December 3, 2018

Virtual Reality to Foster Real-World Empathy

This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

We are always on the lookout for new ideas that have the potential to translate into innovative and challenging educational strategies for our students. After experimenting with the use of smart pens for peer learning and the integration of video games to stimulate deep learning, we turned to the possibilities offered by virtual reality. This technology has allowed us to provide our students with immersive experiences that contribute to developing greater empathy for topics we discuss in our respective courses.

The Inspiration of our Project

Our virtual reality project took shape during the 2017 iPad and Digital Education Summit [in French]. A high school geography teacher presented pedagogical examples of how to use virtual reality to visit tourist sites. One participant pointed out that virtual reality could also be used to create empathy. This idea immediately caught our attention, since our respective courses appeal to this notion and we face challenges in the acquisition and demonstration of this skill by the students.

Starting Points

Pascale teaches the course Interactions Within Cultural Communities in the Special Care Counselling Program. Students need to develop a therapeutic relationship with clients whose cultural references and experiences differ greatly from their own. During their interventions, students must adopt attitudes and behaviours that reflect empathy.

Johnathan teaches the course Contemporary Ethical and Political Issues in the Humanities program. It covers topics such as discrimination and hosting Syrian refugees. During class debates, students supported their position on rational arguments (facts, statistics) or even on certain prejudices. Johnathan wanted them to be more empathetic in their analysis of the subject in order to bring a richer and more nuanced point of view to the debates.

Implementing the Project

Our pedagogical experience is inspired by the United Nations UNVR project, which has been developing virtual reality videos since 2015 in order to increase awareness of the world’s  most pressing human rights issues. These videos, available on the Within app, promote empathy by showing, for example, the living conditions of war refugees. The video Clouds Over Sidra, presented at a fundraiser, increased donations by 70%!

This example motivated us to explore the pedagogical potential of virtual reality to develop students’ empathy with the cultural and humanitarian issues raised in our courses. We selected 3 films:

In Pascale’s Course

Empathy is an element of the skill that is developed in the course. More specifically, I want to help students understand the reality of an immigrant. Thus, when confronted with this situation in their future job, they will be able to ask the appropriate questions to establish a therapeutic relationship.

Before, I taught this intervention context from statistics and theoretical resources. However, I found that this did not allow me to delve more deeply into the issue of refugees, who arrive in Canada in a completely different context than those for whom immigration is a choice. Nonetheless, students must take into account the difficult circumstances that these people have experienced in order to guide their care.

Working from the example of Syria, we discussed the difficulties that refugees may encounter upon arrival (linguistic barrier, cultural differences, trauma experienced). The students then had an immersive experience through virtual reality. When viewing the 360 videos, they were very surprised to see the extent and severity of the refugees’ situation, even after talking about it in class. It is difficult for students to understand all these issues because most of them have only theoretical knowledge. Virtual reality makes it possible to represent the situation in a much more tangible way and to present it on a human scale.

Students of Pascale’s course watching a 360 video with cardboard viewers.

After viewing, I asked them to write a personal reflection. The students expressed very empathic remarks about the refugees.

In Johnathan’s Course

I am always surprised to learn that, even though some students are interested in current events, many of them do not follow the news. War images are of little interest to them because this situation is very far from their reality. In class, they are sometimes disengaged from this problem.

In my course, I use debates to bring out the different aspects of an ethical problem. The opinion of students may vary according to the degree of empathy they feel about the subject. For example, a topical issue was whether Canada should host more Syrian refugees. The positions were very firm and were based on rational arguments (facts, statistics), and even on prejudices relayed in some media. It was difficult for me to explain to them why more refugees would not cause more terrorism. I also wanted students to understand that some ethical positions and decisions have real human consequences, and that it is equally important to consider the emotions and suffering of others.

Virtual reality makes it possible to show the reality and living conditions of refugees in a very realistic way. Students viewed the 360 videos before the debate. In their argument, they then had to take into account what they had seen and felt during the viewing. The students were more engaged and the debated positions were more nuanced, taking into account the gray areas.

