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Sep 30, 2021 |
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Ways that VR can be a social emotional learning “connection engine” inside-out and outside-in, for building meaningful empathy-rich learning-and-being experiences

Caitlin Krause is a partner and guest blogger. She focuses on the intersection of technology, innovation, and well-being, and founded the studio and consultancy MindWise in 2015. She teaches about the subject at Stanford University, is a Senior Strategist at the Virtual World Society, and is the author of Mindful by Design (2019) and Designing Wonder (2020).

In August 2021, educators, learning designers, funders, and researchers took part in an active learning summit that broke many boundaries. The summit was hosted by education nonprofit the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL) in partnership with immersive technology organization Exponential Destiny and Broward County Public Schools, with funding provided by Verizon. Together these partners have been piloting immersive technologies as tools to enhance learning for low-income families. 

During this event, summit participants had the opportunity to explore first hand several immersive environments to gain a better appreciation for how XR (Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality) development can transform the quality of learning experiences. Wearing Virtual Reality (VR) headsets, they interacted with each other, investigated materials, and moved around to gain more context for understanding 3D spaces that offered depth, agency, and a sense of wonder.

As a longtime educator, programmer, and designer who is passionate about the intersections between technology, social emotional learning (SEL), and well-being, I  created and guided a special part of the summit focused on an immersive SEL experience. My priority was to offer “2 P’s and 2 C’s” to participants: a sense of peace and place, and also connection and curiosity

In a digital SEL environment, “peace” promotes calmness and tranquility, which is a great baseline for focus. A sense of “place” also lets a person relax in a virtual environment, because they already feel centered. These two elements are helpful bases for learning, because the amygdala of the brain isn’t firing, triggering the body to go into protection mode, which is easily possible when using powerful experience-driven VR technology.

The two C’s were also important for the SEL summit experience,  offering participants a sense of community and collective agency and exploration. The “connection” exercises that I introduced in VR offered a chance for people to gain a sense of presence. As they enhanced an internal connection, recognizing the “now” moment, they were also able to appreciate others in the space, forming new relationships and friendships. Partner and group problem-solving was involved, too, as some of what we did involved journeys and opportunities to “find out more,” exercising curiosity.

The mind of a curious learner is certainly turned “on,” and we can each be transported through imagination and wonder. If we can give learners chances to connect internally and also with each other, we give our immersive spaces meaning and special emotional resonance, prioritizing positive social interactions with peers and mentors.

This “now moment” in history is a poignant one for our nation’s education landscape, when meaningful SEL-driven learning experiences can have a tremendous impact on learning outcomes and overall well-being. For learners, stress and anxiety is on the rise, and there is an enduring need for positive social connections. What guided my priorities as a VR experience designer is the opportunity to transform the digital learning space into a place of curiosity, connection, and delight.

Teaching middle school and high school humanities, English, and history for over a decade, I witnessed my students “light up” on a daily basis when my learning methodologies were framed in social structures that hinged on connection and care. Adolescents have brains that are developing socially, influenced by interactions with adults and peers around them. I found that immersive environments, which incorporate interactive exercises and game structures, can encourage participants to develop their “systems thinking,” understanding interconnectedness and non-linear structures. Digital learning also encouraged them to make a learning transfer back to related knowledge and understanding that is authentic to them, giving them a sense of agency and authority. 

The methods of connection and care that I’ve used in my experience design approaches, for learners of all ages, can be transferred to initiatives that incorporate parents and caregivers in the learning process. For learners living in poverty and who are more likely to experience social isolation and anxiety, these methods may be even more important. 

What I appreciate and intentionally build into VR creative experiences is what Seymour Papert called the “4 P’s”: projects, passion, peers, and play. Mitch Resnick now uses those 4 P’s to guide the Lifelong Kindergarten Lab at MIT’s Media Lab. When people are playing and interacting socially in groups, they lose themselves. They think openly. They engage and find joy in the learning process, while also feeling a sense of motivation. This is at the heart of well-designed SEL in VR. Of course, there’s extrinsic and intrinsic motivation to consider, and I would say the two are not exclusive. Learners can feel positively influenced in an immersive experience that involves pursuit of a “prize” as well as the internal rush of feeling that the experience itself, and the wonder and delight it inspires, is the boon. They exerted effort, and the rigor itself is part of the reward. When the SEL experience, with games and challenges built-in, is approached in a cooperative way, the meaning and sense of camaraderie, social learning, and healthy risk and reward can grow for learners of all ages.

