How to Leverage Peer Learning Features and Foster SEL Growth in Remote Learning Tools

Sean Oakes bio picture Sean Oakes

Peer-to-peer learning has numerous benefits for students. It provides students with practice collaborating and generates more opportunities for students to understand difficult subject matter by helping their peers learn, too.

While it’s certainly easier to arrange peer learning activities in the classroom, students still benefit from these activities when they’re offered digitally. In fact, peer learning and other activities that promote social-emotional growth might be even more important during remote, socially distanced learning.

According to Education Week, the only way to address learning loss from remote learning last spring is to focus on SEL growth—even if it’s not a normal part of the curriculum. “This may very well require a shift in thinking for some school leaders,” writes contributor Arianna Prothero. “[Social-emotional] development is not in competition with academics, but rather a prerequisite for success.”

While students are isolated from their peers and teachers, they need increased opportunities to practice SEL skills, including collaboration and delivering peer feedback.

But when remote learning means logging on and zoning out, students disengage from one another—and the material they’re supposed to learn. Used in an engaging way, digital tools can counter the mental exhaustion of the Zoom classroom. They can even give educators new ways to reach students with social-emotional distance learning.

How Technology-Based Peer-to-Peer Learning Encourages SEL Growth

Our collective remote learning experiment from the spring exposed everything digital learning tools currently lack. Without preparation, teachers found it difficult to translate classroom strategies for small-group learning or collaborative projects into the digital realm. With a new school year underway, teachers are still looking for solutions that will boost student engagement and foster SEL growth during distanced learning.

Now is the perfect time for edTech leaders to transform their digital tools to incorporate more project-based or team learning features. We can also find more innovative ways to add collaborative features to products that weren’t designed with team learning and SEL growth in mind.

Thankfully, digital products and edTech software lend themselves well to project-based, peer-to-peer learning moments that foster SEL growth.

  • Digital products slow down and record real-time interactions in a way that promotes student reflection. This gives educators more opportunities to talk with students about digital citizenship and the interactions they notice online.
  • With structured student participation tools, digital tools can level the playing field and allow all students to participate in the same way. It’s no longer necessarily about who’s first to respond, or who’s loudest—it’s about who contributes ideas and what those ideas are.
  • Practice using digital tools and collaborating in digital environments helps students develop digital relationship skills that will be important for the workplace and in other contexts.

Here’s how you can continue to build on the collaborative features in your edTech product to foster SEL growth.

Design Features That Foster Digital Citizenship

As edTech designers, we have new opportunities to help teachers examine how students interact with one another and use SEL skills in digital contexts. When teachers have more opportunities to use student interactions as teaching tools, they’re able to foster digital citizenship skills that are at the heart of SEL growth. These skills are also broadly applicable to real-world interactions, from social media to remote work.

Because digital products track evidence of student interactions, teachers can use this data as a valuable teaching tool. By working one-on-one with students to improve student behaviors or SEL growth, teachers have opportunities to promote better digital citizenship. edTech designers can support this work by offering constructive ways to resolve conflict, including templated interactions or AI that alerts teachers to problematic interactions.

Digital tools also facilitate ways for students to develop and support their own opinions while making room for the ideas of others. Threaded discussion features are intended to house and promote many different ideas, while bite-size prompts from teachers can offer guidance throughout class discussions. By encouraging students to examine their process and explain how they arrived at an idea, digital tools foster reflection and tolerance in ways that reinforce good digital citizenship.

Teachers—and edTech designers—should expect social challenges to emerge in digital tools used by groups. The more we proactively design tools to address and mediate these challenges, the more edTech can support teachers who are attempting to address SEL growth in remote learning contexts.

Features That Engage Students Transform Class Participation

It’s challenging to keep students highly engaged during remote learning. Students can check out easily on Zoom, and teachers can’t necessarily inspire the same level of attention and passion when they can’t read student body language or interact with students one-on-one.

edTech designers can do more to create learning environments where students feel comfortable in their participation. In order for students to have a successful learning experience, students must feel motivated to participate and engage with the material and their peers. Participation fuels collaboration skills, personal empowerment, and many other key components of SEL growth.

Inevitably, teachers and parents of younger students experience heavier administrative lifts during remote learning. They must monitor student access to online environments or help them accomplish tasks. For younger students, digital experiences must be more self-contained in order to be engaging. Reading logs, positive votes, and directed positive feedback all create more evidence of a student’s thinking. These features can even be designed to help younger students learn from one another.

Educators of older students can bring in a variety of media and encourage students to respond in a medium that inspires them. In digital contexts, drawings, infographics, and video are all fair game. Because of the evidence of participation, peers are also more motivated to engage with one another. As the way that they think of their audience changes, older students begin to see one another as peers learning together. These feelings of learner agency are the key to motivation and engagement, bolstering SEL growth.

Finally, digital tools can also give teachers the ability to introduce thought-provoking prompts when a student gets stuck or leverage more advanced, “smart” grouping features. Software should support teachers in the strategic grouping or prompting they would use to facilitate participation in the classroom. With support from digital tools, teachers have more instructional time to check in with the students who need it most.

Collaboration and Reflection Features At the Heart of SEL Growth

Remote learning has asked teachers and students alike to explain, model, and reinforce good digital etiquette. When designed well, edTech tools help students build connections and reflect on their interactions with their peers.

Digital tools record entire interactions, slowing down real-time communication in a way that’s helpful for learning. Teachers can use evidence of student interactions to identify misunderstandings or prompt reflections on the outcomes of these interactions. This way, students continue to learn important collaboration and communication skills from real examples.

Teaching the importance of positive peer interactions also shifts the focus away from group output. Instead, teachers can emphasize successful communication, collaboration, and reflection alongside mastery of the material.

The ability to slow down and review a record of interaction may only be applicable to digital environments. But students need and use these skills already—on social media or in group texts with their friends and family members. Students will need these skills in the future, too, as they graduate to additional remote learning or work opportunities.

When edTech designers create more opportunities for students to examine interactions with their peers, we build the kinds of digital tools teachers need to address SEL growth. After all, social-emotional learning isn’t something that only happens in a classroom. If we want to prepare students for the workplace and the world, ensuring positive digital interactions and continued SEL growth online is a good place to start.

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