What is the difference between empathy and compassion?

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand another person by putting ourselves in their metaphorical “shoes.” Compassion, on the other hand, is an empathy that is applied – it goes further, propelling someone to action after they feel empathy.

The intensive use of technology, especially via social networks, has changed the way and the quality of how we relate among ourselves and, therefore, impacts empathy. Educators and researchers have systematically pointed out the risks arising from decreased empathy due to the increased use of social networks. On the other hand, we also know that the internet has been a very efficient laboratory for new forms of communication.

The challenge we face today is the extent to which technology itself can be a part of the solution to the very problem it has created. How can we use technology to develop, rather than impede, empathy?

Technology can impede the development of empathy

According to VICE journalist Kaitlin Phillips, in the inspiring text “The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World,”

Children aged 8 to 10 years spend an average of 6 hours a day in front of screens. Those aged 11 to 14 years old spend roughly 9 hours on devices. Most adults stay connected for around 10 hours every day.

University of Notre Dame researcher Sara Konrath noted that college students in 2010 showed 40% less empathy than their peer counterparts in 1979. This gap is only widening.

Several studies show that the use of social media has propelled us to take on a “gamified” perspective on life and conversations, where the objective of the “game” is to win or dominate the conversation or discourse. It is, in general, an environment that does not foster changes in opinion or diversification of perspective. Winning “likes,” triumphing over the arguments of the others, and ruling the virtual conversation is the goal.

On the podcast “Conversations with People Who Hate Me,” Dylan Marron conducted a remarkably interesting experiment: inviting people who had offended him on social media for a recorded conversation. The dialogues were preceded by an agreement assuming a minimum set of civilized rules. In most conversations, the participants showed surprising respect and understanding about points of view different from their own, although maintaining possible and natural disagreements. In other words, direct human mediation and some previously agreed rules can alter the relationships between people and the fruits of the dialogues.

Fostering empathy in the classroom

In education, the focus on helping students to develop empathy is not new. The development of empathy has been a core part of the classroom mission for centuries. The contemporary challenge is how to connect the school learning environment with new virtual spaces to accelerate the learning curve on the importance of respect for others, expanding the notion of community and solidarity

There are already several applications that have been successful in this mission, some of them already incorporating novelties such as Artificial Intelligence and Multiple Reality (Virtual, Expanded and Mixed) to foster elements of increased empathy and emotional engagement among the participants.

By using learning analytics tools and collaboration technology, teachers can weigh student progress, both in their empathy levels and in their traditional education. By getting to know the student, understanding and respecting where they are in their learning journey, and allowing them to get to know other students better through virtual and in-person collaboration, we can build more intuitive learning trails. Enabling hybrid learning (making simultaneous use of digital and in-person learning modalities), flexible learning (adaptable to different contexts and educational purposes), and personalized learning (each one learns in a unique way) are all critical to this mission.

The next generation of empathy

Multiple realities have enormous potential to allow students to experience emotions, foster dialogue, and promote engagement. In a special way, it can promote activities that stimulate emancipatory formation and the ability of each student to decide his or her own beliefs. However, the emphasis is not only on imparting knowledge or establishing beliefs, but expanding each student’s own perception of the world beyond his or her own opinions or beliefs. As educators, we control, to a certain extent, the environments, scripts, and preliminary approaches to education, however, by adjusting the dynamics of our activities to reflect diverse points of view, we can actively stimulate empathy in education and in the next generation.

In short, there is no profession that can or should dispense with empathy and compassion. Technology, through education, proves to be an indispensable and strategic ingredient to expand these characteristics in any citizen.

explore how Cisco is transforming education

Stay tuned for an exciting new #EducationNow blog next week. In the meantime, read more Global Leaders Forum perspectives here.

next stop: Crossing the digital divide


Ronaldo Mota

Scientific Director of Digital Pages

Brazilian Academy of Education