EdTech & SEL Opportunity profile

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Written by Julie Foss

Education technology products have transported students to space, given teachers increased ability to access and manage data, and created crowdsourced revenue streams for students and teachers alike.  

Photo credit:  CB Insights

Photo credit: CB Insights

And while the reach of edtech extends from the creation of tools to curate and manage resources, distill and disaggregate data, and learn and apply content, to date edtech innovation has largely been focused on the management and capacity building of academic content and skills.  

With exponentially rising interest in social emotional learning (SEL) in society, in education and a call from industry to preserve our human capacities to future-proof our jobs and lives, there is growing evidence that edtech innovation needs to better connect us to our human advantage.   

Why invest and innovate in SEL now?

The simple answer is that researchers, educators, and industry all find themselves on the same page at the same time (this never happens) with respect to their need for SEL.    


SEL research has been around for decades but has been shocked back into mainstream dialogue as school shootings, political polarization, and the good vs. evil debate around artificial intelligence dominate the news.  

The latest research is conclusive.  A 2017 meta-analysis, published in the journal Child Development, found students who had been exposed to SEL programs had an average academic performance of 13 points higher than peers who had not.  Additionally, they found students who had been exposed to SEL programs were at significantly less risk for problems with conduct and risky behaviors.  

A 2015 collaborative study between the Novo Foundation and the Cooperative for Academic Social Emotional Learning (CASEL) found an astounding eleven dollar ($11) return on investment for every dollar spent during their evaluation of six SEL programs studied.  

Finally, a Universal Review  conducted by CASEL of over 180 studies found that students who were exposed to SEL programs had less emotional stress, performed much better academically, and had more positive mindsets, among other outcomes.  

And so, while research on the efficacy of technology is in its infancy, research on the benefits of social emotional learning on achievement and individual success is clearer than ever.

Educator Appetite

Educators are being asked to facilitate content that is more personalized and culturally-relevant. Schools report rising challenges in behavior and are asking for help with SEL.  A Spring 2017 survey of over 500 district leaders conducted by EdWeek Market Brief and site-based interviews with districts adopting SEL programming found that, while SEL program adoption is becoming more widespread, needs remain. More recently EdWeek has reported that “90% of district leaders say they have already invested in social and emotional learning products, or plan to do so over the next year.”

Schools are still looking for high quality SEL programming for secondary students.  They want to know how to measure SEL development and want evidence that SEL programs and products work. They want to know how to embed SEL into existing curriculum. And they most definitely want effective professional learning for adults around SEL and customizable solutions to meet their individual needs.  

Opportunities are there for EdTech companies willing to dive in, be responsive to, and inclusive of the ideas and opinions of students and educators.  Solutions to daily challenges ranging from emotional and behavioral dysregulation to peer conflicts and lack of connection or motivation would make a very real difference in the learning experience of students and staff. Not to mention the opportunity for an entire school community to have resources that build and showcase school culture.

The Future of Work

As industry is increasingly automating jobs, if we desire a place in the future of work, we will need to continue to grow our most human capacities.

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In an interview with NYT author Thomas Friedman, CEO of LRN Dov Seidman says, “The technology revolution is thrusting us into ‘the human economy,’ which will be more about creating value with hired hearts — all the attributes that can’t be programmed into software, like passion, character and collaborative spirit.”

In a recent forecast on the future of learning, education nonprofit Knowledgeworks, concurs, “Relationships will help determine success and will frame how work is conducted.  Both organizations and workers will need to adapt frequently, learning repeatedly in response to changing conditions. The act of working will become learning…”

Committed to this intersection of the future of learning and the future of work, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) is launching a study on SEL skills because, “The ability of citizens to adapt, be resourceful, respect and work well with others, and to take personal and collective responsibility is increasingly becoming the hallmark of a well-functioning society.”  The fact that SEL is on the radar of major global organizations is significant in that it demonstrates there is some level of consensus around global needs as well as market potential.

Though the umbrella of SEL skills is wide, broad consensus that “non-cognitive” skills are those which make us uniquely human and those which will continue to differentiate us in a world where machines will play an increasingly important role.

Three Considerations for EdTech Innovators Exploring SEL

There are a few things that have the potential to cause tension between ED and TECH.  The first of these being the disconnect between the aim of schools and the aim of industry. Does K-12 education see their role as launching members of the labor force? How about life-ready citizens? Does industry understand how non-cognitive skills manifest themselves in students? What opportunities exist to connect the daily challenges of students and educators with the needs of the labor force while preserving autonomy and respect for both?

The second is around privacy. Edtech is going to need to think carefully about how to be customer centric without making schools accomplices to privacy violations. Establishing a line between what constitutes user centricity and what completely violates the privacy of a child is still very much up for debate and navigation.  

The third relates to ethics. Kara Swisher wrote a fascinating Op Ed piece entitled “The Expensive Education of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley.” In it she examines the responsibility of tech companies for bad actors who use their technology in unintended ways. As edtech responds to the demands of the K-12 sector, anticipating and safeguarding against the worst version of the technology should be top of mind in any company strategy.

Researchers, educators, and industry experts alike seem to agree that SEL is both driver and definition of our human advantage. If students are to develop self awareness and empathy, among other SEL capacities, we have to teach them and give them opportunities to practice. Edtech is responding to education’s need for tools to support academic growth and intervention. Will it do the same for SEL?  

1. Adkins, Sam S. Metaari. 2017. The 2017 Global Learning Investment Patterns. Monroe, WA: Metaari Research.

Roxanne Desforges