Social connections matter now more than ever. Here’s how schools can prioritize them.

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Apr 2, 2020

With school campuses closed indefinitely, education systems are grappling with how to make up for a growing abyss of lost learning hours and essential student services. But leaders shouldn’t forget that students are facing a less-talked-about but equally severe risk: losing access to the wide range of relationships that they’ve accrued in the course of a school year.

It verges on cliché to say that young people need relationships to thrive. But if schools react to COVID-19 by retrofitting academic calendars alone, social distancing threatens to crumble an array of social scaffolds and even chance encounters that help students get by and get ahead. That could yield immense losses to students’ reservoirs of social capital, particularly for those who need it most. Education systems need to embrace a two-fold mission: triaging an academic crisis and a social crisis.

Maintain students’ networks of support

Taking that social mission to heart means that systems need visibility into the relationships that shaped students’ lives before campuses closed. Although it’s tempting to simply count on formal, assigned relationships—teachers and faculty of record, official class rosters, or assigned academic advisors—schools would be best served by pausing to take what researchers dub an “ecological” approach. Looking at the entire ecology in which students operated can reveal the web of actual connections—formal and informal—in students’ lives. 

Schools might be surprised by what they find: a relationship with a baseball coach or even a peer might be as important to a student’s morale and motivation as a relationship with a formal academic advisor. By surveying students to ask whom they turn to and asking staff which students they are connected to (check out this simple approach developed at Harvard to mapping out relationships during COVID-19), schools can discover a powerful social infrastructure hiding in plain sight. It may also reveal an array of non-teaching faculty adults who schools can repurpose into sources of support and guidance while campuses remain closed.

Once they’ve identified these relationships, schools that have paused operations would be wise to set aside dedicated time for adults to reconnect with students before diving headfirst into online coursework. Like many things, without maintenance, relationships decay. As it turns out, the longer people spend apart, the more time they tend to take to get reacquainted–what researchers call a “rebound effect” or “relationship repair.” In a rush to play catch up on academic content, schools could force educators and support staff into skipping this critical first step. Staff may need to spend even more time with students with whom they had weaker connections, given that research suggests that weaker ties tend to decay faster than strong ones.

Understandably, many leaders may see spending scarce time “rebounding” relationships as a luxury they simply can’t afford. But the right technology is poised to make it cheaper and easier to maintain relationships from afar.

Leverage edtech that connects

Even before COVID-19, the rapid growth of social media over the past decade has proven a game changer in disrupting the decay of our relationships. The likes of Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn have lowered the cost of maintaining large, far-flung networks of close friends and mere acquaintances.

For many schools, however, using technology for a social purpose is uncharted territory. Luckily, it turns out that there’s a small corner of the edtech market that long predates COVID-19, where ensuring access to relationships is not a new value proposition; it’s core to what they do. In the past, we’ve dubbed these tools “edtech that connects” and catalogued them in a market map. Some are mentoring platforms, others are technologies to connect classrooms to experts or tutors, and still others are more akin to learning management systems that fold in networking activities and digital rolodexes. These tools actually optimize for relationships, tracking metrics like student-mentor engagement or the quality of peer relationships alongside academic progress. Some even provide secure relationships for students with mentors or experts where their schools might be in short supply. 

Before this spring, these relationship-centered technologies were still playing on the margins of the crowded edtech market that prized content over connection. Tools that schools could survive without may now be a lifeline. In the longer run, these tools could also prove vital to helping schools maintain a relationship infrastructure beyond just this moment of immediate crisis as they try to recover and navigate the unknowns of the summer and coming school year.

Build long-lasting support networks to weather uncertainty

Efforts to preserve and nurture networks today could make school systems far more responsive tomorrow. Even once social distancing mandates sunset, surrounding students with robust networks will position education systems to provide real-time supports with far greater precision. Particularly as students and families grapple with downstream effects of the recession and brace for a possible resurgence of the virus, the ability to deliver integrated, on-demand supports will be critical to any well-functioning school. 

Harnessing networks to provide targeted student and family supports isn’t new. Integrated student support models have proven effective buffers against the obstacles that poverty and instability erect in students’ lives. In these models, students have close relationships with coordinators who are designing individualized support plans and those plans are shared back out with the wider array of staff and educators in students’ lives. Those relationships in turn serve as a channel for systems to gather specific knowledge of what exactly students and families need and when. Unlike many intervention models that deliver services and resources on fixed schedules to pre-determined subgroups of students, a model that harnesses networks can shift when students’ (and their families’) circumstances shift.  

Putting relationships at the center of educating young people may have sounded sentimental to many mere weeks ago. Social technologies may have sounded distracting. Networked support structures may have sounded cumbersome. Now, in the era of social distancing, these approaches all hinge on an existential question: how can systems put relationships first as they rush to serve students from afar? Without an explicit plan to preserve and nurture relationships, students’ ability to get by during this crisis and their ability to get ahead down the line may be drastically diminished.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.