approach in the transition to digital. Serving more than 12 million students annually around the globe, the need to reach such a broad user base has encouraged JA to experiment with a variety of ed-tech options, rather than trying to meet all needs through any single global delivery platform.

Ultimately, the shift to virtual should not be equated to a shift toward digital delivery of all organizational programming. Organizational mission and priorities should be evaluated, and resources should be reallocated accordingly to prioritize the most impactful components, while keeping an eye on the most effective means of digital delivery.

We quickly learned not be too ambitious with our digital offering. The critical factor is enabling real connection between mentor and mentee, so we focused on ways to enhance that.
Jane Walsh
Vice President, Development, NFTE

4. Provide a map to navigate the virtual environment

It’s one thing for students and mentors to have access to technology. It’s quite another, for students especially, to feel comfortable and confident navigating digital environments — especially when using new platforms or a mix of platforms. Moreover, this digital literacy gap can occur not only among students, but also among mentors and educators who may lack experience in virtual settings.

Judging by responses to our survey, the true extent of this digital literacy gap came as something of a surprise to organizations, with many retrospectively stepping up training to make sure that all participants can get the most out of their virtual mentoring experiences. This not only includes providing more in-depth support to familiarize people with technologies, but also offering guidance on building relationships in a virtual environment and setting clear expectations for mutual responsibilities.

As highlighted by Volunteer Vision, a software company that provides virtual mentoring solutions, miscommunication and misunderstanding can occur more frequently in virtual settings, and digital commitments can sometimes be perceived as less binding than physical ones. Among measures it’s instituted to guard against these issues is a multi-step guidance system, which consists of an AI-based matching algorithm for mentors and mentees, a video-based training library for both, and a live conferencing room with embedded eLearning materials and scripts, which guide mentors and mentees through their mentoring journey together and help them stay accountable to each other.

Once we understood more clearly the level of digital literacy we needed to pitch our programs to, it became much easier to reimagine our in-person mentoring experiences.
Peta Magick
Program Development Manager, ABCN

5. Don’t neglect the physical

When operating in an entirely digital environment, it’s easy to forget the important role of physical activity in improving learning outcomes. This is especially true of programs focused on development of 21st century skills — such as creativity, innovation and problem solving — which rely heavily on team-based activities, and high levels of engagement and interaction among students. But it’s also true generally, insofar as physical activity has been shown to help relieve stress, elevate mood and strengthen concentration.

For one thing, when people have been feeling the stresses of social isolation, virtual mentoring experiences can provide an important mental health boost for mentees and mentors alike. For another, as NFTE observes, maintaining a singular focus on human connection can shape strategy and cut through complexity.

ABCN echoes that the focus should always be on those human connections and the energy they create. It’s added “digital dancing” as a component of its virtual programming — a simple guided physical activity, specifically designed to energize sessions, to make mentors more relatable to students and to inject fun into the proceedings. And, evidently, it’s worked: post-program evaluations reveal that participants have found the connections established through digital programs to be just as meaningful and impactful as in-person sessions.

  • Acknowledgements

    The EY organization is grateful to the representatives of 100mentors, ABCN, Enactus, JA Worldwide, NFTE, Strive for College, Volunteer Vision and other organizations who gave so generously of their time in responding to our survey. We thank them for sharing such illuminating insights into the design values and operating principles they’ve used to create more effective and inclusive virtual mentoring and education experiences.

    The views of third parties set out in this publication are not necessarily the views of the global EY organization or its member firms. Moreover, they should be seen in the context of the time they were made.

Summary

Pivoting to virtual mentoring is not a panacea for COVID-19 disruption. If not carefully thought out, the digital divide risks deepening educational inequality and entrenched economic disparities. On the other hand, free from the physical limitations of in-person delivery models, the transition to virtual also offers vast potential to reduce inequality by addressing inequitable access to mentoring and removing barriers to scale.

Making the most of this opportunity requires an agile and user-centered approach to designing (or redesigning) services for a virtual setting — one that always prioritizes the human connection between mentors and mentees.

About this article

By Anne Sawyer

EY Global Supporting the Next Generation Leader

Education devotee and advocate. Operations professional. Gardener. Crossfit weakest link.

Contributors