By Fatma Katr

In a fast-paced world where rising human relation issues are often misrepresented or misinterpreted, higher education institutions are moving forward to diversify teaching methods when introducing these issues. One of those methods involves the use of virtual reality (VR) to evoke emotion and empathy among students. 

Like any learning technology, VR can be integrated in university curriculums in useful ways, in the sense that it is able to tap into student emotions and their concepts of certain issues, to challenge stereotypes and bias. Despite the scarcity of studies on the use of VR in classrooms, evidence examined so far suggests that VR is a powerful tool for provoking empathy and self-efficacy, according to an article by The Hechinger Report.

This article will delve into the true experience of VR and its impacts on provoking empathy among students:

  • Why empathy needs to be taught more in schools.
  • The process of using VR to provoke empathy.
  • The challenges that may rise out of such experience.
  • Pathways to a successful VR experience.
  • What teachers using VR need to know to enhance the experience for their students.

Why empathy needs to be taught more in schools

Using the power of VR in developing empathy has become the focus of several educational institutions, including Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL). The lab curates the idea of virtual physical embodiments by allowing participants to inhabit avatars of a different age, race, or social standard.

Equality collage

Building on Dr. Cogburn’s research and previous VHIL studies that have examined how virtual reality can induce empathy for people different from oneself, the project continues to examine the effects of this immersive virtual experience on changes in psychological processes, including empathy/social perspective taking, racial bias, and decision making.

For example, the lab created “1000 Cut Journey,” an immersive virtual reality experience that allows you to walk in the shoes of Michael Sterling, a Black male, and encounter racism first-hand, as a young child, an adolescent, and a young adult. Understanding the social realities of racism is critical to promoting effective and collective social action.

Participants who inhabit avatars of a different race in a virtual world later scored lower in tests of subconscious racial bias, and young people who “wore” an elderly avatar were more inclined to save for retirement.

Another project of VHIL is called “Becoming Homeless: A Human Experience,” which explores the Fundamental Attribution Error. Coined by Stanford Psychologists, this concept describes how we blame others when bad things happen to them, but blame the external situations when bad things happen to us. 

When it comes to homelessness, there is a misconception that losing one’s home is due to who you are and the choices you make. Becoming Homeless seeks to counter this irrational tendency through an immersive VR experience that allows a participant to spend days in the life of someone who can no longer afford a home, interacting with their environment as they attempt to save their home and protect themselves and their belongings. It allows the participant to virtually walk in another’s shoes and face the adversity of living with diminishing resources.

VHIL is not the only institution taking VR to another human level in evoking empathy. The International Red Cross produced VR films to counter “compassion fatigue” and boost donations.

A VR-based curriculum is also applied by the NGO Global Nomads Group in “One World, Many Stories, a series of 360-degree biographical videos portrayed from the perspective of a boy in eastern Kentucky, a young black woman in New York City, and/or a young man in Amman, Jordan. Students are asked to what ideas they had about the characters and then later asked to add their own scenes into those videos that would boost the storyline of these characters, and how they could be better.

Google cardboard VR Headset

Google sells cardboard virtual reality viewers for as little as $2, giving students myriad ways to briefly inhabit what they’re learning. Teacher William Parker and a 10th-grade student from Boyd County High School in Kentucky immerse themselves in “One World, Many Stories: Amman, Jordan.” Photo by Global Nomads Group.

The process of using VR to provoke empathy

VR allows a seamless process for students to step into someone else’s shoes, like in the scenarios above, according to what the research paper “Learning Empathy through Virtual Reality” described as the “body ownership illusion.”

The research pointed out that the physical presence in VR is not necessarily relevant to having a body, but rather having the convinced feeling of actually “being there” in the experience. While the users or college students are not physically present in a certain scenario relevant to human issues, they feel that they are in that set of events, and thus start adopting behaviors to inhabit their virtual environments.

In simply defining the process that a student undergoes when learning about human issues, the process is described as “swapping bodies with another person” — in most cases, a digital avatar. Because students inhabit an invisible self in such an experience, they may be driven to present subjective anxieties. The research mentioned an example of a participant’s real hand getting stiffer and heavier in case of a sound feedback of a hammer hitting the user’s virtual hand.

Sound manipulation techniques have proven to enhance VR experiences in a way that it increases self-identification and self-location in relation to the participant’s virtual body. Therefore, according to the research, this shifts the participant’s perception of touch toward the virtual body.

A similar idea was portrayed by one of the researchers of “Learning Empathy through Virtual Reality”, and a research assistant at Université Paris, Descartes Philippe Bertrand in his collection called the Library of Ourselves. It is an archive of real stories pre-recorded in first-person perspective, through immersive 360-degree cameras positioned on their heads.

“Learning Empathy through Virtual Reality”

Bertrand mentioned that the characters included a Syrian refugee in France, in which users in the VR experience are invited to interact with the refugee’s story and pictures of his Syrian family on his mobile phone. They are also invited to march in a protest with a Syrian flag and interact with his friends at the university in France.

Bertrand is now working with the Ministry of National Education in France to tap into different intergroup empathy-related issues including presenting the perspective of students with dyslexia who are faced with cognitive and socially emotional challenges. He is also involved in another project where 13-year-old students are encouraged to produce VR films relevant to bullying at school, as part of a broader discussion on bullying.

“Students tend to demonstrate self-reported empathy towards the subjects, presented they are reminded of important details of the experience, and engage actively in a discussion about the content and about the concepts of empathy phenomena themselves applied to their everyday lives,” Bertrand said.

Potential challenges that may arise with these uses

While the challenges of using VR in empathy-related curriculums are still not fully examined, research assistant professor at the University of Southern California Marientina Gotsis believes that one could fall victim to novelty, and not fully emotionally process what is experienced. 

“It is challenging for storytellers to produce a VR experience that does justice to the actual lived experience of others,” she added.

Gotsis said that a lot of work still needs to be done in using VR to relate to empathy, specifically that the current work is technical and relatively “naïve.” Another aspect to be considered when expanding the use of VR in human-related issues, according to Gostis, is that unlike empathy, it is harder to provoke compassion because that requires a moral and ethical compass, and a thoughtful interaction design.

There is also a chance in which the VR experience could be misused in class. Bertrand explained that although intergroup interactions may reduce bias, for example, interventions along these lines must consider the participant’s motivations. In other words, forcing students to go to an intervention related to empathy and obliging them to behave in a certain way may backfire and fail to develop empathic capacities.

One of the pathways to a prosperous VR experience

Based on past experience and research, VR has so far proved to be an eligible machine for promoting empathy; however, researchers like Bertrand argue that it should never be used alone. In enhancing an experience, VR should be integrated with follow-ups conveyed through pedagogies of empathy in which students would present, explain, discuss, and debrief about their experiences.

VR clearly has immense potential in education, but researchers agree that there is still a long road to go until it can be fully and effectively integrated in empathy-related curriculum.

What teachers using VR need to know to enhance the experience for their students

There are many opportunities to enhance the VR experience in curriculum to best evoke empathy; however, Bertrand argues that VR should not be considered an empathy machine itself. Teachers need to debate with users about the content presented after their VR experience, and provide psychological support in case the experience leaves a strong emotional effect.

Educators could also encourage their students to express their fear, anger, and/or anxiety about a certain topic through the VR experience instead of the real world. That form of expression is practice that will assist them in tackling struggles in real life.

About the author

Fatma Katr

Fatma is a multimedia journalist who has reported on different beats including politics, business, education, genders issues, human rights and foreign policy. Her reporting is focused in the Middle East region where she majored in print and electronic journalism.

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