Can virtual reality teach empathy?

Google Expedition aims to connect students with refugee experience

can virtual reality teach empathy?Teaching empathy to our future citizens of the world may be the most important work that we can do as educators. And it’s not something we can force. It has to be an organic outgrowth of the other lessons we build.

Let’s look at how we might make it happen with virtual reality.

Why teach empathy?

can virtual reality teach empathy?I mean, it’s not in the curriculum. And yet in Vermont’s Transferable Skills, there’s Responsible and Involved Citizenship, and the third indicator of that is to “demonstrate ethical behavior and the moral courage to sustain it”.

Look at the Scoring Criteria from the state. Proficient means “I can… employ empathy when considering others in a variety of contexts”. And “take positive action to resolve conflicts, promote equity, and/or solve community problems”.

Go Vermont! Teaching our kids to be better citizens and human beings; just one of the many reasons that I love this state.

Bringing empathy into classroom lessons

When Charlie Herzog, 6th grade educator at Flood Brook School, in Londonderry VT, began to design learning experiences for a unit on refugees, he wanted to grab his students’ attention.

I mean, really GRAB it.

can virtual reality teach empathy?The topic has cultural relevance as Vermont welcomes refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries.

But, he wondered, do rural Vermont students even understand the concept of refugee-ism?

Herzog and his team wanted to make sure. He wanted to be sure that students found a way to connect and have compassion for children in the world who have very different lives than their own.

Herzog had an idea to test: Can virtual reality technology increase empathy by placing us in a person’s world?

According to Theresa Wiseman, there are four elements of empathy. These are :

  • See the world
  • Appreciate other people as human beings
  • Understand feelings
  • Communicate understanding

What type of virtual reality content can teach empathy?

Herzog and his team borrowed our classroom set of VR Cardboard viewers and asked his students if they were willing to bring in their own device (mostly iPhones) for the class period.

going on google expeditionsHerzog used the free New York Times VR app which features a library of virtual reality videos. Most importantly, the app features the documentary film The Displaced.

In the video, viewers meet Hana, a Syrian refugee in a refugee camp in Lebanon. We meet an 11 year old boy from Eastern Ukraine named Oleg and a 9 year old boy living in the swamps of southern Sudan named Chuol. Each child’s story is honest, gripping, and heart-breaking.

Herzog had only one 45-minute session with each small group of students. I sat in on that session, and I can tell you: the whole time that these middle schoolers watched the documentary you could have heard a pin drop. I have never seen anything like it.


How can you measure empathy?

Every student was completely absorbed and mesmerized. The only sound was of hearts and minds slowly opening.

Following the 11-minute VR video, students formed a circle to discuss the experience. Not only did they think the virtual reality aspect was cool, they were emotionally affected by the content.


We are trying to understand if students have a deeper understanding, a deeper connection and deeper empathy and compassion towards other people in the world if we use certain forms of Virtual Reality.

can virtual reality teach empathy?
@ MichaelSahota 2012 (with permission)


This was one class period with Mr. Herzog. But, it was dramatic. Imagine the power of engaging kids in this work more often.

The Google Expeditions app is free for both iOS and Android platforms.

If you simply used the videos available on NYT VR, you’d expose your students to a range of human experiences.

“Indefinite” explores the world of immigrants facing possible detention in the future.

can virtual reality teach empathy?

“Facing Flint” follows the police department of Flint, Michigan as it copes with public perception.

can virtual reality teach empathy?

In another film, students can track down rhino poachers in India. You can have access to almost 100 VR videos in the library.

Have any other schools used VR in a powerful way?

What other methods do you use to teach students empathy?

I’d love to hear from readers.

Rachel Mark

Rachel Mark joins the Tarrant Institute as a Professional Development Coordinator in the southern part of Vermont. Prior to working with TIIE, Rachel was a middle school literacy and social studies teacher at Tarrant partner school Manchester Elementary-Middle. As a teacher, Rachel loved exploring new content and new methods with inquisitive young adolescents. She thinks middle schools are the most dynamic learning centers in the state. Rachel is passionate about supporting teachers and helping them overcome obstacles; it’s her mission to break down the barriers that teachers face in implementing change. She is interested in student reflection and portfolio based assessment, inquiry and project-based learning When she's not reading, researching and supporting teachers, Rachel loves to play. She balances her life shuttling three busy kids around by getting sweaty and zen - yoga, exercise, and being outdoors are how she recharges her metaphorical batteries.