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University of Oxford researchers work with UK schools to co-design an online platform called iContact by which young people can interact with different ethnic groups in animated virtual environments with the aim of reducing prejudice.

Image credit: Playing on the computer by John Watson via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

In March of 2015 the Social Integration Commission (SIC), a major independent enquiry into the UK’s increasing diversity, published its report.  In it they warned of increasing segregation in Britain and proposed thirteen steps to tackle the issue.  To foster integration, the SIC suggested that, 'Every school should provide opportunities for their pupils to interact with children belonging to different ethnic groups and income backgrounds'.

Reconciliation efforts in the Middle East and experiments by Professor Miles Hewstone and his team have shown that computer-mediated contact reduces prejudice. This reduction in prejudice in turn fosters intentions to meet people outside their own ethnic community offline.  Professor Hewstone together with Professor Anthony Heath and Dr Sandy Schumann are developing an online platform called iContact by which students from segregated schools in the UK will be able to interact with different ethnic groups in animated virtual environments.

The platform will be co-designed with teachers and students from the Oldham Academy North and Saddleworth School. The project team will also promote the programme to policy makers with the aim of introducing it in other schools.  They will present a final report to the Social Integration Commission, the Department for Education, and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

They hope that, through computer-mediated contact, students will become more comfortable with people from different ethnicities and feel more engaged with their community, reducing students’ anxiety and prejudice towards other ethnic groups. The students will then serve as multipliers by sharing their experiences with friends and family, which could help to change their attitudes as well and encourage them to engage in more real face-to-face contact with people from other ethnicities.

With iContact, schools will gain a tool for meeting social integration targets as well as a practical solution to the problem of ‘parallel lives’ in segregated communities. But more importantly, it could lead to increased social integration in the wider community and less conflict between ethnic groups, to the benefit of society as a whole.

Miles Hewstone is Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford.  Anthony Heath is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Oxford and Professor of Sociology at Manchester University.  He is also Director of the Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College, Oxford. Sandy Schumann is a post-doctoral researcher at the Oxford Centre for the Study of Intergroup Conflict.

 This project was funded by Oxford's ESRC Impact Acceleration Account.

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