To learn more about how immersive education can impact experiences for learners and teachers, watch the summit recordingTune in during the 2021 Families Learning Conference on Tuesday, Oct. 26 at 1:45 p.m. CDT to hear from Caitlin and members of the VR team from Exponential Destiny, Broward County Public Schools, and NCFL. 


Caitlin Krause focuses on the intersection of technology, innovation and well-being, and founded the studio and consultancy MindWise in 2015. She teaches about the subject at Stanford University, is a Senior Strategist at the Virtual World Society, and is a creative producer for ScienceVR. In September of 2020 she released the book Designing Wonder: Leading Transformative Experiences in VR. Caitlin has created and run numerous collaborative experiences in social XR, fusing presence, storytelling and emotional intelligence. After two decades of teaching, she authored Mindful By Design (Corwin Press, 2019) helping individuals and teams navigate complexity and change, prioritizing mindful well-being, design and imagination.


Further Reading References:

Farber, M., Williams, M. K., Mellman, L., & Yu, X. (2020). Systems at Play: Game Design as an Approach for Teen Self-Expression. Journal of Games, Self & Society. Carnegie Mellon University: ETC Press. 2(1), 40-84.

Horowitz, J. M., & Graf, N. (2019, February). Most U.S. teens see anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

Resnick, M. (2017). Lifelong kindergarten: Cultivating creativity through projects, passion, peers, and play. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York, NY: Basic Books. 


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NCFL Partners

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Toyota, one of the nation's most successful corporations, began a partnership with NCFL in 1991. In addition to a commitment of more than $50 million, Toyota has also contributed a wealth of in-kind support — including advertising, planning and management expertise — to form one of the most progressive corporate/nonprofit partnerships in the nation.

Three major programs have been developed through the Toyota partnership based on the family literacy model of parents and children learning together. These models have influenced federal and state legislation, leveraged local dollars to support family literacy and led to successful programs being replicated across the country.

Read more about Toyota's commitment to communities

William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust

NCFL received its very first donation in 1989 from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust to promote and implement family literacy programming, first in Kentucky and North Carolina and later nationwide. The Kenan Family Literacy Model in part laid the groundwork for 30 years of subsequent family literacy and family learning programming developed by NCFL.

Kenan has continued to support NCFL’s place-based family literacy programs since our inception. Most recently, it has invested in our organization’s Sharon Darling Innovation Fund, which will launch emerging ideas and programmatic evolutions in the multigenerational learning space.

Learn more about the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust

Dollar General Literacy Foundation

The Dollar General Literacy Foundation began partnering with NCFL in 2006. A signature effort of this partnership is the National Literacy Directory, a resource that launched in 2010 and strives to guide potential students and volunteers to literacy services, community education programs, and testing centers in their communities.

The National Literacy Directory contains over 10,000 educational agencies located across the United States and has a dedicated toll-free number to help support those wanting to pursue educational opportunities in their communities.

Dollar General also provides support for development of NCFL’s innovative family learning resources centered on financial literacy and Parent and Child Together (PACT) Time®.

Learn more about the Dollar General Literacy Foundation

PNC Grow Up Great

PNC Grow Up Great believes deeply in the power of high-quality early childhood education and provides innovative opportunities that assist families, educators and community organizations to enhance children's learning and development.

PNC Grow Up Great has partnered with NCFL since 1994, most recently in Louisville, Kentucky, to support Say & Play with Words, our pre-Kindergarten vocabulary-building initiative.

NCFL's work is also featured on the PNC Grow Up Great Lesson Center website. The Lesson Center includes over 100 free, high-quality preschool lesson plans and research-based instructional techniques and strategies. All lesson plans contain Home/School Connections printouts, in English and Spanish, to help families extend and reinforce the learning at home.

Learn more about PNC Grow Up Great

U.S. Department of Education

Initiated through the U.S. Department of Education in 2018, the Statewide Family Engagement Centers (SFEC) program provides 12 grantees and 13 states with five-year, $5 million grants to promote and implement systemic evidenced-based family engagement strategies. NCFL was selected to lead SFECs in two states, Arizona and Nebraska, and is a primary partner for two other SFECs in Kentucky and Maryland/Pennsylvania. 

The SFECs work to support family engagement through state- and local-level agencies while providing both professional development to school districts and direct services to families related to children’s academic outcomes and overall well-being.

Learn more about the U.S. Department of Education

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

NCFL was named a recipient of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s "Voices for Economic Opportunity Grand Challenge," which seeks to elevate diverse voices in order to broaden the conversation about the issues inhibiting economic mobility and generate deeper awareness along with actionable understanding. NCFL will develop and launch a podcast series that will highlight the remarkable stories of low-income, diverse families across the U.S. who have improved their communities through Family Service Learning.

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