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.