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Using virtual reality technology to tackle hate and extremism in England

The Open University has received funding to research, pilot and evaluate the use of virtual technology (VR) to combat extremism among vulnerable young people.

‘Virtual field trips’ are being created to help strengthen the social resilience of those aged nine to 11 across England considered some of the most vulnerable to hate and extremism.

Innovative project ‘Virtual Inclusion: Tackling Hate and Extremism in the UK Using Virtual Reality Technology’ is receiving nearly £100,000 in funding from the partnership between technology giants Google and the London-based think-tank Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD).

The project team is led by Dr Peter Bloom, who is Head of the Department for People and Organisations and co-founded the research centre REEF in The Open University Business School, and includes his departmental colleague Dr Evangelia Baralou and Professor Shailey Minocha, Professor of Learning Technologies and Social Computing in the STEM faculty.

Three immersive 10-minute 3D experiences will be created, based on the ongoing ‘virtual field trips’ research programme for Google led by Shailey. They will be shown at assembly time in a school in three English towns and cities – two Northern ones, rural Harrogate and more urban Lancaster, as well as suburban High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire – in the new school year from September.

Extremist organisations have been early adopters of new technology. Understanding this technology and demonstrating how it might be used for good is of immense value. We’re aiming to show the positive impact of virtual reality technology, and to instil a stronger sense of progressive values among these young people.

This innovative and exciting early intervention project is a really good way of promoting social inclusion and tolerance together with a positive message of anti-hate and anti-extremism. By creating a groundbreaking educational resource, we are tackling hate and extremism head on and hopefully reducing the influence of virtual reality technology as a potential hi-tech recruitment method in some susceptible communities.

Peter Bloom, Head of the Department For People and Organisations, OUBS

The research also involves the University-wide Centre for Policing Research and Learning (CPRL), who are identifying groups of young people most vulnerable to extremism across Britain, as well as the Children’s Research Centre which was founded by current OU Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Mary Kellett.

The OU will collaborate with another influential UK think-tank DEMOS, world leaders in social media analysis and evaluation via its CASM (Centre for the Analysis of Social Media) research centre created in partnership with the University of Sussex, to meet with key policy makers to publicise the research aims and outcomes.

Following this pilot scheme in schools later in the year, it is hoped to turn the ‘virtual field trips’ into an interactive 3D resource to be accessed for free on the OU’s OpenLearn platform.

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