EdTech Can’t Forget That Humans Evolved to be Social

What research demonstrates about the “human factor” in learning

Humans’ capacity for social learning is unmatched: we excel at imitating others from a young age, innovating from peers, and teaching others what we’ve learned. In essence, learning is a social process because humans evolved to be an intensely social species, driven by our extraordinary capacity for cooperation.

As online learning becomes increasingly normative, the ability to scale becomes the primary focus of educational institutions; and the best way to scale education is to utilize the proliferation of education technologies that are flooding the market. The logic is straightforward: if aspects of the teaching and learning process can be automated or facilitated with tech, then less expensive human labor is needed and education can more easily scale.

Near universal remote learning over the previous year, however, has revealed a fundamental limitation to online and remote learning: students are missing the social experience of education. Surveys of college students show that 58% of students report that feeling lonely or isolated has been challenging during the fall 2020 semester; 84% of students report that socializing with friends is what they missed most about college; and, 71% of students miss attending events on and off campus.

The importance of social experiences for students extends beyond quintessential campus events though: research continues to demonstrate the important role of the “human factor” in learning processes as well. Students generally learn better when instructors are present in online instructional content, and online learning content is more effective at boosting learning outcomes when it supplements human instruction, rather than replaces it.

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Teachers aren’t the only human factor in learning: peers matter for learning, too! Informal friendship networks, like those that are formed on traditional college campuses through social events, are productive means for academic achievement to spread. And even being randomly assigned to study cohorts with highly persistent peers boots student’s grades. In essence, a social campus is good for student learning.

Humans are built to learn, and specifically to learn socially. As edtech becomes increasingly integrated into our educational ecosystem, it is necessary to remember that student isolation from social networks, which are strongly tied to academic communities and college campuses, may be having a negative impact on the spread of complex behaviors related to educational achievement, such as studying.

A ripe new problem surfaced from pandemic-era education is: how can edtech enhance the social learning processes that are fundamental to our human experience? Some young edtech companies are tackling this pressing problem head on.

Nearpeer, a new social networking app for students, focuses on connecting students who share similar interests to facilitate forming authentic friendships and creating belonging within the campus community. Another edtech company, InScribe, is a flexible web-based community that meets the needs of students by organically creating customized content and promoting peer-learning and belonging.

These social-focused products hit at the heart of a growing edtech problem highlighted by Justin Reich in his timely book, Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education. In his book, Reich argues that edtech has inherent limits that inhibit its impact to disrupt education. Rather than relying on edtech to change the education ecosystem, we need to build communities that consistently push to move education in transformative directions.

At the core of learning is our social experience. And the fundamental nature of this social experience is not only limited to student learning but expands across our entire educational ecosystem. Students need peers, dedicated faculty, and support staff to excel. But faculty and staff also need to supportive communities dedicated to student success to thrive and drive change in higher education.

The continuing growth of the edtech sectors shows no signs of slowing down. As the sector continues to grow, and institutions continue to focus on scalable edtech solutions, we shouldn’t lose sight of what makes us human – our sociality. Keeping sociality at the forefront of edtech development will yield benefits not only for students, but for our educational communities more broadly.