Strategic Empathy  in Military Education: An XR Approach


By Chryssa Themelis and Stian Kjeksrud

Empathy is not a universal concept because it depends on motivations, goals (Zaki, 2014;. Keysers & Gazzola, 2014; Cameron, 2018), and context  (Zaki & Cikara, 2015). Therefore, it is a crucial soft skill linked to leadership, medical education (such as the project: Keep calm and carry on: Virtual reality helps medical and nursing students manage agitated patients with empathy -National University of Singapore)  and military education ( Military education in Extended Reality – “the XR-project” – Forsvarets høgskoleNorwegian Defence Uni  ).

War is “a fundamentally human endeavour”. The war in Ukraine grimly highlights how civilians remain the primary victims of war. To better protect civilians from unlawful violence, military officers must better understand the human domain  (ADP 3-0,2019). Understanding the threats to civilians in an area of operations requires a curious mindset. The definition of empathy in Army Doctrine Publication 6-22 (2012) is: “Identifying and understanding what others think, feel, and believe”. This strategic empathy could help military officers prioritise how, when, where and for whom they could , and safeguard their personal well-being from . Recent literature reviews in the field  (such as Weisz  & Cikara, 2020) emphasise the role of empathy in sustaining coordinated action. Coordinated action focuses on empathetic concern, perspective training and experience sharing that promote prioritisation against burnout or polarisation. Thus, military officers could learn to analyse threats and prioritise preventive policies that protect themselves and civilians.

The Master’s degree education at the Norwegian Defence University College/Command and Staff College (Forsvarets høgskole/Stabsskolen) provides students from all branches of the armed forces with varied knowledge, personal development and military skills at the joint operational level. They develop into future general staff officers through theory, practice, and reflection. In this frame of mind, Colonel Petter Lindqvist and Associate Professor Stian Kjeksrud have created an educational tool using Extended Reality technologies, which combines 3600 videos, dialogues with avatars and VR-map activities that aim to trigger empathy, reflection, and insights through peer collaboration. Through the research and development program Military Education in Extended Reality, Lindqvist and Kjeksrud have partnered with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology – (NTNU/IMTEL Ekaterina Prasolova-Førland, Leif M. Hokstad, and Chryssa Themelis) to develop a theoretical framework for learning with the help of two Norwegian industrial partners – Fynd Reality and  –huset that have been essential in developing the content and technology solutions.

The Extended Reality (XR) design was developed to support the teaching of the threat-based approach to the protection of civilians to post-graduate military officers. The threat-based analysis aims at understanding threats to civilians in armed conflict to increase the chances of protecting them from violence. The threat-based approach builds on a decade of research on perpetrators of violence and military operations to protect civilians. It includes eight generic scenarios that provide a systematic way of understanding threat variations, pointing toward what military forces can and cannot do to protect. The analysis focus on the motivation of perpetrators (why are civilians targeted?), the type of actor committing the violence (states, non-state armed groups, communities, and individuals), strategies and tactics, capabilities, and outcomes (without military intervention). The application incorporates immersive experiences with the innovative use of different types of embodiments. The pedagogical approach is built around Smart Learning Environments (SLEs), threshold concepts theory  (strategic empathy) and peer learning.

The XR-project’s smart learning environment (SLE) is a hybrid learning system that provides learners and other stakeholders with situational awareness while achieving learning outcomes due to the intelligent tools and techniques employed. The feedback,  guidance, and rich media with access to information, real-life and on-the-go mentoring continuously enhance the learning environment (Singh & Hassan, 2017).

A threshold concept can be considered a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot work on decision making ( Meyer & Land,2003). Strategic empathy is such a concept. Helping military staff think about protecting civilians as a priority and not merely as “something you do” to follow the law of armed conflict (avoiding collateral damage). A more profound and empathic understanding of threats to civilians can help military officers meticulously plan for the most effective military responses with the most significant protective effect.

Strategic empathy as coordinated action with peers entails all the components of the ‘learning loop’. According to Harvard   Review, peer-to-peer learning fits naturally with how we naturally learn new skills. They describe what is called a Learning Loop:

People gain new skills best in any situation that includes all four stages of what we call the ” Learning Loop”: gain knowledge; practice by applying that knowledge; get feedback and reflect on what has been learned. Peer-to-peer learning encompasses all of these and enhances mindfulness. Mindful learning is a form of strategic empathy that help the individual be sensitive to the context, motivation and perspectives of oneself and others before coordinated action.

Preliminary insights from the experiment indicate that the prototype program significantly increased students’ understanding of threats to civilians compared to more traditional teaching methods. The peer groups quickly established situational awareness of threat variations with the help of empathy (cognitive, emotional, and motivational) and collaborative peer learning processes. Moreover, the students enriched the prototype design by adding their professional experience to the discussion. Evaluation of the project’s effectiveness in promoting learning outcomes, virtual embodiment and mind-shift will be available shortly.


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Stian KjeksrudStian Kjeksrud is an Associate Professor at the Norwegian Defense University College/Command and Staff College, heading its research program on UN peace operations. He studies the utility of force to protect civilians from violence in war. Currently, he is developing new EdTech-tools to improve learning in higher military education. Before his academic career, Kjeksrud served as an officer and soldier in international operations, including Afghanistan, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Lebanon, and worked as a police officer in Oslo.

Chryssa Themelis is an educational researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway. Her research involves technology-enhanced learning and digital innovation. Her latest book is Pedagogy of Tele-Proximity for eLearning. Bridging the Distance with Social Physics.

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