Our Director of Programmes, Laura Bruce, outlines the evaluation of our digital delivery in 2020, and what we can learn to improve digital access in the future.
A year on from the first national lockdown and digital delivery has become embedded in our everyday working. This time last year The Sutton Trust team were contemplating how to manage a rapid transition to digital delivery, how to support our partners, and ultimately, how to position ourselves to quickly transition back to face-to-face delivery when it was safe to do so. That was wishful thinking!
Fast forward a year and we have launched our Sutton Trust Online platform, supported over 6,000 young people to access it and are now preparing for a second summer of digital delivery for up to 10,000 students. Alongside delivery, we are also considering our long-term delivery models, with a focus on blending face-to-face and digital elements. Evaluation is always at the heart of the Trust’s decision making; understanding if and how student outcomes have varied given the digital format is extremely important to inform our next steps.
Our overall aim remains the same: to support students into leading universities and professions. Whilst we have a longer wait to access the university and career destinations of students who took part in digital delivery this summer, we have been able to evaluate the shorter-term outcomes of changes in attitudes and behaviour, through our partnership with The Bridge Group.
Their research analysed quantitative data from surveys, engagement data from our platform and qualitative data from interviews with programme participants to compare the impact of our face-to-face provision in 2019 with digital provision in 2020 on participants’ attitudes, understanding and ambitions.
Detail on the key findings of the report is shared below; overall, the research found similar levels of positive change in 2020, indicating that the digital programme was a good alternative to face-to-face programming.
In particular, we saw activities based on sharing factual information and advice, for example personal statements and students finance, match or exceed the experiences of students in previous years.
We did however see little or no positive change in areas relying on experiential learning and ‘soft knowledge’, for example students’ confidence to move away from home for university or students’ seeing themselves in the workplace. This has reinforced our previously assumed position that some aspects of programmes are easier to replicate than others in digital format and that face-to-face programming is still very much needed to achieve certain outcomes.
In terms of the positives, participants welcomed the flexibility of digital provision and there were some particularly positive stories of individuals being able to better access our programmes due to this flexibility.
This is balanced with overall attendance on the digital programme being lower than on a face-to-face intervention. Typically, once a student is at the university, they stay for the full session or week of activities and do not dip in and out as we have seen in digital.
We are now implementing changes to our programmes based on the positives of digital delivery: creating more flexibility and accessibility and looking to build on the success of sharing knowledge and information via digital means.
All students on a Sutton Trust programme this year will gain access to Sutton Trust Online, which they will continue to access until the end of Year 13/S6. This means that existing programme intervention, which will return to face-to-face when possible, will be supplemented with digital resources and will allow students to revisit the topics that they need the most. We are also adding a programme of digital webinar support to engage students throughout these years and will focus these on sharing knowledge and information, for example, delivering personal statement support via webinars.
Given the relative success of the digital intervention, we will also be inviting up to an additional 6,000 eligible students to engage with Sutton Trust Online on a purely digital basis. For these students, we hope the webinar series and redesigned content structure will boost engagement and keep students returning to the platform throughout their university application journey.
There is no doubt that we still have much more to learn and our continued focus on data and evaluation will allow us to approach delivery in an iterative manner, but it is reassuring to find that all the work so far has made a difference to students who may have otherwise missed out entirely on outreach activities.
This is evidenced by one key theme that came out of the research, the theme of students being immensely grateful for the opportunity. After a year of change, disruption and coping with everything the pandemic has thrown at us professionally, it is a great reminder that the work we do has impact and provides opportunity to students who need it the most.
The Sutton Trust would like to thank Bloomberg LP for their generous support of Sutton Trust Online, which you can learn about here. We would also like to thank the Bridge Group for their evaluation and our platform partners, Komensky, Filtered, Causeway Education and The Access Platform.
Learning for outreach providers
Caveats and questions