Social-Emotional Learning Would Benefit from Tech Innovations, Report Says

But some are skeptical that students can learn social and emotional skills from computer programs.

by Benjamin Herold, Education Week, Bethesda, Md. / March 24, 2016

(TNS) — Educational technology can help students develop important social and emotional skills and character traits, but the market for such tools is currently underdeveloped, concludes a new report from the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group.

The report, titled "New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning Through Technology," identifies two main areas for growth: Products that target core academic subjects, which the groups contend can do a better job of incorporating features that support development of everything from communication skills to cultural awareness, and newer technologies, such as wearable devices and virtual reality systems, which the groups believe warrant additional investment.

Ed tech industry leaders agreed that social-emotional learning represents a potential "growth market," fueled in part by recent attention from the federal government.

The National Education Technology Plan places a heavy emphasis on developing "non-cognitive competencies" — such as the ability to interact well with peers, resolve disputes, and persist through challenging problems — through digital games and other classroom technologies.

"Our expectation of what schools are trying to accomplish is expanding," said Joseph South, the director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.

"Technology can be a tool for changing students from consumers to creators of information, and that role puts them in a position where they can start to develop nonacademic skills they will need to succeed in college, careers, and life."

Defining the Concept

The general principle behind social-emotional learning is that students will benefit from developing the ability to understand and regulate their own emotions, form strong and supportive relationships, solve problems, and set and achieve goals. Some research has shown that students perform better academically and have improved life outcomes when they receive explicit instruction around these areas.

But defining exactly what social-emotional learning means can be tricky.

Many K-12 educators and policymakers follow the model outlined by the nonprofit Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, which includes five "core competencies:" self-management, self-awareness, responsible decision making, relationship skills, and social awareness.

For many in the field, though, the notion of social-emotional learning overlaps with such ideas as "noncognitive skills" and character development.

And the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group put their own twist on the subject, describing social-emotional learning as covering a set of 10 "competencies and character traits." The groups believe that the approach is most effective when introduced via direct instruction in the preschool years, and when embedded through schools' core curricula in the elementary and secondary years. Technology can help, the groups write, because it "can personalize learning, engage the disengaged, complement what happens in the classroom, extend education outside the classroom, and provide access to learning to students."

Some efforts have been made to bring the various notions together, and many districts are trying to incorporate some version of the concepts into their curricula and school-improvement strategies.

Shortage of Products

Confusion still abounds, though: The World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group surveyed 2,000 parents and educators in five countries (China, Kenya, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and found that social-emotional learning is widely recognized, but poorly understood.

"Parents and educators across the world primarily see [social-emotional learning] as a means of achieving better classroom discipline today, not as a way to ensure better academic and economic outcomes over the long term," the groups' report reads.

That lack of understanding is one reason why technology tools related to social-emotional learning have been slow to take off, the groups contend.

Another challenge is that K-12 school systems don't generally have dedicated revenue streams that can be tapped to purchase social-emotional learning products, said Karen Billings, the vice president of the education technology network for the Software & Information Industry Association, a Washington trade group.

"It's a chicken-and-egg problem," Billings said. "If a lot of companies were coming to schools and saying we've got these tools to help you, you might see [more demand.] But if companies aren't directly hearing about that demand, they probably aren't developing those tools."

And a third barrier is a shortage of venture capital. According to the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group, just 5 percent of investment funds made available to the ed tech sector between 2011 and 2015 went to companies that include social-emotional learning elements in their products.

The area that is most immediately ripe for growth, the groups believe, is in adding new SEL- focused features into existing tools. Their report includes a list of 55 such features, including strategies for structuring student interactions, approaches for encouraging students to adopt different perspectives, and strategies that help students develop "grit."

Futuristic technologies such as wearable devices that track students' emotional states and physiological reactions to stress, for example, or virtual reality systems that can simulate physical environments and "foster greater self-awareness and spur creativity," are also important for "expanding the realm of the possible," the report says.

In both cases, Billings said, there's an opportunity for ed tech companies.

"It will be a relatively small market for a while," Billings said. "But the companies acting more quickly are probably going to be the ones who are going to get the market share."

For some parents and educators, though, the notion that children will learn about emotions and social skills from technology is counterintuitive, if not anathema. Concerns about screen time, data privacy, and a focus on technology instead of smaller class sizes and more human interaction are common.

Skepticism About Digital Tools

South, of the U.S. Education Department, said that perspective is understandable, particularly in response to the "there's an app for that" approach to addressing social-emotional learning.

"There is no doubt in my mind if you put a kid in the corner with a screen, it's probably going to diminish their social-emotional IQ," he said. "But ed tech can also be a way for students to access peers, experiences, experts, and audiences they couldn't otherwise access. When technology is a means of connecting students to larger communities, it increases the potential for interactions that will develop the skills we're looking for."

Of particular interest, South said, are virtual environments (including simulations and digital role-playing games) that allow students to experiment, fail, and try again in a low-stakes environment.

Also encouraging, he said, are platforms and tools that allow students to communicate, write collaboratively, and work together on projects.

The World Economic Forum-Boston Consulting Group report suggests that policymakers, investors, researchers, educators, and parents all play a role in promoting social-emotional learning.

"Policymakers, in particular, must stand at the forefront of setting the agenda for policy change, prioritizing efforts that foster SEL and related assessments and measurements in education, as well as providing funding and other resources for the research and adoption of SEL and related ed tech," the groups write.

Their report is the second in a series on ways to address the "21st century skills gap" through technology.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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