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2020-07-24 Pandemic Tutoring

The question comes in various forms, as a request, a recommendation, a plea, an insinuation, an accusation, and sometimes (or most of the time) it is a demand and complaint at the same time.

In my in-box yesterday: "And I wanted to know if TNKR also transitioned to online services as any other educational institutions globally under the pandemic."

This was from a previous volunteer who is now in the USA, so I took more time to answer him, and will expand it now so I can share it with others asking.

As context, TNKR started in 2013 as an informal volunteer group connecting North Korean refugees with volunteer tutors. In 2016, we became an official organization despite lacking funding. Mainly because we have limited resources we keep focused on our main mission, but try to expand based on the needs of North Korean refugee learners. We have developed a learner-centered organization that has a great reputation among North Korean refugees. That means we are not a social club or referral agency for people suddenly popping up asking us to connect them with North Korean refugees. We try to build long-term relationships with our students, develop programming that is effective and practical, and keep it learner-centered.


Within a short time, we were connecting North Korean refugees with tutors around the world. We started with Jihyun Park in the U.K. She contacted me, we talked online, then our first academic advisor and I began searching for tutors in the U.K. We narrowed the searched to two tutors, then Jihyun began studying with a tutor based in the U.K.


People started contacting me, asking if I could connect them with refugees. After our Academic Advisor returned after taking a break (this was all volunteering), I asked if she would be willing to manage online tutoring. She was a busy lady, but she agreed.

After a short time, it was overwhelming. We were connecting with people across numerous time zones. Then keeping track of actual tutoring was a challenge. It seemed that after we connected the tutors with refugees that the tutors would go into a Witness Protection program. For whatever reason, online tutors didn't feel connected to us, were less likely to respond to messages, rarely filled out reports to keep us updated. 

I love trial-and-error, but how can have trial and error when you don't hear about the trials and errors?

From the bits and pieces that I heard, few of the refugees were really ready for online tutoring. There were constant technical problems, Internet connection issues. I remember a few of us spent several days helping one refugee with getting online. This was all volunteer, outside of the scope of what we were doing, and one of many such examples. 

Technical problems, unreliable tutors who didn't stay in contact, dealing with different times zones, and not even being a real organization at that point, we decided to cut back to just focusing on Seoul.

(In a different post I can discuss the MANY times we have been asked to set up TNKR chapters around the world.)


A North Korean refugee in the USA contacted me. She praised me so much that even I got embarrassed. She sent in a 500,000 won ($400 USD) donation to encourage our activities. As we talked, she mentioned that she was struggling with English even though she was living in the USA. She was working hard, but didn't have time to focus on studying.

I connected her with an online tutor as well as a former TNKR volunteer who had returned to the USA. There were other challenges--they tried to meet in addition to having online classes. Well, that's what I heard, because after a short time I wasn't hearing from them at all. Then months later, the refugee contacted me to say that it had failed. They had tried to meet, but the US is a large country, so the meetings had fallen apart.


TNKR had not become an official organization, we didn't have an office so we were operating out of other offices, no budget, limited resources,  but we were consider how we could expand programming. And one thing we considered was trying online tutoring again. We connected refugees with tutors abroad and across Korea.

The same problems popped up. Unresponsive tutors who ignored us. Technical problems. Lack of preparation. For some reason, a common problem seemed to be that either or both the student and tutor would try to have an online class at a coffee shop (connection problems, loud voices from others around).

And most importantly, when we talked to the students, most didn't enjoy it. They could already get online tutoring from other organizations and the government. They had come to TNKR for in-person, 1:1 tutoring.

We experimented a bit with hybrid sessions--some could be online, some in-person. But it didn't take long to detect that tutors were gently persuading refugees to have online classes. We would hear from students that they preferred in-person sessions, but they wanted to accommodate tutors. So we decided to again make TNKR a place refugees could come for in-person sessions. Also, we were about to become an official organization, so we needed to focus on effective tutoring rather than trying to answer every request from around the world.

2018 (1)

TNKR had become an official organization in late 2016! We were poor, but official!

It then made us eligible for grants and funding opportunities. We were no longer a fly-by-night group, so we were less of a risk for funders. One grant that we received was for a Skype program for North Korean refugee mothers. We received an A rating from Seoul City Hall.

However, when we did our own evaluation, we found that the students were okay with it, that they preferred in-person tutoring. Some couldn't get out for classes, some were mothers who joined for the convenience. We didn't have the staff capacity to carry out the program efficiently.

When the grant money ran out, only one class continued (the tutor had joined our main in-person tutoring program, Skype was just another way for her to help). Those tutors also abandoned us sooner and we also had trouble collecting reports from them.

2018 (2)

TNKR received a grant to help cover some costs for our Track 2 public speaking program. We usually feel some pressure because volunteers who join Track 2 rarely engage in fundraising for the organization.

With the grant, we decided to try online tutoring after some Ivy League students contacted me asking if they could tutor or coach refugees online. 

In the online Matching session:

* All 15 local volunteers were chosen. 
* Only 4 of the 12 Ivy League students willing to coach online were chosen.

And as I recall, they were chosen last.

The North Korean refugees had spoken yet again with their actions! Was I (co-founder, co-director, and designer of the education programs) supposed to ignore that? Was I expected to continue listening to volunteers who pop up suddenly, asking me to connect them with a refugee? And do so knowing that most wouldn't stay in contact, most wouldn't do anything to help build up the organization's capacity, and knowing that refugees would later tell us that they still preferred in-person tutoring?

2020 (planned)

TNKR hit more milestones. We obtained higher-level tax status, became an official organization in the USA, finally saved enough money that we could begin thinking about hiring more staff to handle more capacity.

One thing I told co-founder Eunkoo Lee is that we should make another attempt to incorporate online tutoring into our programming.

Based on online volunteers typically not being in contact, we would require them to become TNKR members. We would interview refugees, learn about their capacity to handle online tutoring, figure out which platforms could fit within our structure. Yes, in 2020, we would try to weave online tutoring into our programming rather than one-offs where we send refugees to people around the world who don't stay in contact.



2020 (reality)

We were suddenly running down the street getting dressed. We checked with refugees, they still wanted in-person sessions. Higher level students began living on Zoom, but beginners, basic level and lower intermediate speakers informed us that they preferred not having online classes.

Again, it didn't take long for us to detect that students were agreeing to meet with tutors online, but that many preferred in-person sessions. However, when tutors would ask directly or indirectly, refugees would agree.

We got pushed ahead of our planned timeline, before we had a chance to plan it out better this time.

* * *


How could we keep TNKR learner-centered, while also taking into account that there was a global pandemic going on?

People have the wrong perception in thinking that we are against online tutoring. Those who look closely will understand that we base it on refugees asking for it. TNKR is a learner-centered program, and we take that approach seriously.

I often receive messages from people asking me to connect them online with refugees. I don't know if we have had any refugees contact us asking for online classes. While we had a number of volunteer tutors return to their native countries or drop out of tutoring after the virus spread, I recall that only two refugees took a break. The rest were willing to continue.

I don't expect many of the people who expect us to connect them online with refugees to understand this, it seems more like they are doing a "yes or no, can I tutor refugees through you" check.

If you want online tutoring through TNKR, then here's a suggestion: Start an online fundraiser to help TNKR hire an online coordinator. Then that person can be responsible for handling TNKR's online tutoring program and can respond to messages from people around the world asking if they can tutor North Korean refugees through us.

* * *

Peter tutoring a student at our office yesterday, July 24,2020.

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