The Risks District and School Leaders See in Tech-Based Social-Emotional Learning

Staff Writer

School districts have been struggling to help students with a broad array of mental health, behavioral, and wellness needs, and many are turning to technology tools to teach things like time management, goal-setting, and self-reflection.

But what are the implications of introducing technology to an area of focus that emphasizes the human experience?

Many district and school leaders are already experimenting with tech tools designed to provide support for social-emotional development. They’re also trying to weigh any risks that come with it.

EdWeek Market Brief surveyed 120 district leaders and 158 school leaders on technology’s place in supporting students’ social-emotional development in a nationally representative, online survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in fall 2022. 

“There’s a role for technology to support students’ thinking through problems together, building off each other’s views and ideas to create solutions together, and having technology to foster that kind of collaboration,” said Melissa Schlinger, vice president of practice and programs at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, a research and policy organization.

“But there’s such an important value on actual interpersonal activity being core to SEL skill development as well.” 

The Risk: Inauthentic SEL

When asked about concerns regarding technology-based applications of social-emotional learning in schools, the biggest source of worry, identified by 31 percent of district and school leaders, is that virtual simulations of SEL will seem inauthentic or corny for students. 

Survey respondents also indicated that student data-privacy protections are one of most important sources of anxiety connected to using technology in SEL. Thirty percent picked it as a concern. 

Another big source of worry (cited by 26 percent of respondents) is that students and teachers lack the connectivity away from school to use technology in their SEL-focused lessons. While the reliability and speed of internet access has greatly increased on school campuses in recent years, students’ lack of connectivity at home is a lingering problem.

Fewer survey respondents were worried about classroom educators’ inability to make use of digital SEL applications. Just 17 percent of respondents were worried that teachers might struggle to use the tech, and only 9 percent had the same concern about students’ experiences. 

Less concern around teachers’ and students’ comfort with technology may be a reflection that tech tools have become more ubiquitous in the classroom, said Erica Shumaker, an education change agent at Learn21, a nonprofit that seeks to help districts manage their technology and provide cost-effective ed tech, including SEL tools, to schools. 

“Everyone’s had to become a technology expert in a lot of ways, and the bar to entry is lower,” Shumaker said. “So there’s a lot of opportunity to reinvent and reimagine what that looks like for student growth and social-emotional learning.”

But many students, particularly those in middle and high school, complain that SEL content is cringeworthy, said Stacy Hawthorne, chief academic officer for Learn21. Tech-based approaches need to rise above content that students see as beneath them. 

“A lot of the [SEL] software that you’ll see out there uses animated scenarios that they try to dumb down,” Hawthorne said. “We’ve had test groups of kids look at something and say, ‘This is ridiculous, we don’t talk to our friends that way.’” 

The key to creating age-appropriate digital SEL content is to not rely too heavily on automation, but to make sure that there’s still a human component behind the technology, Hawthorne said. 

One SEL product she’s tried before consisted of an online course that showed real-life scenarios with real people. A number of SEL tech products try to create simulations like this to guide users through role-playing situations. 

The videos were filmed in public settings, and the actors were not overly dramatic, creating a sense of authenticity that differed from a lot of other, similar content that’s produced within studio settings, she said.  

After the video played out, viewers were asked, “Based on what just happened, what would you do if you were the participant on the left?” Users were then asked to make a selection, prompting the video to show the outcome of that decision. If the situation escalated, users could go back and make different decisions to see how those choices played out.

“Having those opportunities for students to observe real-life situations and to give them choices and to see the outcomes — it’s realistic,” Hawthorne said. But when an online presentation “looks like a soap opera, [kids] can see through that.”

When [SEL] is overly dramatic and looks like a soap opera, [kids] can see through that. Stacy Hawthorne, chief academic officer, Learn21

The survey respondents’ concerns about whether tech-based SEL will pose risks for student data privacy reflect broader anxieties evident in school systems across the country, Schlinger said.

In recent years, districts have experienced record highs in data breaches, exposing millions of individual records and sensitive information. Federal agencies, like the Federal Trade Commission, have come down harder on education companies when it comes to their data privacy practices, especially when it comes to the collection and storage of student data. 

“Vendors should be carefully thinking about … the important uses of technology for data collection and communication, and the ways we can disaggregate and reflect on that data,” Schlinger said. SEL tech tools should not be “exacerbating the problems that we already see in education through the implementation of technology.” 

Cultivating Self-Awareness 

The survey also asked district and school leaders which areas of student social-emotional development have the potential to benefit most from technology.

Cultivating students’ self-awareness was seen as the area where tech could help the most, cited by 41 percent of respondents. This was followed by self-management and social awareness, both at 35 percent.  

Ranking lower was responsible decision-making, at 24 percent, and relationship skills, at 14 percent. 

It makes sense that district and school leaders see tech’s potential to build students’ self-awareness, CASEL’s Schlinger said. The development of skills in areas like relationship-building require more interaction with the real world, most likely independent of technology, than developing a strong sense of self does, she said.

One district that is counting on tech-based SEL to reinforce self-awareness and self-management is Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia. 

The district has built a virtual wellness center for both students and adults. Within this program are different activities that users can follow along with, including breathing activities and sessions to get the user up and moving. Younger users receive an animated version of the content and age-adjusted material. 

Gwinnett County also provides an SEL course that is open to any adult who works in an area related to the district. This includes teachers, bus drivers, and custodial workers.  

“You can’t teach social-emotional skills to your students without having an adult who is very well-positioned and developed in that area as well,” said Tinisha Parker, executive director of student services for the district of more than 182,000 students. 

You can’t teach social-emotional skills to your students without having an adult who is very well-positioned and developed in that area as well.Tinisha Parker, executive director of student services, Gwinnett County Public Schools

These resources are built around CASEL’s framework of core competencies, which helps to align the district’s work in SEL with standards for high-quality resources, Parker said.  

Other things they look for in tech tools related to SEL is that they are age-appropriate for K-12, and that they have a parent component to it — where information that students are being taught can be easily shared with parents, so learning can be extended to the home. 

“Our kids are very digital,” Parker said. “If you pick the right tools,” she added, they can be very helpful in delivering support to students in the venues “that our kids live on.” 

Follow EdWeek Market Brief on Twitter @EdMarketBrief or connect with us on LinkedIn.

Image by Getty.

See also: