Technology to Improve Social and Emotional Learning

April 8, 2016

By Jason Burns

Education reformers have long seen the potential of technology to transform education by making teachers’ work more efficient, giving students access to more information faster, and by creating opportunities for new instructional techniques. Recently, the World Economic Forum-a group of political, business, and media elites who gather annually in Davos, Switzerland to discuss the global economy-has become a leading figure in this movement, advocating for the use of technology even to help students learn social and emotional skills. Though the goal of improving social and emotional skills is laudable, technology is not an adequate replacement for a teacher at helping students master these skills.

The World Economic Forum and Educational Technology

In a 2015 report, the World Economic Forum (WEF) noted the importance of technology in the myriad social, political, and economic changes and concluded that young people must be equipped with technology-related skills to fully participate in 21st century society. To achieve this goal, the WEF report argues for greater adoption of technology in education, citing the potential of technology to improve quality and reduce the cost of delivering education.

The WEF followed up with a report this year focusing specifically on social and emotional learning- sometimes called noncognitive skills or soft skills. Building on the previous report, the WEF recognizes that skills like communication, initiative, and leadership are both important and complementary to traditional academic skills like literacy and numeracy. In line with last year’s report, the WEF argues for greater adoption of technology to impart these skills, which is interesting given the nature of these skills and what is known about the limits of technology.

Technology for Social and Emotional Learning?

Image courtesy of classroomtechtalk

While technology may have a role in helping children to develop social and emotional skills-such as using cloud-based software like Google Docs to collaborate with people in different places-it is unlikely to become an integral part of learning skills like how to communicate with and motivate others. One reason for this is that human-human interaction and human-computer interaction appear to be substantively different. Real-world interaction engages more of the senses, which is especially important for young children. Social relationships in the digital realm also appear to be less intimate and more easily severed.

Another reason that people-parents, teachers, and peers-should remain at the center of social and emotional learning is that machines (i.e. computers) are not adept at tasks that require skills such as creativity, curiosity, leadership, and negotiation. A computer program may help to learn grammar or to give encouragement to a struggling student and therefore develop communication skills and perseverance, but how they could help to develop problem-solving skills is less clear because situations and tasks that require creativity and critical thinking have been difficult to automate.

Human Learning

What makes social and emotional skills so important is that they are human skills in that they help us to work with each other and to overcome the challenges we face. Though technology may complement these skills (such as by connecting people across vast distances), it is hard to conceive of how it could become central to acquiring these skills. Rather than a technology-first approach, we should maintain a people-driven approach that focuses on how educators, parents, and peers can build students’ capacity in these important domains.

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