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VR as empathy teaching tool: What to love, what to watch out for

Just from watching Engadget’s 6 min. video report about it I could tell “The Last Goodbye” – a 16 min. virtual reality experience that debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival that just wrapped in New York – will have a profound impact on anyone who experiences it. The reporter called it “emotionally harrowing.”

Watching the VR participant

Watching Engadget’s Hardawar experience “The Last Goodbye” at the Tribeca festival – the presenter demonstrating empathy for the participant (freeze frame of Engadget’s video report)

So there are really two central roles in this VR experience: that of Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter, who was 11 years old when he was literally shipped to Majdanek, then an extermination camp in Germany-occupied Poland, and that of empathy. Because clearly – based on the thoughtful video report by Engadget reporter Devindra Hardawar – the project is truly all about both. The participant is walking into Gutter’s horrific experience as a child and spending that time with him now, which is beyond extraordinary. Part of it is virtually, immersively, being in – walking around in – the camp with Gutter as he points out what happened in specific locations. “We wanted to ease people into the walk-around,” one of the producers told Hardawar. You can tell that’s needed.

The experience itself is the first part of experiential learning. The other essential part is the reflecting, the thinking out loud, that the participant does about their experience of it. So there’s a third crucial role (if a production is to become a teaching tool) – that of the facilitator or teacher and others external to the experience who are bringing empathy to the overall experience (in and after the virtual part). [The empathic-looking person helping Hardawar (who’s wearing the headset), in the photo above is playing that role, as a teacher would during and after students are in the experience.]

Empathy around the VR experience too

So parents and teachers, let’s think about the role of empathy. Clearly, based on Engadget’s report, it was central to the project and the producers’ intent. They wanted to be sure the production, the art and the technology, was faithful to the story and the space, they said. In teaching with a tool like this, we’d want nothing less than the level of integrity they’re asserting, right? That’s baseline.

Then there’s the empathy around a teaching tool like this – the kind that supports the participant, especially a child. The producers said they’re not sure what’s next – museums, classrooms, etc. They “want to be able to release it to everyone who has VR headsets.” But maybe it’s not ideally a solitary experience for a child, right? What if it gets into the hands of a child who’s not ready for this “emotionally harrowing” experience? It could be that VR like this needs to be in classrooms and other communities of guided practice, where there are caring adults who know what the children in their care can handle – and who can hold discussions afterwards that give participants context and even emotional support where the experience triggers strong negative emotions.

Photo from "The Last Goodbye"

Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter inside the virtual extermination camp inside “The Last Goodbye” VR experience (Engadget report)

Empathy to teach empathy

“The Last Goodbye” offers profound insights into far more than VR’s potential for immersive education or even than a soul-wrenching story. It gives us a chance to think about where and how to teach with such a powerful tool – and how to handle its impacts on learners. And maybe, just maybe, for it to be a reliably constructive teaching tool, it needs to go beyond putting learners in others’ painful shoes to helping them find, think or work their way out of them – together – after they’ve emerged from the virtual part.

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