Blog Post By Ellie Miller

Every year, the SXSWedu Conference in Austin, Texas draws in a large and diverse crowd of education stakeholders. This diversity is reflected in the panels at the conference, producing fascinating conversations through the blending of perspectives. “Can Digital Tools Boost SEL?” was a session at the conference in which various members of the edtech community were represented. Anne Collier, of The Net Safety Collaborative,moderated the panel that included investor Steve Arnold, from Polaris Venture Partners, Fred Dillon, from The Hope Lab, and Mia Doces, of New Mission Ventures.

The panel opened with Collier’s statement, “Today’s technology is about humanity,” introducing the overall theme of the session. SEL, otherwise known as social-emotional learning, seems inherently counterintuitive to edtech considering much it’s meaning is rooted in the idea of humans connecting with other humans, not machines. Despite this supposed contradiction, the panelists argue that edtech serves to promote, not replace, human connection. This happens through games that encourage introspection and peer-to-peer interaction, provide opportunities to practice social skills, and encourage kids to “think about thinking”.

Doces brought her experience working with MindCraft, a very popular online role playing game for adolescents and teens, to the panel. She explains that MindCraft is used to practice social skills that can be referred to when faced in real life, such as conflict resolution skills. For example, the chat log feature embedded in the game enables the player to reflect upon interactions with other participants. They can communicate with the game moderators, real people trained in SEL who are similar in age to the users, to learn which behaviors work and don’t work. There is even a “MindCraft Jail” that teaches the users the consequences of negative behavior.

Dillon believes that digital tools and interactive game play evokes emotions that are highly visceral, which allows access to the user’s key emotions. This happens because digital tools amplify events and interactions that occur in real life. On this token, it is important to recognize that adolescents and teens each have different personalities and open up in different ways. As an investor, Arnold emphasizes the necessity of having diversity in ideas of SEL applications in edtech.

There is a great deal of pushback regarding teaching SEL with digital tools to children. Many believe not only that edtech can’t provide SEL, but that digital is the reason for SEL challenges. To this Dillon responds, “We have to meet kids where they’re at. They love video games, the real question at hand is how do we use the power of what they love to do something good?”