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Can VR be a tool for inspiring empathy in higher ed?

Increasingly, higher education and K-12 advocates are investing in VR technology. One school of osteopathic medicine, for example, is using holographic technology in place of physical cadavers which can be in short supply for students. And, a recent report from Campus Technology indicated that while VR and augmented reality tools were currently in an “adolescent stage of development and implementation”, their usage was likely to grow dramatically in the coming year. Now, educators are discovering other side benefits of this technology.



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.”

Lamba 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.