Technology Seen as a Bridge to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

An EdWeek Market Brief Survey Asked District and School Leaders About How Digital Tools Can Support Effective Social-Emotional Learning

Staff Writer
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Technology has been woven into nearly all aspects of education, and social-emotional learning is no exception. 

Though the root of SEL lies in human interaction, and in encouraging students to have healthy relationships with themselves and their communities, technology is playing a bigger role in facilitating those skills and competencies.  

EdWeek Market Brief conducted a survey last fall about the technology and technology strategies district and school leaders believe have significant value in improving students’ capacity to engage in meaningful SEL.

The online, nationally representative survey was asked of 120 district leaders and 158 school leaders. 

The survey suggests that district and school leaders see technology as having the potential to build student and educator understanding around complex issues, in unexpected ways. 

Tech as a Tool for Delivering DEI

Asked what kinds of tech and tech approaches they believe would have great value in improving students’ capacity to engage in meaningful SEL, the largest percentage of respondents, 49 percent, point to tools that can enrich students’ and teachers’ understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

The survey was conducted at a moment when school district policies supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion have come under attack by political leaders in some states and communities.

Over the past two years, 18 states have approved laws or policies that restrict lessons on racism or gender in classrooms. And 44 overall pieces of legislation, overwhelmingly backed by Republican officials, have been introduced with that aim.  In some communities, and in at least one state — Florida — public officials have also sought to restrict lessons on SEL, saying those resources arecrow divisive.

Melissa Schlinger, vice president of the SEL nonprofit, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, said more districts are seeing SEL as an important foundational effort in supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion.

CASEL is a policy and research organization that focuses on evidence-based SEL to support students’ learning and development.

Despite the recent wave of state and local resistance to DEI measures, many district officials have become determined to make sure academic resources address the diverse needs of their students and communities, particularly as  the populations of their school systems have changed over time. (Fifty-four percent of public school students today are racial-ethnic minorities, up from 46 percent roughly a decade ago, according to federal data.)

Districts’ interests in making sure the communities they serve are represented ramped up significantly after the murder of George Floyd three years ago, Schlinger said. To the extent that technology can help administrators and teachers have those conversations, it will have value to school systems.

“When kids feel included and safe and known and cared for, they do better in school and tend to have less stress and behave better,” Schlinger said. “Districts want to provide experiences for kids where they can academically succeed, and providing that inclusive environment is key to that.”

Teachers, in particular, need support in developing strategies for working with diverse student populations. Previous EdWeek Market Brief research has found that district and school leaders believe classroom educators’ lack of comfort in talking about DEI issues is a major barrier to delivering that content. 

Value in Anonymity 

The second- and third-largest responses, when district and school leaders were asked how tech could contribute to meaningful SEL, have more to do with the technology’s specific functions. 

Forty-two percent of those surveyed say it’s important that SEL platforms allow for anonymity for students. And 40 percent point to SEL tools promoting cooperation between schools and families.

Students have social-emotional needs 24/7, not just in the classroom, in the moment.Heidi Johnecheck, chief impact officer, Ripple Effects

The prioritization of these two types of technologies possibly stems from needs that arose during the pandemic, those who specialize in SEL say. 

Virtual classrooms, which became the norm during COVID-era remote learning, created new opportunities for students to reach out to teachers for help, without the pressure of having a spotlight on them, Schlinger said. The survey suggests district and school leaders still regard the ability for students to interact anonymously through tech platforms as important.

“We’ve seen that technology can be a really important opportunity for kids to communicate directly with teachers in a safe environment that maybe sometimes feels more safe than coming up to the front of the classroom to ask for help,” she said. 

The other survey finding, pertaining to cooperation between schools and families, could also reflect another offshoot from the pandemic — how remote learning brought classrooms into homes. That shift provided new ways for families and caregivers to get involved in their children’s learning. Conversations became increasingly focused on how students are supported outside of the classroom. 

Over time, there’s been a growing emphasis on tech platforms being built to include a whole system of supports that come from not only teachers, but also from families and other participants in the social-emotional growth of a child, said Heidi Johnecheck, chief impact officer of SEL company Ripple Effects. 

As a provider of digital programs that promote social-emotional skill-building, Ripple Effects has seen, across the districts and education leaders they work with, that there’s a renewed focus on developing the whole child.

“Students have social-emotional needs 24/7, not just in the classroom, in the moment,” Johnecheck said. “How are we then using the technology to connect with families [and] after-school programs, or mental health and behavioral health providers? 

Tools for English-Language Learners 

Another data point in the survey shows that some district and school officials see tech tools that facilitate lessons for English-language learners as especially valuable in promoting SEL. 

Forty-one percent of those from districts with relatively low amounts of poverty – where less than half of students are on free or reduced-price lunches – see ELL-focused tech tools as highly valuable in encouraging meaningful SEL.

Just 21 percent of respondents from higher-poverty stems saw the same value in those tech tools. 

Lower-income districts may have more pressing needs when it comes to where to allocate their resources, and that could explain the survey results, although more questions need to be answered, Johnecheck said.  

“If I was making a choice based on my resources — let’s say paying for lunch or for reading and math remediation, or individualized needs in tutoring — you start listening to those higher needs,” she said. “You may not have the dollars as compared to a district that may have some of those taken care of and is able to start thinking about some of these other areas.” 

The discrepancy in ELL prioritization could also be a difference in where respondents are from, and how much language content is focused on in that state, she said. 

“What we know is when people feel connected and safe in their learning environment and have a familiarity with language, they do better…and that certainly goes across socio-economic status,” said John Ray-Keil, CEO of Ripple Effects. 

Digital Role-Playing 

Another tool survey respondents believe would contribute to improving students’ SEL: technologies that allow digital role-playing for students to work through hypothetical situations. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they see value in that.

Glenn Albright is co-founder and director of research at Kognito, and his organization wants to use those sorts of tools to benefit students. Kognito is a platform that creates role-play simulations, in which students, educators, staff, and family members can practice difficult conversations using evidence-based communication strategies.  

We’re providing them a sense of how they can be able to understand and better maintain and develop healthy, supportive relationships.Glenn Albright, co-founder and director of research, Kognito

Users are placed in a virtual environment, in which they role play with virtual humans who are programmed with memory, emotions, and personality so that they react like a real person. Feedback is also provided from a virtual coach so users can gain the skill and confidence to navigate these conversations in real life. 

“When you’re teaching individuals through these simulations, they begin to report that they themselves are becoming more aware of their emotions and their thoughts,” Albright said. “We’re providing them a sense of how they can be able to understand and better maintain and develop healthy, supportive relationships.” 

The survey also finds that some forms of tech and tech strategies rank lower as strategies to increase engagement with meaningful SEL.

The lower-ranking options include immersive technology, such as augmented and virtual reality; micro-credentials or digital badges demonstrating student progress in SEL; and tools allowing digital role-playing for district and school administrators to work through hypothetical scenarios.

Takeaway:  District and school leaders see value in leveraging technology to bolster SEL – with almost half seeing tech as helpful in enriching students’ and teachers’ understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Many districts are struggling in trying to find strategies that support diverse perspectives in classrooms and communities. The challenge has only risen, as state and local officials in some communities have sought to restrict discussions of race and gender in classrooms. But the survey finds that technology may provide one avenue forward.

Vendors looking to incorporate SEL into new or existing products must keep in mind that while districts and SEL leaders are likely to believe that authentic connection can never be fully replaced by technology, digital tools can play a role in enhancing efforts to promote students’ well-being. 

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