Empath assesses and builds students’ social intelligence and empathy for other people through in-school, personalised, immersive story-telling.
What is the problem?
In the future, it’s possible that we may see a proliferation of populism and an increased use of divisive politics to maintain power. These tactics may be amplified by social media, which can drive the public into social bubbles formed only of people with similar beliefs. This may entail people rarely interacting with those who disagree with them or who have had different experiences. The subsequent effect may be that we find tolerance fades and social cohesion begins to weaken.
How ‘Empath’ responds
Build empathy in classrooms through VR experiences with assessment & discussion, and regional data analysis, government, employer, and charity selected topics
Understand social tension:
Empath analyses forms of social division or conflicts in the county based on policing data, public social media content and school reporting mechanisms. This information is used to direct the different perspectives of life that children are shown in class. The content is curated alongside academic experts, governments, employers, charities, and diverse groups of the public.
VR experiences of other lives:
Students then have customised (but non-specific) VR experiences that immerse them in someone else’s scenario to invoke deeper empathy and help them to understand other perspectives. The stories are based on true and relatable contemporary stories curated by experts and prioritised based on the issues in the area.
In-Class Assessment & Discussion:
There is then a series of short assessment questions that encourage deeper immersion and follow-up discussions. The aim is to provoke conversation and help children understand the relevance of the stories in the context of their own worldview.
Get a qualification:
After a while, and as part of school curricula, social intelligence becomes a valuable, sought-after skill for future employment and students can even continue to train more deeply in the subjects which divide people.
We demonstrated a low fidelity prototype of this to high-need users, who in this case were teachers, to investigate their response —this is what we learned:
- We found that people saw a great potential to use virtual reality technology to promote empathy amongst children, which could genuinely lead to societal tolerance and cohesion.
- However,many issues still surround the proposition, particularly around the curation of the messaging behind the experiences provided to children.
Other emerging discussions from this proposition are around who would benefit the most from increased empathy, and how such a potentially transformative service could be authentically produced and responsibly and safely administered:
Children’s Empathy or Parents’ Empathy
The most striking point that arose from the proposition was that teachers felt that the issue with empathy lay with the parents rather than the children. In most instances, the teachers described children as having quite plastic models of what it means to be a different person and were able to fairly easily empathise with others and alter their values if they found that they were in conflict, and were encouraged to do so. However, the children’s parents often had solidified beliefs and were now in the role of instilling or enforcing those beliefs onto their children. This meant that they were often actively constraining their children’s ability to fluidly adapt their perceptions of other people’s experience. With this perspective in mind, many participants proposed that the service be adapted to somehow include parents into the experiences, perhaps through school, community events.
Space to explore topics and discuss
Teachers also explained that what was lacking in children’s educational experience was the space to discuss, ask questions and explore the relevance of what they were learning. In this sense, the concept of learning about other people’s experience should be considered as an opportunity for them to learn about themselves and what these empathy experiences expose about who they are.
Many agreed that virtual reality was a fantastic way to create transformative experiences because of its immersive capability. However, they felt the content of some of the empathy experiences would likely be uncomfortable for many children. Therefore, the design of the experiences and the intensity with which they expose children to someone else’s life would have to be considered, not just on an age rated basis, but potentially on a case by case basis. To ensure those experiences were appropriate, it would be important to take into account what individual children are experiencing, what the community is going through andthe culture within the school. —all of which make the administering of this type of education highly challenging.
Authorship of the experiences
The most pressing topic was about the authorship of the experiences with many questions around proving the legitimacy of the stories being told. While it is proposed that experiences would be based on true events, they are still recreated stories that may be interpreted differently by many people. Although it is proposed for the stories to be curated in collaboration with assemblies of the public, experts, charities and individuals who have lived experiences of the issues being portrayed, it is clear that there will always be questions over the accuracy of the stories, particularly while they are being used to open children’s perceptions. There will always be some people that feel the process is brainwashing. When immersive technology gets used to provide transformative experiences for children —at what point does it become brainwashing?
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Our new direction of exploration
If this proposition is taken further, the strategic question of relevance to our investigations is more along the lines of:
How can educational systems harness transformative, empathy-inducing technologies to provoke tolerance and social cohesion in a way that involves the entire community and avoids accusations of brainwashing?
Related to ‘Empath’
Children may spend more of their time in online environments that can transform their educational and creative experiences but equally have increased capacity to captivate and shape their world view in potentially problematic ways.
Dimensions of change
Technology expands the scope and meaning of what relationships are while disrupting some existing dynamics. Relationships may be initiated, supported, curated and managed through AI.