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Jul 21 2019 - 08:00 PM
Michael Auerbach
Michael Auerbach is the co-founder of Kinful, a K-12 social-emotional learning program where students produce their own virtual reality videos. Auerbach has spent over nine years founding, directing, and scaling social justice programs, dealing with issues such as gender equality in West Africa, juvenile justice in Baltimore, and educational equity in New York City.

How did your education and previous professional experience shape your current work at Kinful?

Kinful initially started out as an intercultural exchange project. As an international relations/foreign policy major and Peace Corps volunteer, I wanted to provide the opportunity for students across the globe to be immersed in another culture without having to leave the confines of their classroom (especially for those students who may not have the means or ability to travel).

Once VR became more accessible, my partner and I decided to send VR cameras around the world for students to film short "day in the life"-style videos to capture a more personal glimpse of life in other countries. We later learned that the outcomes being reported after students produced and watched these VR videos (increased empathy, self-awareness, and social awareness) were directly aligned with social-emotional learning (SEL) competencies. Because of this, we began to build a holistic SEL program incorporating these types of student-created VR videos.

What has been the response to Kinful from learners and educators who use the platform?

Probably the most common response we get from our school partners is the high level of student engagement taking place due to Kinful’s experiential model. With Kinful, students are not simply discussing SEL; they’re experiencing SEL by participating in highly engaging challenges where SEL competencies must be utilized in order to achieve a goal.

Let’s take a look at self-management, for example. Impulse control, stress management, self-discipline, etc., are all skills that help students regulate their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Kinful uses the game Get Suspended, where students take turns hanging wire from a structure without toppling it over, to create a safe and approachable context in which students experience a stressful situation. In order to achieve the goal of completely building the structure, students must exhibit self-management skills in order to overcome their stress and remain focused.

Students then unpack that experience as a group through targeted reflection questions that prompt a discussion of how they managed their emotions and actions. By framing the reflection around a shared experience, it keeps the commentary impersonal but still relevant to individual strengths and needs. Jointly reflecting on shared experiences is a key component in fostering SEL competencies.

What broad trends do you think will have the most impact on learning in the years ahead?

I believe we’ll see experiential learning continue to grow in education. On top of that, giving students the opportunity to be creators will hopefully become more prevalent in the years ahead. When students are empowered to be creators of content, they get to unlock their potential in newfound ways. Kinful takes this to heart by incorporating student-created virtual reality videos into our programming.

Filming VR videos is incredibly vulnerable. When students get in front of the camera to share stories important to them, they’re developing self-awareness skills (recognizing personal values) and responsible decision-making skills. For example, some of Kinful’s student-created VR films identify problems and solutions around issues of ethical responsibility like bullying intervention.

Similarly, viewing VR films is an incredibly immersive experience, making student engagement, often a legitimate challenge, much easier to achieve. When students put on a headset, they are stepping into a story being shared with them by peers from around the world. They will find connection in the familiar and discover meaning in what they perceive to be different. Students then begin to develop perspective-taking skills, resulting in newfound levels of relationship skills (communication), self-management (emotional control in response to a story), and social awareness (empathizing with the storyteller).

What, if any, are future plans for Kinful?

At the moment, Kinful VR videos are asynchronous. In other words, all of our videos are pre-recorded then uploaded into headsets. As VR technology evolves, we hope to offer real-time VR exchanges where students feel like they’re sitting in another classroom around the world partaking in an activity with a distant counterpart.

Image: Courtesy Michael Auerbach

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