Can virtual reality simulation help address racism, discrimination, and microaggressions in teaching?


New training will educate faculty to recognize and react to implicit bias and microaggressions through a VR simulation.

Tackling systemic challenges such as racism and implicit bias in teaching and learning requires innovative approaches and is integral to George Mason University’s academic mission. The College of Health and Human Services is investing in virtual reality (VR) simulation to help address racism, discrimination, and microaggressions in teaching. Bethany Cieslowski, the College’s simulation coordinator, is developing an evidence-based training program to educate faculty to recognize and react to implicit bias and microaggressions using VR simulations. 

The training will teach interprofessional groups of faculty within the College to mitigate the harmful effects of racism and discrimination by discussing the nature of microaggressions, applying strategies to react to microaggressions from multiple perspectives, and demonstrating confidence and commitment to act. The pilot initiative will initially focus on College faculty and expand to include staff and students. 

Cieslowski is leading the training development along with the leadership team of the College’s Inclusive Excellence Working Group: Assistant Professor of Social Work Jeanne Booth, Associate Dean for Student Affairs Kim Holmes, Associate Professor of Global and Community Health Jhumka Gupta, and associate dean of Faculty and Staff Affairs Cathy Tompkins. 

“Immersive VR provides a unique platform, enabling faculty to experience microaggressions from different perspectives, including the receiver, witness/bystander, and the source, in a real-life context. VR offers the opportunity for deliberate, repeated practice required to gain the confidence and skills necessary to react to the negative effects of racist language and actions,” says Cieslowski. “Evidence demonstrates that active engagement provides a deeper understanding, increases learning retention, and builds confidence.” 

Participants will complete surveys pre- and post-training to measure the impact on participants’ mindsets, knowledge, and confidence in using the skills they learned to reduce and eliminate racism, microaggressions, and discrimination. 

“Based on knowledge from the simulation, faculty can develop course policies, practices, and learning activities allowing for discussions with students related to racism and microaggression in a safe environment,” said Tompkins, co-leader of the College’s Inclusive Excellence Working Group. 

This project is funded in part by an Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence (ARIE) Faculty Capacity Building Grant from Mason’s Stern Center for Teaching and Learning. The training is anticipated to launch in 2023 in the VR Simulation Lab. 

This training and other initiatives are being developed by the College’s Inclusive Excellence Working Group, which is working to create an inclusive environment that supports diversity, further values, and incorporates equity into all functions of the College.