Teaching Empathy Online: Empathy Boxes and Empathy Mapping in Virtual Environments

Streamed Session Equity and Inclusion

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Brief Abstract

Being empathetic is an important mindset to possess in many careers, particularly when working closely with diverse audiences. Teaching empathy through skill development is challenging, especially in online environments. Hear how graduate students learned and practiced empathy online using empathy mapping and empathy boxes created with interactive virtual tools.


Farah L. Vallera teaches instructional technology and teacher education as a Professor of Practice in Lehigh University's Teaching, Learning, and Technology graduate degree program and is a practicing instructional design consultant in higher education. She is currently serving as a Creative Inquiry Faculty Fellow where she is working to reimagine and redesign existing courses by integrating new (or different) active pedagogies for students to pursue inquiry through new intellectual, creative, and artistic pathways. She received a Ph.D. from Lehigh University in Teaching, Learning, and Technology, where her focus was on using innovative educational technology in the design and dissemination of STEM-integrated agricultural literacy curriculum for elementary students. She also has an M.A. and B.A. in sociology from Lehigh University and Centenary College, respectively. Aside from teaching courses and research in instructional design, design thinking, makerspace development, mobile technology, and blended/flipped learning, she develops multicultural, inclusion, and diversity awareness course materials and enjoys practicing urban agriculture and volunteering as an agricultural educator for diverse audiences. Dr. Vallera has presented on building makerspaces, instructional design strategies for blended/flipped learning, and using augmented and virtual reality in multiple settings at international, nationals, and regional conferences, such as: OLC, NAAEE, NARST, NAITC, ASA, PETE&C, NE-ASTE, and many others. She has several chapters and articles published about building courses and materials using innovative educational technology for multiple audiences and content.

Extended Abstract

The diversity of classrooms across the U.S. has changed exponentially throughout the years. Racial and ethnic groups are changing, and the rates of immigrant, low income, disabled, and English learner (EL) populations are also increasing drastically. While diversity in classrooms is not new, recognizing the diverse needs of all students is becoming more of a priority than ever before. With more than half of high school graduates continuing on to higher education, designing instruction for diversity and inclusion is a wide-spread agenda item for instructional designers, school administrators, teachers, and other stakeholders across age ranges. Unfortunately, designing instruction that meets the needs of diverse learners, while also imparting knowledge, skills, and attitudes/beliefs related to improving all students’ empathy are large undertakings.

While the belief that empathy should be taught to audiences of all ages is growing, there is no universal definition of empathy and methods to teach it can be difficult to employ. For educators, learning to be more empathetic, and then teaching their students skills to improve their own mindsets, are both essential and challenging. Instructional designers and educators must continue to find ways to design and teach empathy instruction, as it is a necessary habit of mind when dealing with diverse audiences in varying careers and situations. The pandemic has changed the way the world teaches and learns and we will see the reverberations for years to come. Finding new teaching and learning strategies that can be employed in different modalities for topics and concepts primarily taught in person will open up a range of opportunities for online, experiential learning.

Empathy involves perspective taking and understanding the feelings of others. It is important when working with diverse audiences in that it lets them know they are supported and respected. In turn, students may be more motivated to learn when their instructors practice empathy. Engaging in perspective taking and empathetic experiences could improve individuals’ tolerance of others, their awareness of their own biases, their cultural humility, and their ability to be better communicators and collaborators with diverse audiences in the future. Teaching and practicing empathy are difficult, as empathy is an attitude or mindset. However, it can be improved with skills-based practice, such as empathy mapping and exploring empathy boxes.

Empathy mapping, a popular tool used by design thinkers, gathers data about audiences’ needs to guide decision-making in project development. One way to use empathy maps is to split the maps into quadrants (e.g., Think/Feel, Say/Do, See, and Hear) with two additional boxes for pains and gains. In this example, participants are given a driving question and asked to think about the how that audience might respond to each of the topics in the quadrants and boxes. Data are then gathered and analyzed to determine themes, needs, and insights that emerge. Involving students in the process of empathy mapping, as well as having students analyze the data collected, can both demonstrate the importance of understanding diverse audiences and help them develop their own empathetic practices. An empathy box is filled with an individual’s mementos, treasures, and keepsakes that are meaningfully collected throughout their lives. These boxes can demonstrate what an individual cares about and what they feel is worth saving. Having students look through another person’s empathy box to learn about them can encourage them to thoughtfully consider that person’s interests and perspectives on what they deem is important.

Normally, these activities are completed in the classroom, where students can use post-it notes to stick on the empathy map, touch the items in the empathy box, and have meaningful face-to-face discussions after the activities. Unfortunately, the pandemic required that educators find creative ways to replicate in-person activities in online spaces. Teaching empathy is a challenging task; teaching it online with regularly hands-on activities is even harder. While the intention of this project was to undertake the challenging nature of developing awareness of and empathy for diverse audiences by providing simulated experiential opportunities online, the activities themselves were quite simple.

The empathy map activity was designed using Miro, an online whiteboard tool. Graduate students in a teacher education program were asked to populate an empathy map surrounding the questions, “As a graduate student, what do you see, hear, think/feel, say/do? What are the pains? What are the gains?” In their next synchronous online class meeting, students were split into breakout rooms and were asked to look through the class’s post-it notes on the empathy map board collaboratively and cluster and summarize similar notes that belonged to the same quadrant. For instance, Group 1 clustered and summarized all of the “SEE” notes; Group 2 clustered and summarized all of the “HEAR” notes, and so on. They then had to identify themes, needs, and insights that emerged from the clusters in each quadrant in order to arrive at a shared understanding of the participants by all team members. Once each empathy map topic was clustered and summarized, students then aligned their findings with those of the other groups before answering a series of questions: What do graduate students mention their needs are across the quadrants? Were there outliers (or data points that did not fit in any cluster) in there? What themes were repeated in all the quadrants? What themes only exist in one quadrant? What insights can you derive from these data? What gaps exist in our understanding? This activity encouraged students to learn the importance of empathizing with an audience and practice their own empathy skills.

In the empathy box activity, student teams examined the contents of a virtual box containing a variety of virtual objects. Pictures were taken of real objects with the backgrounds removed. Then, the individual pictures of the objects were placed into a program called H5P that allowed students to move them about and inspect them more closely by clicking on them to make them larger. Students had to closely examine the contents by pulling them out of the virtual box, and think about why the owner may have chosen to save the different objects. They were then asked to generate information about the owner of the box by creating stories, making connections, and trying to understand the owner through their collection of objects and artifacts. They were instructed to determine how they might connect with that individual if they were their student. Students learned to find ways to connect with an individual based on exploring things they felt were meaningful to their lives and memories.

Each of these activities was usually completed in the classroom; however, moving them online allowed students to continue with the practice when in-person meetings were not possible. While the interactions with the objects were now two dimensional and no paper post-it notes were utilized in the activities, students still could practice empathetic design and skills development in an online environment. Replicating authentic, experiential activities in the virtual environment allowed students to continue to learn and practice key skills to help develop an empathetic mindset that were clearly seen in their subsequent course projects.