Can Virtual Reality ‘Teach’ Empathy?

Immersive virtual reality in the classroom is spreading fast, as teachers take students into other worlds.

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 contentand 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.

“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 empathymentions 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.”

Boyd County High School teacher William Parker and a 10th grade student immerse themselves in “One World, Many Stories: Amman Jordan.” The virtual reality technology makes them feel they are underneath an ancient ruin at the Citadel in Amman. Photo courtesy Global Nomads Group

That’s the idea behind a new VR-based curriculum called “One World, Many Stories” by the nonprofit Global Nomads Group, which produced a series of 360-degree autobiographical videos from the perspective of a boy in eastern Kentucky, a young man in Amman, Jordan, and a young African-American woman in New York City.

Last fall, when Daniel Gross, a sixth-grade teacher in Los Altos, California, heard about “One World, Many Voices,” he jumped at the chance to pilot it. “We discuss current events on a weekly basis,” said Gross, “and inevitably that ends up with us talking about perspective-taking and empathizing with others.”

The four-minute dips into the lives of these young people are interwoven with paper-and-pencil class activities and discussions about the mix of individual and communal identities and the importance of perspective. A post-VR worksheet, for instance, asks students what preconceived ideas they had about the people in each video that were either bolstered or changed after being immersed in their worlds. Finally, students storyboard the scenes that they would include in their own 360-degree videos.

“We have always used technology to help connect young people who would otherwise not have a way to connect, to promote global awareness, curiosity and critical thinking,” said Abigail Finck, the marketing manager for Global Nomads. For more than a decade, the nonprofit has fostered discussions between young people from different cultures via webcasts, and one of these—a 2015 exchange between teenagers in South Los Angeles and Syrian refugees living in Amman, Jordan—first showed the potential of VR to further Global Nomad’s mission. Before the two groups met online, the kids from Los Angeles visited the lab of VR pioneer Nonny de la Peña to walk a mile through a simulation of war-torn Aleppo, Syria.

Abdel Rahman Abu Baker (left) and filmmaker Darieus Legg chat between takes while shooting a video for “One World, Many Stories” about 19-year-old Abdel Rahman’s life in Jordan. Photo courtesy Global Nomads Group

When the students finally did sit for their web chat, along with translators, the two groups of young people soon felt comfortable enough with each other that the discussion moved from the violence afflicting Syria to the “food deserts” of the inner-city neighborhood where the Los Angeles students lived.

“The refugees asked, ‘Why don’t you have a garden?’ ” Finck recalled. “ ‘We don’t have a home, but of course we have a garden, because that’s how we survive.’ ” Soon after, the students from Los Angeles started a community garden at their school.

In addition to sparking connections with others, there is evidence to suggest that embodying a VR avatar can change a student’s self-perception as well.

“I believe that immersion is very important and powerful, which is why I started working in it 25 years ago,” said Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who is editing a book about VR and learning. “But VR isn’t magic. It’s a very specialized tool.”

Dede’s research focuses on both VR and less-immersive augmented reality (AR) for science learning. On the fully immersive end of the spectrum, Dede and his team created a VR science game called ecoMUVE, in which students are immersed in a pond or forest ecosystem where they have to solve the mystery of a species collapse. Studies of ecoMUVE indicate that spending time working as a scientist in a virtual world may bolster a student’s confidence in her ability to be a scientist in the real world.

“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,” said Dede. “In our virtual ecosystems, we want to help students believe that they, too, can be ecosystem scientists.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter to get a weekly update on blended learning.

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Chris Berdik

Chris Berdik is a science journalist who has written about a wide variety of topics, including the intersection of science with ethical issues and the peculiarities of the human brain. (“Why Our Brains Make Us Laugh,” for the Boston Globe, for example.) His book, Mind Over Mind: The Surprising Power of Expectations, was published by Current, an imprint of Penguin, in 2012. A Harvard graduate with a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford University, Mr. Berdik has been a staff editor at The Atlantic and Mother Jones. His freelance articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and Boston Magazine, among others, and his radio and multimedia stories have appeared on, WBUR (Boston’s NPR station) and, among others.