Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Friendly Computers: Technology Helps People Help People

March 17, 2008

I met an interesting guidance counselor in a rural K-8 school the other day. I was at the school to advocate for the effective use of technology to support teaching and learning across the curriculum, and I was sharing with her my feeling that guidance folks need to be connected to the technology-driven realities of the kids in their schools.

Agreeing with me about the importance of attending to the students' social and emotional health as well as their academics, this counselor mentioned something that struck me as an innovative use of technology: Her laptop has a built-in camera, and she was using it in a one-on-one setting to let kids take photos of themselves expressing happiness, anger, frustration, and other emotions so they could reflect on the images.

Here she was, using a state-of-the-art laptop to support that most fundamental form of human communication -- the facial expression. This strikes me as an interesting case of using the very latest to support the most foundational, the highly technical to support the very human.

Oh, and most important, the guidance counselor told me it has been effective: The students are able to see the pictures of themselves instantaneously and can try again, which helps them become more aware of how they look to others and how to use appropriate facial expressions to become better connected with their classmates and teachers.

There's a wonderful Web site called FreeRice that does the same sort of thing -- uses technology to help people at a basic level. It's a multiple-choice vocabulary quiz that gives you a word and four possible definitions. You simply click on the answer you think is correct. The site determines what vocabulary level you can handle to begin with, and if you get three correct in a row, you move up a level. If you get one wrong, you move down. A vendor at this year's Florida Educational Technology Conference told me the site had a database of 50,000 words and is growing rapidly.

On its surface, the site is a place to practice vocabulary. But the point is not just to help kids score well on the SAT. The key is that for every word you get correct, the site donates 20 grains of rice to the U.N. World Food Program. Yes, I know 20 grains of rice is not much by itself, but by the time I left the page, I had donated 780 grains. And I discovered that the word mizzle means light rain. (Mizzle is a new one to me. I missed it, because I thought it was a red herring -- you know, too close to drizzle.)

So, here are two examples of the highest technology (a laptop with an onboard digital camera, and a database-driven, interactive Web site) that we can use to support people in the most foundational of ways (for face-to-face communication and for donating rice to the hungry). High tech, high touch. Technology in support of humanity. Let me know what you are doing, and what you are seeing others do, in this area.

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