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March 5, 2020

Using Virtual Reality for Social and Emotional Learning

by: Thomas Daccord

A few weeks ago I attended one of Greg Kulowiec’s Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality (ARVR) workshops in the Boston area. Greg did a wonderful job of highlighting ARVR’s educational benefits and I was struck in particular by VR’s implications for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). 

Greg drew our attention to a project entitled Becoming Homeless: A Human Experience from the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab.  “Becoming Homeless” is a 7-minute VR experience where participants spend days in the life of a person who can no longer afford a home and interact with different environments in an attempt to save the home. The research project involved around 560 participants from teens to seniors who came from multiple ethnic backgrounds. 

According to a Stanford report, participants in the VR “Becoming Homeless” experience had more positive attitudes toward the homeless than others who learned about homelessness through other mediums, such as reading a story or viewing images. The researchers also found that participants were more likely to sign a petition in support of affordable housing. Some of the participants even became involved in advocacy for the homeless as a result of their experience.

The findings suggest there is enormous potential for leveraging VR to foster empathy and compassion, core tenants of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). In SEL, children feel and show empathy for others, set and attain positive goals, make responsible decisions, and demonstrate other desirable traits. While all media can contribute to SEL, the immersive “it-feels-real” element of a VR experience may be of greater impact in certain educational situations.  

VR is relatively new technology, but many schools are now investing in VR programs and headsets. There is still much to learn about how VR affects people’s emotions and actions, but if “Becoming Homeless” is any indication there are exciting possibilities for using VR to further student social and emotional development.

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