Question time: volunteers support distance-learning children


A new platform matches young pupils with volunteers who can offer help in key subjects and give overstretched teachers and working parents a break

Ask away

Along with schools, lots of after-school homework classes and small-scale tutoring initiatives across Flanders and Brussels had to shut mid-March when the federal government introduced lockdown measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Even under ordinary circumstances, lots of children rely on this after-school help to get by. Now that many children are having to distance-learn, that help has become even more critical.

It’s this problem that Elke Jeurissen and 10 other volunteers set out to solve with Mag ik iets vragen (Dutch for “Can I ask you something?”). The result of a 48-hour, corona-focused hackathon at the end of March, this app and website allows primary-school children to ask volunteers questions related to the four key primary-school subjects – maths, Dutch, French and world orientation. “We want to help ensure that children make it to the finish line,” says Jeurissen, a member of the platform’s board.

At the moment, many working parents don’t have the time or capacity to help their children as well as they might like; teachers are trying to do the best they can but are also overstretched, Jeurissen notes. “We’re not replacing teachers or parents; that’s not our ambition. We just want to offer that little bit of extra help that is needed to help children ahead.”

A bit of help

A problem that may seem small in the eyes of an adult can be a huge stumbling block in a child’s learning path. “You have children for whom everything is clear, and who glide through their school careers,” says Jeurissen. “But you also have a lot of children who need a bit of help and that help is often really easy to give. In fact, it’s help we’re all able to give.”

The strength of the app, then, is that – like so many apps – it’s bringing together demand and supply – in this case for help with homework. Since putting out its call for adult volunteers willing to answer questions from children, Mag ik iets vragen has already attracted 150 volunteers.

We’re not replacing teachers or parents; that’s not our ambition. We just want to offer that little bit of extra help

- Elke Jeurissen

“A child in the second year of primary school might for instance ask to practise their multiplication tables, while a child in the fifth year who needs to be able to present themselves in French might ask to practise this,” Jeurissen explains. “These are the kinds of questions that lots of adults are able to help their children or the girl in their neighbourhood with. Only now, you can also do that at a 100km distance.”

For obvious reasons, the 11 volunteers – which include developers, teachers and marketers – have never met in person. For the past few weeks, they’ve worked on the project like most of us have: by using as many digital tools as possible to collaboratively work from a distance.

Enthusiastic response

Because the volunteers realised safety was key given the underage audience they’re targeting with the app, helpers must register through itsme, the digital identity app used by many government services. Children can also choose whether or not they turn their camera on, and whether or not they ask their question by video call or via chat. “That’s something children can decide together with their parents,” Jeurissen explains.

Although the app and online platform only went live on 25 May, Jeurissen says they’ve already had encouraging feedback. “We’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm among teachers, pupil guidance centres and the organisations that work with vulnerable children on the ground,” she says. 

The initiative is completely volunteer-run at the moment and free both to children and volunteers. Jeurissen says they plan to apply for government subsidies when they scale up the initiative. “During the summer we want to examine user feedback to explore what improvements might be made and to recruit even more volunteers, so that we can have even more impact next school year.”

Photo: Getty Images/Ilbuska