In November 2015, middle-school students from Westchester County, New York, found themselves on a windswept field in South Sudan mingling with a crowd of refugees fleeing civil war. Suddenly, they heard the deafening roar of low-flying military cargo planes overhead, followed by large bags of grain thudding to the ground all around them.
“The kids were jumping back from those bags dropping at their feet,” recalled Cayne Letizia, the teacher who used immersive virtual reality (VR) to transport his class into this emergency food drop featured in the New York Times 360-degree video series about refugees. Count Letizia among VR’s burgeoning fan base in education, where the spread of high-quality content and more-affordable hardware (especially Google’s $15 Cardboard Viewer) gives students myriad ways to briefly inhabit what they’re learning—from wandering the streets of ancient Rome to touring the International Space Station.
Education researchers caution that immersive VR, like any technology, may be perfect for some kinds of learning and superfluous, or even counterproductive, for others. Studies of immersive classroom VR are still scarce. But emerging evidence suggests that one of VR’s biggest strengths is its ability to tap student emotions, notably empathy and the can-do confidence known as self-efficacy.
The power of VR to stoke empathy is the focus of research at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, led by communications professor Jeremy Bailenson. In the lab’s “Empathy at Scale” studies, people who inhabit avatars of a different race in a virtual world later score lower in tests of subconscious racial bias, and young people who “wear” an elderly avatar are then more inclined to save for retirement. Charities, including the International Red Cross, have made VR films to counteract “compassion fatigue” and boost donations.
Empathy isn’t a subject in most schools and it’s not an explicit part of the Common Core standards, noted Letizia, an English teacher who parlayed the emotional connections of immersion into reading and writing lessons in the power of narrative and authorial point of view. Still, he thinks empathy needs to be taught, especially (and perhaps ironically) due to how much time we spend interacting digitally.
We’re not just interested in what students are learning intellectually, but also in their degree of engagement and self-efficacy, so when the going gets tough, they will have confidence in themselves and keep trying. In our virtual ecosystems, we want to help students believe that they, too, can be ecosystem scientists.
“My students live and die by their phones. They ‘like’ somebody’s Snapchat and move on. It’s so temporary and removed,” he said. “So much of the technology our kids use removes empathy. But in this case, by placing kids in the moment, [VR] breaks that distance down.”
Another middle-school teacher who dropped his students into the virtual lives of refugees was Charles Herzog in Londonderry, Vermont, whose class tried VR last December near the end of a unit about forced migration. The Google Cardboard viewers that Herzog’s students used were bought by his partner in the project, the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. According to Tarrant’s professional development coordinator, Rachel Mark, empathy education fits into Vermont’s required “Transferable Skills,” specifically “Responsible and Involved Citizenship,” which includes the ability to “demonstrate ethical behavior and the moral courage to sustain it.”
Mark’s blog post about teaching empathy mentions both the refugee VR video and one about the lives of police in Flint, Michigan. “In other forms of media, people may see conflicts as black and white,” she said. “By bringing in the perspective of human beings living through this, it might make you, as a fellow human being, reconsider the topic through someone else’s eyes.”
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