How VR Is Being Used to Teach SEL

Technology Tips

How VR Is Being Used to Teach SEL

By Tina Nazerian     May 29, 2018

How VR Is Being Used to Teach SEL

This article is part of the collection: Social-Emotional Learning: Why It Matters and How to Foster It.

This past year, a group of eighth graders in Texas got upset about a train that didn’t stop for bathroom visits as it headed toward a concentration camp. In Hawaii, another group of students had to decide which of their possessions to sell so they wouldn’t lose their homes.

The students were taking part in virtual reality experiences in Chris Caldwell’s language arts classes at Chisholm Trail Middle School in Texas, and in various classrooms at Hawaii’s Mid-Pacific Institute.

But they weren’t just learning about history and the human condition. Schools can use virtual reality to help students develop empathy and the ability to look at life experiences from different perspectives.

‘Reality of The Horror’

In his book, “Experience on Demand,” Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, writes, “No medium, of course can fully capture the subjective experience of another person, but by richly evoking a real-seeming, first-person experience, virtual reality does seem to promise to offer new, empathy-enhancing qualities.” Bailenson contrasts experiencing virtual reality with reading news accounts and watching documentaries. Those latter activities, he writes, require “a lot of imaginative work,” whereas virtual reality can “convey the feeling” of, say, a refugee camp’s environment, and the “smallness of the living quarters, the size of the camp.”

Caldwell—who used Google Expeditions to deliver a virtual reality experience set in the Holocaust—says that when his students first put on the goggles, they viewed them as a novelty. But within a minute or two, the students became quiet, absorbed in what they were seeing; they realized the “reality of the horror of what was in front of them.” Questions ensued. Caldwell said the students had stronger reactions this time around—using virtual reality—than when he’s taught the same subject without the technology.

At Mid-Pacific, the eighth graders took part in a homelessness simulation developed by Bailenson's lab at Stanford, says Paul Turnbull, the school’s president. Brian Grantham, Mid-Pacific’s Director of Education Technology, says that as a private, college prep school, many of the students come from middle class or upper class families. Students who come from this background typically don’t have an understanding of homelessness, he says, and becoming homeless in the virtual reality simulator broadened their perspectives about that situation.

‘A Broader Framework’

Ron Berger, the Chief Academic Officer of EL Education, points to another factor schools should consider. He thinks virtual reality can be a powerful way to introduce kids to situations that require empathy or adopting different perspectives. However, he thinks no one tool or experience will bring results unless it is “nested in a broader framework of a vision and goals and relationships.”

“There’s no magic bullet,” he says.

Berger says virtual reality experiences have to be accompanied by work beforehand and follow-up afterwards. Kids, he says, need to be reflective and think critically. Both Caldwell and the instructors at Mid-Pacific have prepwork and postwork related to using virtual reality in their classrooms. Specifically, Caldwell has students read “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and the play version of “Anne Frank” before embarking on the virtual reality experience. At Mid-Pacific, the simulation on homelessness was part of a larger overall project. In both instances, the students took part in class discussions afterwards.

Berger also believes that immersion experiences like virtual reality should be “embedded in positive” adult and peer relationships. He adds that ideally, there’s also a resulting action where kids do something productive with the information they’ve learned, to help their own growth and to help others. He mentions an example where students interviewed local immigrants and refugees, then wrote the stories they heard. They published the stories in a book, and the profits went to legal fees for local refugees.

Berger thinks students can initiate that type of action on their own, but it’s “best that schools plan to support students with time and structures to make that action coordinated and meaningful.”

If you’re launching a new SEL program or enhancing an existing one, these tips will help you avoid common implementation mistakes.

Social-emotional skills support student achievement, but embedding SEL into the school day can be complex.

If you’re launching a new SEL program or enhancing an existing one, these tips will help you avoid common implementation mistakes.

Read more from Newsela.

Safety Considerations

Bailenson believes that if schools are thinking about using virtual reality as a classroom tool, they should keep safety in mind. He tells EdSurge that he advises saving virtual reality for “very special experiences,” keeping it “relatively short” and not getting students dizzy or disoriented. A report Bailenson co-authored for Common Sense Media highlights the research that has—and has not—explored the effects of virtual reality on children. It states that the “potentially negative outcomes of VR include impacts on children’s sensory systems and vision, aggression, and unhealthy amounts of escapism and distraction from the physical world.”

As for content, Bailenson writes in that same report that “a good rule is, if you wouldn’t want your children to live with the memory of the event in the real world, then don’t have them do it in VR.” According to that report, with the “exception of VR devices specifically targeted toward child users, most companies recommend that no children younger than 12 or 13 use them.”

Mid-Pacific’s Grantham says that the school doesn’t let students younger than age 13 use virtual reality technology. He adds that, in the end, the school leaves the decision to participate up to the family and the student. Caldwell explains that his school, students “take frequent breaks” and don’t have to engage with the Holocaust expedition if it bothers them. “They can opt out and continue on with the in-class activity.”

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

Next Up

Social-Emotional Learning: Why It Matters and How to Foster It

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up