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We know that students’ sense of well-being, ability to remain focused, persistence, and other non-cognitive factors have a significant impact on their learning. The more confident, engaged, and persistent students are, the more they are likely to learn.  

While not measured on most formal and standardized assessments, these are important learning-related elements. In fact, these social-emotional factors, in addition to others, can influence whether learning occurs just as much as academic background and learning skills do.  

Educators have always paid attention to student attitudes, emotional states, and related factors to understand why students may or may not be learning. When students fail to learn, we typically include social-emotional elements in our search for the cause.  

Social-emotional learning (SEL) has gained even greater attention recently. In fact, several surveys of educators have placed SEL among the areas needing highest priority attention in the aftermath of the pandemic. Most schools have introduced some type of SEL program or SEL activities over the past few years.  

However, evaluating whether SEL is making a difference in learning outcomes remains a challenge. We can attempt to understand the status of social-emotional skills and their influence on the learning of students by surveying to learn their experience and perceptions. We may observe students about whom we have concerns, or we may even engage students in conversation to learn how they are feeling and how their social-emotional state and related skills are influencing their ability to learn.  

We know this information is important, but we do not always have current, accurate information upon which to rely to make decisions. Furthermore, the absence of what might be considered “objective data” is often criticized when people challenge the effectiveness of SEL efforts. So, what if we had access to this information in near real time for all our students? Increasingly, we do.  

Researchers and developers have been working for years to create and refine tools to harvest this information using technology. By monitoring keystrokes, eye movements, and even facial expressions, technology can capture information about an individual’s focus, engagement, and understanding. Indicators such as the content students choose to view, how long they view that content, and if they struggle and become stuck can provide information about persistence, problem solving, decision making, and other skills and behaviors.  

Obviously, this information holds the potential to inform educators, guide instructional strategies, and track trends and progress. It also raises significant questions about the extent to which collecting information in this manner invades the privacy of students, especially if they are not fully aware that the information is being collected, analyzed, and reported. However, as the focus on social-emotional skills and learning receives increasing attention, popularity, and focus, openness to collecting and using this type of information has also grown.  

Once again, technology is challenging us to consider what information can be collected and used versus what information should be collected and how it should be used. Obviously, such information could be abused and cause harm to students, but it also holds the potential to provide feedback to learners, position educators to intervene early when students struggle, and build students’ social-emotional skills where needed.  

The questions are hard, and the answers are not easy. Like technology development in other areas, ethical dilemmas accompany opportunities. We need to ask: 

  • Are the rewards significant enough to outweigh potential dangers? 
  • Is informing students and families enough to satisfy ethical considerations?  
  • Should students and families be able to opt out of social-emotional data collection?  
  • Who will retain this information, and how can we avoid having the information used to judge, assign potential, and classify students without their knowledge and control?  

Every week, it seems that technology opens new doors, poses new questions, and presents new challenges for us to consider. Now more than ever, we must be clear and critical in our thinking, guided by our values, and centered on the best interests of our students.  

Thought for the Week

Finding ways to engage students, increase learning efficiency, and extending recall of what students learn can be a constant quest. Fortunately, designing activities and employing strategies that release the flow of dopamine in our students’ brains can help us to meet this challenge, especially now.

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