We feel greater empathy for people we think are similar to us. Luckily, according to research, that similarity isn’t based solely on looks but rather on the broader social, behavioral, and life experience of an individual. What is also fortunate is that empathy can be learned, and the best time to do that learning is when we’re young.
It turns out that empathy isn’t something you’re born with. If, as a child, you’re exposed to friends, playmates, and peers of diverse backgrounds and lifestyles, you’ll grow up to be better able to understand the feelings of, well, everyone around you. One of the great advantages of growing up in the digital age is that you can use technology, like video conferencing, in education to help forge relationships with other people your age all around the world.
This potential has led a snack company to pledge $20 million to connect one million school children in 25 countries around the world using a network of free video conferencing.
KIND Video Calling
The company in question is KIND Snacks, a group that makes health food bars under the banner of a not-only-for-profit enterprise. Its founder, Daniel Lubetzky, is a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship and responsible for several goodwill companies such as PeaceWorks and Feed the Truth.
His latest attempt to improve the world is Empatico, an online learning program designed to increase empathy in the world through the video conferencing links mentioned above.
Teachers who sign up for the program, which is currently still in Beta testing, get access to a video conferencing platform and a network of fellow educators around the world. The service matches schedules and curriculum details to find common ground on which students in far-flung classrooms can meet. Currently, it is only available for English speakers, a big drawback if diversity is what you’re after, but the company plans to eventually expand to other languages.
That network is the attraction here, and the only real reason to sign up. That’s because the video conferencing technology is already widely available–and often free–and there are similar free services up and running from major tech companies.
Free Education Programs Via Video Call
Both Microsoft and Google have long offered education-specific free video conferencing programs to schools. In late November, Microsoft staged its third annual Education Skype-a-Thon, which takes thousands of students on a three-million-mile virtual journey around the world in two days.
Skype also has a range of free education programs operating through its Skype in the Classroom initiative and its Skype a Scientist program. Not to be outdone, Google has used its Hangouts video calling platform as a tool for integrative education including providing live broadcasts, hosting remote experts, and staging competitive virtual debates.
In addition to those specialized programs, there are several video conferencing platforms that offer a free service that could easily be used to replicate the Empatico experience. Zoom, Appear.In, Facebook Messenger, and of course Skype and Hangouts will all generate the same classroom-to-classroom live lessons. Some of them even bring advantages, like Skype Translation or Messenger’s 50-person group video chats.
In short, while the network of educators Empatico is offering should make it easier to spread empathy across the world’s classrooms, any teacher anywhere could make their own global connection without signing up to anyone else’s program.
DIY Video Conferencing in Education
The research we opened with reinforces the point that children learn best through doing. That suggests they’d develop empathy for their diverse peers more easily by interacting, rather than just sitting in front of a static Skype call.
VC Daily has previously highlighted how video conferencing can get remote students working and playing together. Shared language lessons over video conferencing, virtual field trips, and cooperative video games like Minecraft all take video calling away from a traditional ‘talking heads’ format to get kids thinking together. You can even take things out to the playground using smartphones and webcam-enabled laptops.
To build a DIY version of Empatico, a teacher needs, at minimum, a webcam, a TV, and a free video calling platform. Webcams that transmit in HD now cost less than $50, Skype will handle the connection for free, and TVs with HDMI compatibility to bring it all together are cheaper than they’ve ever been.
The other issue is to find a partner school on the other side of the planet that’s also looking to broaden its students’ minds. Many U.S. schools have sister organizations abroad, and it’s safe to assume almost every school in the world has an email address by now. The teacher could target a partner that fits with the current curriculum, or a newsworthy place that’s about to host the Olympics or just experienced a significant event, or a city that seems particularly different from their own.
Once those things are decided on, the teacher can make the introductions, lay out the rules of some online game, and encourage the students to get to know one another.