As pandemic-induced school shutdowns have accelerated remote learning, the importance of personal connections between students, their teachers, aides, mentors, and peers has become a major concern—especially for marginalized students, including multilingual learners, who have found it harder to access the support they require. However, there has been a welcome effort to enable such students to take part in remote education through the provision of subsidized devices and Wi-Fi, which we should now take advantage of to provide the personalized and social–emotional learning (SEL) that is so crucial to student well-being and their consequent success.
Social–emotional learning (SEL) can be defined as the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set positive goals, and feel empathy for others.
In its 2016 report, the World Economic Forum found that both existing and cutting-edge technological tools had the potential to bring SEL to scale, such as using game-based learning solutions to promote SEL elements like responsible decision-making, complex communication, and positive peer collaboration. The Forum’s report concluded 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 policymakers to families, technology developers, and businesses.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst for the development of remote learning and other edtech teaching tools, but, despite improvements, their adoption has remained uneven, as rural and other underserved communities have struggled to get up to speed in terms of digital access.
The marriage of technology and SEL may hardly seem a match made in heaven, but the impact of social media on emotional health is well documented and is an indicator of the potential for digital communications’ use to improve and increase the provision of SEL. Much attention has been given to the negative impacts of online social interaction on children—and with good reason, considering the potential for bullying, shaming, and other abuse—but we are only starting to exploit the possibilities of using digital communications as a tool to promote understanding and inclusion. Allowing children, wherever they are and whatever their situations or backgrounds, to share experiences and feelings with like-minded peers and skilled professionals could be one of the positive consequences of school closures, as long as great care is taken to protect those children from abuse and to ensure that the students most in need—the marginalized and economically disadvantaged—are prioritized.
Alongside their new access to online SEL, our students should be trained and encouraged to use moderated online tools to improve communication, understanding, and acceptance between children of different linguistic, racial, cultural, socioeconomic, and geographical backgrounds. Breaking down these barriers at a young age is key to the social cohesion that democracy requires.