Fostering Social-Emotional Learning Through Technology

By the McGraw-Hill Education Applied Learning Sciences Team

Over the past several decades, research has demonstrated that digital technologies have the power to change how we learn academic content. Can these same technologies advance how we learn and grow socially, emotionally, or behaviorally?

This is a tantalizing question, and one that has long fascinated us. Even in the earliest days of digital technology, long before the era of smartphones and artificial intelligence, we have imagined the possibilities. For generations of science fiction authors, the relationship between the binary world of digital computing and the rich emotional lives of humans has been a favourite source of inspiration, leading to such characters as HAL, the sentient computer first imagined by Arthur C. Clarke in 1968, the eerie android “replicants” of Blade Runner, and the amiable droids of Star Wars.

Today, however, the interplay of digital technology and human emotion is no longer only a matter of science fiction. In part, this is due to the rapid and significant advances in the design and capabilities of modern-era technologies, which have led to breakthroughs in everything from portability, to data analytics, to communication. In equal part, it is due to the concurrent and growing interest in social and emotional learning (SEL) and its role in education and the workplace. As both fields continue to evolve, the question of how to apply technology toward SEL is no longer a hypothetical dream for the future, but a growing reality with powerful implications for today’s student outcomes.

Social and Emotional Learning: A Definition

To understand this question, however, it is important to ask a few others. First, why is SEL of interest — and what is it, exactly? Many would argue that the answers originate with the workplace. Ask any employer today what he or she needs in an employee, and you may hear a response that includes high levels of professional skills, prior experience, technical skills, and/or academic achievement. However, surveys have indicated that another category of skills are typically held in even higher regard. These skills include teamwork and collaborative ability, critical thinking, ethical and social responsibility, professionalism, and effective communication.

Such skills fall under the umbrella of a larger set of competencies that are part of social and emotional learning. Once called “non-cognitive” or “soft” skills, SEL is now more broadly defined as the lifelong development of competencies that allow us to manage our feelings, demonstrate compassion and empathy, create positive relationships, and engage in constructive and positive behaviors. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), one of the foremost organizations focused on SEL, has identified five core components of SEL: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness. All five are critical for success in and out of both school and the workplace.

Building SEL Competence

How do we build a workforce proficient in social and emotional skills? A growing body of evidence suggests that these skills need to be explicitly taught, beginning in preschool and continuing through higher education (see Oberle, Domitrovich, Meyers, & Weissberg, 2016 for a more in-depth discussion). This explicit instruction, when delivered over time, has been shown to lead to long-term benefits during school, such as increases in academic engagement and decreases in bullying and school suspensions. These benefits extend into early adulthood: SEL-proficient individuals tend to have higher levels of mental well-being, greater success in higher education and the workplace, and higher income levels than their less proficient peers. The need for enhanced SEL has been acknowledged throughout the U.S., with federal legislation mandating measurement of social and emotional growth, and throughout the world, as organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development integrate the competencies into their agendas.

Schools in the Spotlight

While SEL can be addressed in the home and community, the spotlight has recently shifted to the role of schools in the promotion of SEL. Today, explicit social and emotional instruction (when it is provided at all) is often offered in stand-alone programs offered during or after school. Many of these programs are focused on single topics within the larger umbrella of SEL, such as bullying, conflict resolution, or violence prevention. Few programs offer more continuous and comprehensive solutions that address all of the core SEL competencies, and fewer still are integrated with academic instruction. Although the economic benefits of SEL instruction are significant, with an estimated $11 return on every dollar spent on SEL programming, schools are often hard-pressed to implement any sort of SEL solution.

Research into SEL implementation in schools has revealed a number of significant barriers. Because it is still an emerging field, many administrators and teachers struggle to fully understand the full range of SEL competencies, much less how to promote them. SEL is notoriously difficult to measure — yet measurement is critical for securing continued funding for SEL programming. Other schools have cited a lack of student and instructor resources, a lack of staffing, and a lack of time due to the focus on academic content. Perhaps above at all, it has become clear that SEL can be difficult to implement across time, geographic regions, and diverse populations. A solution that can address all of these barriers is sorely needed if we are to promote SEL at scale.

Closing the Gap: Technology and SEL

This is where digital technology comes in. Although digital tools will likely never fully take the place of human interaction in social and emotional learning, these tools can provide not only a powerful supplement to existing SEL instruction, but also address many of the barriers schools encounter when balancing academic instruction with SEL.

In a report examining the promise of SEL-enhanced technology, the World Economic Forum notes that both current and leading-edge tools have the potential to bring social and emotional learning to scale. For example, existing educational game-based learning solutions often promote core elements of social and emotional learning, such as responsible decision-making, complex communication, and positive peer collaboration. Adaptive learning solutions, such as Connect, also support positive SEL growth in a number of ways. Such technologies not only improve student engagement and confidence due to the personalization of content, but also encourage students to engage in the key SEL skill of metacognition; that is, to examine their own progress and understanding of academic content.

Other leading- and bleeding — edge technologies hold great promise as well. Wearable devices such as smart watches are able to track physiological indicators of stress and provide just-in-time feedback; some devices even play calming music or offer suggestions for stress-reducing activities. Researchers are also experimenting with methods for using virtual and augmented reality to provide immersive training in skills ranging from deep breathing to solving complex ethics problems.

Nor does the intersection of technology and SEL end with the student. In a survey conducted by the World Economic Forum, 87% of teachers demonstrated strong awareness of the importance of SEL. However, a separate survey indicates that less than half of practicing teachers are provided with pre-service training or professional development in SEL, often due to lack of funding and resources. Here, too, digital technologies can fill the gap. Already, several online courses have been developed as low-cost professional development solutions, focusing not only on SEL instruction for students, but the refinement of SEL skills among teachers themselves. Many digital learning platforms also include embedded SEL resources and support in addition to academic content.

The Way Forward

This brings us back to our original question: can digital technologies advance how we learn and grow socially, emotionally, or behaviorally? Indeed they can, and we can anticipate to see a rise in the type and number of evidence-based, technological solutions that address SEL. Already, efforts are underway to establish standards for effective SEL integration into the tools students and teachers use each day in the classroom. These standards will help ensure that all students reap the remarkable benefits of SEL instruction.

Such efforts take a village. The World Economic Forum has noted that achieving scalable SEL technology implementation cannot be accomplished by teachers or researchers alone. Instead, it will continue to require the commitment of many additional stakeholders in a wide variety of roles, ranging from investors and policy-makers to families, technology developers, and businesses. Together, these groups are powering a global movement toward integrating SEL into our digital world. While we may be a ways yet from inviting R2D2 into the classroom, we are already witnessing changes that herald a new era of digital learning — one that addresses the very things that make us most human.

About the Applied Learning Sciences Team

The Applied Learning Sciences (ALS) team is dedicated to the application and translation of foundational and cutting-edge learning science research toward product development. Working collaboratively across all Mcgraw-Hill Education PreK-12 teams, ALS draws upon the vast body of research in fields such as neuroscience, education, cognitive science, psychology (including educational psychology), learning analytics, applied linguistics, anthropology, computer science, and philosophy.

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