Can VR be a tool for inspiring empathy in higher ed?
VR can inspire empathy and make campus experiences more accessible
Many educators are now discovering virtual reality can inspire empathy and strengthen compassion among students. According to Richard L. Lamb, an associate professor and the director of the Neurocognition Science Laboratory at the University of Buffalo Graduate School of Education, the technology has a significant role to play in the development of students in both the K-12 and postsecondary space. Building compassion in students is the act of building experiences, said Lamb, and VR can certainly do this.
"I think having a compassionate and empathetic campus would improve the overall experience for the students ... there can be a lot of fear and anxiety,” Lamb said. “From a student body perspective, it promotes broader and more open discussion with different people with different ideas."
Lamb also mentions an “opportunity gap” which can develop in K-12 education, where a lack of experiences and exposure to other kinds of people make broader empathy or understanding more difficult to conjure. However, promoting that kind of student development through VR could offer benefits to any college or university, Lamb said.
Studies indicate there is not a statistically significant difference in how the brain processes research in virtual reality vs. real world experience, which Lamb believes can be beneficial in situations where students may be unable to physically experience or interact with a particular learning site or educational materials.
Lamb says colleges and universities could also use VR in campus tours in an empathetic manner; while some colleges and universities offer such tours for students who cannot physically visit the campus, Lamb said a VR tour could enable potential applicants to see how students on campus interact, unlike a physical visit which can sometimes be stilted and overly regimented.
Preparing future educators through virtual reality
But with the emphasis on workforce preparedness, VR can also help students prepare for the workplace. Lamb said much of his recent research is centered around using VR to train students who will soon be entering the classroom to teach, many of whom will be teaching in high-needs environments with which they may not be familiar. Lamb said the experience could offer a “soft failure” environment for students.
“Essentially the students get an opportunity to practice,” Lamb said. “If their initial reaction is fear or anger, they get to express that without the consequences of doing that in the real world, and they work through the pieces.”
Lamb expressed optimism that the rate of adoption in higher ed instruction is accelerating, specifically calling out the State University of New York for its move to embrace the technology. However, He notes some administrators have expressed concerns about how to scale VR use, as it currently can be difficult to offer the same type of engagement as a classroom discussion.
For example, educators can only interact with students before and after a VR experience, but they can't necessarily be “in” the experience conversing with them. Lamb expects this issue to be resolved in the coming years with the maturation of the technology. However, he said it is vital to frame VR as one piece in a broader approach.
"VR and other technologies are tools and it's important to build structures around them to make the tools successful,” he said. “Sometimes we see the 'shiny penny' ... and then we hand the VR to the professor and say 'do great things,' and don't build the educational structure around it."