Educators Are Using Edtech to Facilitate SEL. Here’s How They Gauge Student Success.

Oct 22, 2020

Ling Lam, an edtech and innovation teacher at a K-8 independent school in northern California sets specific social-emotional goals for every edtech tool she uses. She views comment and suggestion functionality as an opportunity for students to give and respond to feedback effectively, strengthening collaboration skills. And when Lam teaches digital literacy and citizenship, she asks students to think of themselves as a “superhero” and share details about their identity on a digital hub to cultivate a positive online community and foster a sense of belonging.

As Lam selects each instructional technology tool, she considers whether it saves her time, how it connects to her students’ learning goals and whether there's a path toward her students becoming more independent. Once she selects a tool and aligns a social-emotional goal, her strategy for examining students’ ability to use the tool effectively is informal. She asks herself: "Has it become second nature for them? Are they able to use it themselves, for learning?”

Over the last year, EdSurge Research has been working on a project to understand how K-12 educators are leveraging research to shift practice. As part of this project, we conducted a survey of educators about their use of instructional technology; interviewed 14 educators; and interviewed product leads from 12 edtech companies. (Learn more about this EdSurge Research project.)

This research has shown that Lam isn’t alone. The teachers we interviewed and surveyed told us that they often use instructional technology to help students develop social-emotional skills and that when it comes to gauging students’ ability to use the technology effectively: less is more. They often observe students and look for the absence of struggle as a barometer of success.

Using Instructional Technology to Teach Social-Emotional Skills

Over 83 percent (338 of 407) of the educators we surveyed believed that technology can help students develop social-emotional skills and many shared that they’re using instructional technology to teach a variety of social-emotional skills and concepts. In our survey, we asked educators to identify the skills and concepts they taught using instructional technology and over 30 percent of respondents named problem-solving, collaboration, and/or perseverance.

Note: A total of 355 respondents answered this question, selecting all options that apply in response to the following question: “Which skills or concepts do you teach through this product?” The question refers to the product identified in a previous free response question: “Of the three products that you previously listed, choose the instructional technology product that is MOST important to your teaching practice?”

While educators shared different approaches for teaching these skills, they all said they look for functionality that will support the social-emotional skills they want to teach. For example, educators who wanted to support student collaboration relied on tools with features to support sharing and commenting or that allowed students’ work to be viewable to an entire class.

Kim Lewis, a middle and high school Spanish teacher in a rural district in upstate New York, explained how she uses Microsoft Teams to facilitate student collaboration and offer opportunities to practice problem-solving skills in groups. Lewis supports her district’s decision to keep Teams “very open,” giving students the ability to write comments that are viewable to the whole class or to groups within a class, which other districts often restrict to prevent inappropriate conversations. This functionality helps students ask questions about assignments that Lewis creates in PowerPoint, and also helps students strengthen relationships by allowing them to work together in real-time.

Lewis shares that students’ ability to work together without a teacher using Microsoft Teams also allows them to “take ownership of their own learning.” Lewis explains that she knows that students are using the tool effectively when they demonstrate patience with themselves. She says, “They’ll go through the steps and not just ask me when they can’t get something on the first try.”

In our survey and interviews, some educators shared about using instructional technology to develop executive functioning skills, even if that was not their main goal. Brian Schum, a former history teacher and the coordinator of instruction and technology integration at a public school district in California, explained that while the teachers he works with don’t explicitly teach executive functioning through technology, he intentionally seeks out tools that allow opportunities to practice related skills such as flexible thinking and self-control. For example, he works with teachers to understand how to use Google Suite to intentionally support executive functioning. “As a student you have to be responsible since when you’re using the Google tools, it removes the excuse that you’ve lost your work,” Schum says, citing the visibility of assignments created on Google and Google Classroom’s “turn-it-in” feature.

Ann-Marie Fine, a high school world history teacher at public school in California also encourages students to use Google Drive to improve their executive functioning. “They’re going ahead and using Drive not just to organize themselves, but to collaborate with other students. Students often drop files haphazardly. I try to get them to create a History folder, have a system and name docs.” Fine doesn’t have a perfect way to measure success with these skills, but she sees these skills as transferable to other parts of students’ personal and academic lives. “It’s very informal,” Fine says of her efforts to measure student progress with Google Drive.

Gut-Checking Success

In our survey and interviews, we found many educators like Fine, who rely on data like quizzes, tests and graded projects in their evaluation of students’ academic performance in their classes. But when it comes to measuring students’ ability to use instructional technology effectively, many teachers rely more on their gut.

In our survey, 70 percent (240 of 341) of respondents reported that they monitored student progress with use of instructional technology by observing students as they use the product. This makes sense given that the teachers we interviewed weren’t asked to produce evidence of student understanding of tech tools, and given the depth of their other teaching responsibilities—especially during the pandemic.

Ashley Fort, a digital learning coach and technology teacher at a K-12 public school in rural South Carolina, explains that she knows a product is successful when students “catch on quickly” and she doesn’t “see them struggling with it.”

Kelli Etheredge, a design thinking teacher and Director of Teaching and Learning Resources at an independent school in Alabama agrees. Etheredge says that she looks for “ease of use.” “I love it when students say ‘We’re not using a lot of technology.’ It becomes ubiquitous. I don’t want to see it as another piece of what they’re doing. I want them to see it as the pencil that does the job the best…. When a tech tool is hard and causes a lot of stress, it’s not successful.”

All of the educators we interviewed for this project agreed with Fort and Etheredge’s sentiments. They know success when they see it. What do they look for? Students engaged in learning, and not dwelling on the frustrations of the tech tool.


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