An overview of the 360 environment taken from the UN-produced Clouds Over Sidra virtual reality video available on the Within application. Through this immersive experience, students were made aware of the living conditions of children in a Syrian refugee camp. (Image Source: The Sidra Project)

Outcomes of our Experience

Students were very excited about experimenting with virtual reality. The attraction of novelty certainly plays a role in this. Virtual reality also makes the viewing experience much more active and engaging for students, since they can choose where to look. The experiences are more concrete and communicate a stronger and more authentic emotional charge.

Examples of student testimonials

During the video, I felt frightened and sad; along with the family, we could experience the ground shaking due to bombing. The parents were worried and did not know what to do. The fact that they say it was a giant to reassure [their daughter] really made me speechless. I felt as helpless as they were. The experience was enriching. This projects us into the present moment. I think this will help raise awareness.

A student on the film Giant

It felt like I was surrounded by their life throughout the video, and it affected me. I think these videos are designed to show a reality we do not expect, because we do not normally experience it.

A student on the film Clouds Over Sidra

From a technical perspective, the classroom experience depends largely on the quality of the Wi-Fi network, since students download and watch movies simultaneously, which uses a lot of bandwidth. To overcome possible connection problems or incompatible devices, we connected an iPad to a projector, which allowed us to keep the navigation function in the 360 video while viewing it on the big screen.

Some students experienced motion sickness as they watched the videos. By working in pairs, they could alternate, allowing for their discomfort to subside before continuing viewing.

Experiences to Be Repeated

Our first experiences with virtual reality have been positive. We plan to repeat and improve on these activities by building learning scenarios around the viewing of 360 content. A more structured approach (viewing sequence, list of questions, complex task related to the experience) would further exploit the benefits of the virtual reality experience. We would also like to set up a more formal feedback procedure to obtain more concrete comments from students on their experience.

In our courses, virtual reality does not become an evaluation object, but a way to enhance and enrich learning. We believe it has the potential to further develop student skills, especially in more interactive and advanced uses. If virtual reality changes not only the way of presenting content, but also the teacher’s approach, it can lead to a real paradigm shift in the teaching and learning experience. This is the direction we would like our future experiments to take.


The authors as well as some of their colleagues from LaSalle College have benefited from a mini-grant from the SALTISE organization for the realization of a classroom-based virtual reality experimentation project. To find out more, read Julie Anne Roy’s articles “Integrating Virtual Reality into the Classroom” and “Integrating Virtual Reality into the Classroom – Follow Up” on the SALTISE blog.

About the authors

Johnathan Mina

Johnathan Mina (M.A., B.A. Honours.) is a professor in Humanities at College LaSalle in Montreal, Canada. He holds an M.A. in English Literature from Dalhousie University and an Honours B.A. in Liberal Arts and English Literature from Concordia University. He is the recipient of the 2023 CICan Excellence in Teaching Award for Faculty and the LCI Education Network -Teaching Excellence Award in 2018. His research interests are related to game studies, gamification, critical thinking, empathy and the integration of technology in educational spaces.

He is the co-author of a research report on the use of entertainment-based videogames in college classrooms, subsidized by Quebec Ministry of Higher Education (MEES). He also is the recipient of the SALTISE research mini grant in 2018, for the implementation of VR in the classroom, and a SALTISE research mini grant in 2017 for the implementation of smartpens in the classroom.

Pascale Warmoes

Pascale Warmoes has been teaching in the department of Special Care Counselling at College LaSalle (Montreal) since 2008. She holds an M.A. certificate in Education from the University of Sherbrooke and a B.A. specialization in Psychology. Her passion and interest in exploring new and innovative pedagogical approaches in her classroom, has led her to receive the College LaSalle Teaching Excellence award in 2018, the SALTISE research mini-grant in 2017 for the implementation of smartpens in the classroom, and the SALTISE research grant in 2018 for the implementation of VR in the classroom. In 2020 she was awarded the PREP research grant by the Quebec Ministry of Higher Learning to undertake research on the implementation of videogames in college classrooms which was published in June 2022.

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