Teaching Empathy in Digital Learning Environment

STE Standards for Educators

3 – Citizen – Educators inspire students to positively contribute to and responsibly participate in the digital world.

3a. Create experiences for learners to make positive, socially responsible contributions and exhibit empathetic behavior online that build relationships and community.

When students and teachers are bewildered by the endless mass of streaming content, the average person spends upwards of 10.5 hours a day in front of a screen instead of socializing in person. How can educators help students develop empathy in the digital learning environment and are there any digital tools available for educators to use in teaching empathy? 

What is Empathy? 

Empathy can be divided into two parts with different meanings. Emotional empathy is the natural ability to share how another person is feeling. For example, we get happy when a friend shares her recent engagement, or feel sad when others are crying. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, takes more conscious effort. It’s putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, or understanding why someone is feeling sad without yourself feeling the same way(Noonoo, 2019).

Both empathy and cognitive empathy increase a person’ ability to communicate a relationship and help people to cultivate shared experiences and bring essential understanding to our differences, such as kindness, helpfulness, collaboration, authentic connection, happiness and joy are all byproducts of empathy expression. (Howell, 2017)

Teaching Empathy in Digital Learning Environment 

According to Howell(2017), research has shown digital stimulation associated with screen time can damage an area of the brain called the insula. This area is directly related to empathy development along with other brain activities such as executive functioning. All of this is hugely important to the brain functions and happiness of our students. He also believes that empathy requires time and attention to active listening and thoughtful speaking, empathy development is deep and sustained eye contact, especially in times of conversational discomfort, and it cannot exist without vulnerability either.

In order to understand what others are feeling, one must first find that experience within himself/herself and have the cognitive and emotional ability to bridge that feeling and enter a relationship to access empathy (Howell, 2017). Can these learned skills be taught virtually? 

Virtual reality has been used successfully in exposure therapy, a psychotherapy approach that systematically introduces triggers to help overcome phobias and trauma. Can virtual simulations teach a human skill like empathy which requires understanding and sympathizing with real people? 

“When virtual simulations attempt to build more empathy, they do it by presenting scenarios that are often emotionally fraught, stressful or challenging—and maybe a little dramatic. The goal is to provoke an emotional response in participants and give them a taste of what that situation can feel like from someone else’s perspective”(Noonoo, 2019). A simulation software from a company called Kognito, which specializes in creating one-on-one virtual conversations, and they believe that virtual humans dynamically react to individual choices in simulation will remember those dialogue choices going forward. In addition, when a digital character has a memory, they start to feel more alive, and create a better opportunity to practice empathy skills. (Zeiger, 2019)

In addition to using virtual simulations, there are steps to teach empathy in our digital learning community according to Stanfield (2019). 

Step 1: Assess your Student’s Empathy Skills

• Emotional sharing

• Empathic concern

• Perspective-taking

Step 2: Teach the Language of Empathy

Step 3: Teach the Skills

• Self-Regulation

• Connecting with Others

• Sympathy for Others

• Cognitive Empathy & Perspective Taking

• Reading Faces, Tone, and Other Communication Subtleties:

Step 4: Put it in Context, one example is having the variety of guest speakers that are available remotely. Kids can meet people from different backgrounds that they might not otherwise be able to meet and see new perspectives.

Step 5: Practice Makes Perfect by helping kids get a chance to feel what it is like to be in situations they haven’t yet encountered by using virtual reality. 

However, Noonoo(2019) also points out that simulations are also an imperfect substitute for in-person interaction, because when people are talking with each other, behavior can change. The confidence we feel in a controlled scenario might not carry over to a real life situation.


Noonoo, S., (2019). Can Virtual Simulations Teach a Human Skill Like Empathy? EdSurge. 


Howell, M., (2017). Developing Empathy in the Digital Age. edCircuit

Zeiger, B., (2019). Strengthening Empathy Skills: From Digital to Reality. Kognito.

Stanfield, J., (2019). How to Use Technology to Help Students Develop Empathy. James Stanfield.