Cultivate social-emotional learning in the metaverse

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“I can’t live this lifeless life anymore. Screens, lectures, messages, emails, notes, deadlines, expectations, this room, this laptop, religion, restrictions, health, family, feelings, theories, equations, numbers… and me, the reasons are many. Thank you and sorry for everything.

These are the last words of a young student from a top institution in India before committing suicide. He was a young man in his prime who should have been happy and enjoying life.

Was it a one-off incident? The statistics say categorically no. The World Health Organization (WHO) states in its 2021 report that approximately 700,000 people worldwide commit suicide each year, making it the fourth leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds globally.

A mental health report released by the WHO in 2017 found that among children aged 13-15 in India, 25% experienced feelings of depression and 8% showed symptoms of loneliness.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the “pandemic” of mental illness around the world. An OECD study, published in May 2021, reports an increase in anxiety levels in the general population in many countries.

For example, the UK saw an increase from 19% to 39%; the United States from 8.2% to 30.8%; Australia from 13% to 21%; and New Zealand from 6.1% to 15.6%. These numbers illustrate how much mental health issues have escalated during the pandemic.

We seem to have forgotten a simple universal law of humanity – we are social and emotional beings and relationships form the central fabric of our lives. Our social interactions and unspoken trust in each other’s actions can trigger emotional reactions.

Although the virus itself is a serious physical illness, its greatest impact has been on our mental well-being, causing an increase in loneliness due to the loss of face-to-face contact. Adults and children could no longer share emotional experiences, losing the joyous exchange of emotions that occurs when we come together as a group.

Social connections are essential to the human experience. For example, most students report that schools are social-emotional spaces first and learning spaces second.

What we need to learn from this experience is that our learning spaces need to be transformed. They should be about relationships first and acquaintances second. Management of mental health first and then cognitive.

Sanity in the Metaverse

So what does this learning environment look like in the metaverse? The metaverse heralds the arrival of a unique, universal, connected, online and virtual world. To foster emotional resilience in this online world, we need to create social and emotional spaces. For humans to learn effectively, adapt, and thrive, they must feel socially connected and emotionally secure.

How do we enable this in the metaverse?

1. Improve attention span

Life in the metaverse will bring with it information overload riddled with distraction and confusion. Unlike in the past, when students received most information from textbooks, which could become outdated very quickly, today’s information is continuously updated and available at the click of a button.

Knowledge will only continue to travel faster as technology advances. However, using multiple learning modes, including sounds, motions, flickers, and colors, can serve as a distraction.

This was highlighted in recent research which stated that the availability of “hands-on” devices led to increased distraction and a reduced ability to think, remember and regulate emotions. This has helped reduce attention span in both children and adults.

To navigate this ‘busy’, ‘noisy’ and ‘distracting’ metaverse, learners must learn and practice ‘attention regulation’. Attention regulation is the ability to focus or concentrate on the activity or task at hand. A balance of exploration, choice, and meaningful interactions helps cultivate needed attention skills.

There must be tasks in the metaverse that allow children to explore their environment and provide the opportunity to discover new objects and experiences. For example, an activity that involves finding hidden objects in a digital image can help attract attention. Regulating attention as a learning skill in our educational systems, starting in early childhood, will help cultivate attention span by inhibiting distractors.

2. Regulate emotions

Interactions and learning trigger feelings and emotions. It is necessary to develop emotional awareness, to pause and notice the emotional signals of the body. The practice of pausing – the conscious allotment of space and time to look within and notice physical sensations like a “rapid pulse”, a “trembling leg” or a “sweaty hand” is a must for The well-being.

When things seem to be falling apart, it helps to breathe. Evidence suggests that by counting our breaths and centering our breathing, we calm our minds. Whether it’s difficult conversations with co-workers, family, friends, teachers, or students, the ability to regulate emotions and attention is a proven wellness practice for alleviating anxiety, accompanying fear, anger or despair.

For example, it is important to teach children to pause or stop when they feel angry or afraid and to recognize physical feelings.

Feeling a pit in your stomach or a racing heart are physical symptoms that often accompany intense emotional reactions. At such times, a friend; application ; mindful trained practice such as counting numbers, breaths or tiles on the floor; time out or pause; or walking can all be good ways to physically distract from concentration and allow some of the intensity of the emotion to diminish.

3. Develop empathy

Empathy drives emotion and is a powerful force that connects human beings. It can be evoked through stories and verbal exchanges. Stories stimulate brain networks that make emotional connections.

Dialogue facilitates and intensifies the sharing of knowledge, ideas, words and emotions – whether discussing cultural diversity in physical spaces or learning in the classroom. Stories can be invoked through multiple modes easily provided in the digital world, including spoken, written, video, comics, virtual reality, and even gaming.

This variety of story delivery has the ability to meet the needs of all learners.

Recently, an online interactive digital game-based course was designed in the Metaverse. It was developed around a text-based chat interface game called Bury Me, My Love and was used to introduce students to the global refugee crisis.

The course took advantage of the game’s pause points and incorporated explicit activities such as discussions, reflections and podcasts to highlight points that required acknowledgment from their own and migrants’ perspectives.

This helped learners discover and develop empathy towards migrants and motivated them to act for positive change. We hope this learning experience will transfer to the real world in terms of behavior change.

The course also allowed teachers to facilitate classroom discussions, creating a blended or hybrid learning model.

4. Cultivate compassion and gratitude

Acts of kindness activate joy and reward networks in the brain and release endorphins and oxytocin – brain chemicals that provide comfort and security and restore joy and hope. Learning, whether face-to-face or in the metaverse, must emphasize the cultivation of compassion and gratitude.

Being compassionate in the metaverse is about proactively making changes. It’s about taking positive action to ease pain and suffering and to help others – no matter how small – because it’s small actions multiplied a billion times that will change the world.

5. Promote community

The biggest lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the importance of global ‘connectivity’. The metaverse offers great opportunities to expand learners’ awareness of the connected world we live in. The online world is already seen as connected because it is a “web”, but the physical world is often seen as a siled, physically separate and distinct world.

Learning in the metaverse, which uses digital dialogue, multi-player play, etc., offers the opportunity to recognize the value of a connected world that must be protected and preserved by all, for all and for the coming. It offers the potential to build global citizenship as it provides a space for young learners to connect across geographic distances.

The metaverse is here to stay, and we can’t let learners disappear into it. Instead, we need to embrace a mixed reality of the physical and virtual worlds. In this mixed reality, the challenges will be to maintain a full awareness of when we are in the metaverse and when we are in the physical world and to remember the importance of navigating both worlds in an emotionally resilient way .

Living in this mixed reality would require building our regulation of attention, supported by a skill set of emotional regulation, empathy, and compassion. By placing social and emotional learning at the center of the metaverse, there is an opportunity to not only bridge the virtuality-reality gap (that loss of awareness of the invisible line between virtuality and reality) but to foster community and kinship that can lead to behavioral change in the real world.

Nandini Chatterjee Singh is Senior Project Officer, Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP), UNESCO, and Anantha Duraiappah is Director, UNESCO MGIEP, India.

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