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Tap Ed Tech to Improve Social-Emotional Learning, Report Urges

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By Benjamin Herold. Cross posted from the Digital Education blog.

Ed tech can help students develop critical social and emotional skills and character traits, but the market for such tools is currently underdeveloped, according to 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.

Technology "can personalize learning, engage the disengaged, complement what happens in the classroom, extend education outside the classroom, and provide access to learning to students," the report reads, but "the number of [social-emotional learning] products in the ed-tech market today is insufficient."

K-12 educators and policymakers have in recent years paid increasing attention to the importance of social and relational skills to success in school and in life. The notion of social-emotional learning, which often overlaps with such ideas as "noncognitive skills" and character development, does not yet have a consensus definition, although many in the field follow the model outlined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Some efforts have been made to bring the different notions together, and many districts are trying to incorporate the concept into their curricula and school-improvement strategies, under the general principle that students will benefit from help in 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. Both the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act and the recently issued National Education Technology Plan include acknowledgement of the trend.

For the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group, the idea of social-emotional learning covers a set of 10 "competencies and character traits" that their report describes as "every bit as important as the foundational skills required for traditional academic learning." The groups believe that SEL is most effective when introduced via direct instruction in the early years, and when embedded through schools' core curricula in the elementary and secondary years.

A survey of 2,000 parents and educators in five countries (China, Kenya, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States) found that social-emotional learning is widely recognized, but poorly understood.

"Parents and educators across the world primarily see SEL 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 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. A survey of ed-tech-related investments found that only 5 percent of of venture capital in the ed-tech sector between 2011 and 2015 went to companies that include SEL in their products.

The area that is most immediately ripe for growth, the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group believe, is in adding new SEL-focused features into existing tools. The report includes a list of 55 such features, including strategies for structuring student interactions (e.g., to encourage turn-taking), encouraging students to adopt different perspectives (e.g., via role-playing), and develop "grit" (e.g., by including rankings and leader boards, which ostensibly can help motivate students to persist through challenges.)

But 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 addition to misunderstandings by parents and educators, barriers to further adoption of ed-tech products that focus on social-emotional learning include a lack of valid and reliable ways to measure the skills in question, insufficient prioritization by both policymakers and investors, and continued concerns about screen time, data privacy, and the general use of technology in the classroom.

The report is the second in a series from the World Economic Forum on ways to address the "21st century skills gap" through technology.

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