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Understanding the Syrian Conflict: Blending Virtual Reality and Virtual Exchange

What if we could take students to visit war-torn nations like Syria? What would their reactions be? What would it mean for global understanding and cooperation? In January 2016, Global Nomads Group, is launching a Virtual Reality Lab to provide the education community with these types of experiences. Chris Plutte, Co-Founder & Executive Director of Global Nomads Group, explains what he has seen when you merge virtual reality with virtual exchange.

by guest blogger Chris Plutte 

A Los Angeles high school student finds herself on a busy street corner in Aleppo, Syria. She looks around and takes a few tentative steps. She can hear the sound of a young girl singing. A father casually stands with his son on the sidewalk. The scene feels average and peaceful, normal and alive. Until it's not. There is an explosion. The scene goes from black to grey.  Now there is little to see, but the young boy is flat on the ground. Screams have taken the place of the young girl's song. Life is no longer as it was.

11148604_10152826114023437_5419278831414149124_n.jpegThe student removes her virtual reality headset. Along with her classmates from View Park High School, she is visiting the virtual reality lab of Nonny de la Peña, at University of Southern California. "To say it is immersive is an understatement," she says of the virtual reality experience. "It's an amazing concept, a humbling way to see how things are."

These students are experiencing a blend of virtual reality and virtual exchange that teaches them to see the world with new eyes. Following the virtual tour of a Syrian town at war, the View Park students sit down for a face-to-face video conference with a group of Syrian refugee students living in Amman, Jordan—a place they've never dreamed of visiting before. Will they have anything in common?

Challenging Assumptions
As the students interacted their preconceptions were challenged. "I thought US students do not normally face obstacles as we do, but they face some issues nearly the same to the ones we have," said one Syrian student, "I found that we have many things in common."

"We are brothers," added one Syrian student, "no matter what we believe in or look like."

Lauren Childs, a teacher from View Park shared that, "With the lives these [Los Angeles] kids live every day, they have had to learn to mature and grow up at a very young age. This virtual reality experience touches on something deep inside them that they can relate to. They have tremendous empathy."

On the heels of their virtual reality experience, the South Los Angeles students brought to the conference an immediate warmth that was palpable. "I am interested in helping to better myself and you guys by the end of this," one South Los Angeles student shared. Throughout the conference the students spoke about loss, how they study and learn through all their challenges, and how they hope for life beyond their current circumstances.

The students found that not only hearing what each other had to say, but also just seeing one another face to face during the video conference said so much. "That camera is the best way to reflect your feelings," a Syrian student shared, "whether you are feeling amused or bad, it can describe that way you feel precisely."

One Syrian student admitted, "I thought that if we were able to see them in-person, they will start to show off, since we are Muslims or Syrians. I was shocked that all my thoughts were negative towards them. But my thoughts changed when I heard their comments and observed the way they think of the Syrian refugees."

Through the video conferencing, "they got the true message," explained one Syrian student, "that we stood up for our rights. And what is happening in Syria is all about injustice, and they are fighting life to live with dignity."

The Future of Education
As the director of a global education nonprofit, I have facilitated hundreds of connections worldwide between students from cultures in conflict. I have seen a pattern to each exchange.  Prior to their experience, most students have heard only the worst stories about their cultural counterparts through news and media. Their counterparts are often like celebrities, but of a threatening nature, who could somehow reach through the computer screen and hurt them. As a result, students often show up arms crossed ready to defend themselves when the exchange begins. As they are able to share personal stories and describe what they experience every day, their body language shifts. Defenses drop; laughs are exchanged. Barriers disappear; connections are created.

This humanizing experience is made possible by the powerful blend of virtual exchange and virtual reality. This is the future of education.

Watch a video of the students' experience:

Connect with Global Nomads Group, Chris, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Image courtesy of Global Nomads Group.

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