Sometimes even small talk can have enormous effects on students’ wellbeing. Giving kids a chance to talk with adults about their lives outside of class can be critical for their social-emotional development. But during the pandemic, online classes didn’t often allow the time for that individual attention.
That was the thinking behind Along, a free digital reflection tool developed by the nonprofit Gradient Learning and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and announced yesterday at the 2021 annual conference of ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education, which is EdSurge’s parent organization. The platform helps teachers prompt students to talk about their personal lives through recorded video, audio or written texts as a way to support them emotionally, not just academically.
“When students have trusting relationships with their mentors, inside or outside of the classroom, it is easier for them to succeed academically, engage socially and manage their emotions,” Priscilla Chan said to audience members.
The platform provides teachers with a menu of steering questions, things like “How do you deal with stress or manage time?” or “What are you grateful for?” After recording a brief response themselves, educators then send their message out to students, who can respond however they choose. Over time, the replies become a kind of digital library offering more comprehensive views of how each student is doing outside of school.
A comprehensive body of research suggests that these kinds of interactions can help students feel more psychologically safe, and even improve academic performance. In her remarks, Chan mentioned Nottingham Elementary School, which closed for nearly four weeks after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, but invested in mental wellness and belonging in its recovery, and later saw test scores rise.
Chan also emphasized that the service isn’t meant to restrict empathetic teaching into rigid queries, and argued it could help teachers attend to their students’ psychological needs without sacrificing academic recovery.
“Asking our students to choose between their wellbeing and academic success is like asking them to choose between air and water,” she said at the event. “They need both to thrive.”
To develop Along, Gradient Learning worked with hundreds of teachers across the country in a pilot program that launched in October of last year.
Attention on social-emotional learning, and tech products seeking to support it, has grown significantly, a trend that started even before the pandemic, says Christina Cipriano, Director of Research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
It’s not always an easy task to develop a successful digital tool that aids social-emotional growth. One critical step is centering student needs, Cipriano notes. It’s important to start with the user in building these resources so that they meet the needs of a diverse array of learners. Equitable design is another concern. Access to Wi-Fi and tech literacy are huge determinants for who can benefit from these kinds of resources.
“There’s great possibility and promise, but there’s also a lot of ways it can go wrong,” Cipriano says.
With that said, she is looking into incorporating Along into her own research and notes that the direct connection between students and teachers the platform provides is a promising benefit.
“There’s a lot that we can learn from the individual experiences of students… and I think Along presents an opportunity to create those conditions and to evaluate it from an assessment perspective,” she says.
It isn’t yet clear how Along or other digital platforms will factor into longer-term instructional planning once the pandemic is over. But Cirpriano argues that the lessons learned and technologies developed during this period are useful, and aren’t necessarily worth discarding as soon as everyone is back together in the classroom.
“There doesn’t need to be a health and safety concern for us to utilize flexible modalities and technologies in different ways,” she says. “The idea that there’s been so much thoughtful investment during a very vulnerable time for our students and teachers, it would be a complete disservice to not let it continue.”