This summer, schools are being bombarded with edtech solutions promising accelerated learning or better online environments than Zoom sessions of the year past. Many schools appear to be biting: according to new analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), over 50% of districts with published ESSER spending plans say they intend to invest in efforts to “make up for lost instructional time,” and 40% say this includes investments in technology. 

But research is increasingly clear that students need more than just academic supports to thrive, academically and otherwise. If schools hope to attend to the whole of students’ needs—what many dub the “whole child”—there’s a different category of technology tools they should consider as well: “edtech that connects.” 

Edtech that connects is the Christensen Institute’s shorthand for technologies that center on connection—not just content—to help students thrive. Technology designed to connect students to mentors, peers, and experts isn’t new. In fact, we’ve been mapping the growing market of tools that strengthen existing connections and put new relationships within reach for students since 2015 and first wrote about trends in the space in our 2018 book Who You Know (check out a free chapter here!).

The immense potential of these tools has remained remarkably consistent, even and especially over the past year of interrupted schooling. First, they offer schools the chance to more affordably and reliably scale often costly social supports and coaching that help students weather unknowns (including, but not limited to the havoc that the pandemic wreaked on many students’ lives). Second, edtech that connects can grow students’ acquaintanceship networks in order to expand their professional horizons and options. And finally, these tools can ensure that relationships endure over time and geography, allowing students to maintain connection even when meeting face-to-face is not possible, be that due to cost, distance, or in the case of the last 18 months, their health and safety.

New year, new tech tools

But the potential for these tools may be even greater after a year fraught with disconnection and underwhelming online experiences. The pandemic revealed the shortcomings of most mainstream edtech tools to make students feel seen, connected, and engaged. Edtech entrepreneurs are starting to address this gap with more fervor, with a number of new tools emerging that have the potential to radically deepen and scale authentic and lasting connections at students’ disposal. In that vein, here are five new(ish) tools that we’re watching:

1. Along is perhaps the tool gaining the most steam this summer given the high profile of its backers: the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, in partnership with Gradient Learning. Its creators describe Along as a “digital reflection tool” through which teachers prompt students to answer questions and engage in individual, back-and-forth conversation through the app. Perhaps most exciting, the tool integrates Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships framework, an evidence-based framework guiding quality relationships between students and adults. It also addresses an acute challenge that plagued classrooms long before the pandemic—teachers having tools and data to ensure that they are forging strong relationships with all students, not just those who may be the most outgoing or with whom teachers tend to spend the most time. Longer term, keep an eye out for how the app could foster stronger connections with others—staff, coaches, mentors, and tutors—beyond just students’ teachers of record.

2. Thrive is another tool designed to strengthen relationships, but with a greater focus on the power that deep mentoring connections with non-teacher adults can have in ensuring students persist and thrive. The app is a spin-off of the highly-lauded Thread program in Baltimore, MD, a model best known for its team mentoring approach (pairing high school freshmen with up to five volunteer mentors) and a commitment to supporting young people over a ten-year duration. The high-touch, community-based model has seen impressive outcomes that flip the script on Baltimore’s stubborn drop out rates—84% of Thread students graduate high school and 69% complete a four- or two-year degree or certificate program. Thrive’s team set out to see how it might reproduce some of those impressive results by building an app that combines access to a tight-knit support network and with access to diverse resource teams, all online. Keep an eye out for its launch in early 2022.

3. B-Unbound, like Thrive, has its roots in a longstanding program: Big Picture Learning, a network of high schools offering internship-based learning experiences based on students’ interests. B-Unbound is built on a white label version of an existing edtech tool, Imblaze, that Big Picture licenses to help other schools manage internship opportunities across their communities. The B-Unbound team is using that technology to help young people find both supportive adults and diverse peers who share their interests. B-Unbound marks a critical departure from Big Picture’s traditional approach, however: it’s operating outside of schools. The technology platform is currently being piloted in partnership with a small group of afterschool providers and chambers of commerce in an effort to seed more open-sourced opportunities for interest-based learning and connections. (Followers of this space might see B-Unbound as an evolution on some of the early work that LRNG pursued years ago, but with less emphasis on credentials and badging and more on young people’s interest- and community-driven pursuits.)

4. Enabled You is a startup that focuses primarily on personal development and doesn’t position itself as exclusively education-oriented. But schools and community-based nonprofits looking to pair goal-setting and relationship-building may see an opportunity to leverage its core premise, which is making space for vulnerable conversations and connection. The technology, which is still being built, will feature what its founders dub “wraps”—communities that users can construct around particular goals or topics, drawing on their existing networks and the broader Enabled You community. 

5. Social Capital Builders is likewise still early in development, but is led by a long-time leader in the relationship-building space, Ed DeJesus. The platform will pair DeJesus’s experiential networking curriculum with a new app called the Opportunity Hub. The app is designed to support young people in identifying and keeping in touch with “opportunity guides” in their existing networks who can offer support, accountability, and resources as young people look for new jobs and opportunities. Of all the tools mentioned here, Opportunity Hub may have the greatest focus on coaching young people to identify existing relationship assets in their own lives and begin to connect with and leverage with those people in new ways.

Entrepreneurs building tools like these are hopeful that the pandemic may have strengthened demand for edtech that connects from communities and schools alike. If that’s true, they are all well-positioned to offer a way forward that makes the almost-tired rhetoric that “relationships matter” a reality for more students. Perhaps most noteworthy across these tools is that social connection is their core value proposition, not just a “feature.” For an edtech space that has long prioritized content over connection, that’s an overdue shift.

Disclosure: I am an unpaid advisor to Social Capital Builders, Inc. and The Christensen Institute has received funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.