Stanford-affiliated nonprofit sets standard for AIDS education

TeachAIDS, a nonprofit organization founded at Stanford in 2009, targets its popular, animated AIDS education software at specific cultures. His most recent success: a national “TeachAIDS Day” in Botswana.


Courtesy of TeachAIDS

Young people watch TeachAIDS animations at a Rising Star Outreach health seminar in a leprosy colony in Tamil Nadu, India.

Botswana has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. In a country bombarded with billboards and television programs warning of the virus, more than one in five adults is HIV-positive.

The problem is not the lack of exposure to AIDS awareness campaigns. The problem, say the researchers, is “HIV fatigue” – people ignore the message and end up with a superficial and fragmented understanding of the disease.

To combat this attitude, the Botswana Ministry of Education contacted a nonprofit affiliated with Stanford. Teaching about AIDS in 2009. The organization produces interactive, animated AIDS education software that specifically targets individual cultures.

Former Botswana President Festus Mogae praised the organization from the start, saying TeachAIDS courseware “is rapidly becoming the standard in HIV and AIDS education.” Mogae is now a member of the TeachAIDS Advisory Board.

Three years later, TeachAIDS has made great strides in educating the citizens of Botswana.

The government of Botswana fully embraced the program, distributing copies to schools, hospitals and government departments, and on June 15 a ‘National TeachAIDS Day’ was held, featuring a speech by Mogae, celebrity performances. who lent their voice to the software. and public broadcasting of the program.

And although the disease remains an epidemic there, studies show that students who take the TeachAIDS program learn more and remember materials better than people who use other teaching approaches.

The program

TeachAIDS was designed by Piya Sorcar, a Stanford Visiting Fellow in Communication and Adjunct Affiliate at the School of Medicine, as part of her graduate work at Stanford. It started in 2009 as a partner of the university.

The software produced by TeachAIDS is translated into local dialects, respects taboos and customs, and features the voices of regional celebrities.

“Developing something that feels authentic, as if it comes from your culture, is crucial,” said Shuman Ghosemajumder, co-founder and president of TeachAIDS. “If he feels like it’s made by strangers, people automatically assume that’s not their problem.”

Botswana is now one of 72 countries using one of the 15 versions of the TeachAIDS software.

Optimizing euphemisms

In a world of over 33 million infected people, AIDS education is of critical importance. But the topic can be difficult to cover – not only because educators themselves may not fully understand the problem, but also because AIDS curricula imported from Western countries often address culturally sensitive topics.

“In India we have seen people receiving materials approved by their own government and burning them on the streets,” Ghosemajumder said.

Courtesy of TeachAIDSThe English version of the TeachAIDS software for Botswana women features the voice and avatar of cultural icon and radio DJ Jazzelle Kebakile.

The English version of the TeachAIDS software for Botswana women features the voice and avatar of cultural icon and radio DJ Jazzelle Kebakile.

During his graduate studies, Sorcar said, India was a particularly dramatic example of the problems with then-standard AIDS education programs.

“Despite a lot of information sent to India, the knowledge levels were extremely low,” she said. “It turned out that in India sex education had been banned in several states.”

When Sorcar, Ghosemajumder, Ashwini Doshi, former Stanford master’s student and Stanford professor of communication Clifford Nass started to develop the first TeachAIDS program, they sought to use what they called a “biology-based approach”.

The tutorials focus on the actual mechanisms of the disease – such as how HIV enters the body or the types of fluids it can survive in – giving students a more basic understanding of the steps they can take to prevent it. disease.

When taboo topics, such as kissing and sex, are brought up, the program approaches them with culturally appropriate metaphors and euphemisms.

In India, for example, where the kiss is not traditionally shown onscreen in movies, the organization drew inspiration from classic Bollywood films. When the time comes for a couple animated in the TeachAIDS software to kiss, they lean towards each other, but the camera then heads to a tree branch, instead showing two birds kissing. In other versions, such as programs in Mandarin and Spanish, the kiss is displayed directly.

Disney Levels

While the look of TeachAIDS – a two-dimensional cartoonish animation style – seems casual, it was also the result of extensive research.

“It was a very deliberate choice,” said Nass, who studies human-machine interactions. “Research has shown that this type of animation is just as effective at conveying information, and it is much less likely to trigger taboos.”

In fact, each new version of TeachAIDS requires a new round of careful testing to ensure that every piece of the software – the appearance of the avatars, the accents of the voice actors, the wording of the translation – is culturally appropriate.

New regional celebrities are selected for each release. In India, they are Bollywood stars. In Botswana, they are national radio figures and singers, such as Scar, the host of East Africa Idol and hip-hop artist Tref.

“All of these details become extremely important in making the software compelling,” Nass said.

The results are what Nass called “Disney-style acceptance levels” of the software – unusual for such a controversial topic as HIV – and effectiveness and retention rates that clearly exceed existing curriculum or media approaches.

“The educators have been very enthusiastic about this,” Sorcar said. “They can provide a full education without really knowing a lot about the subject.”

In their own hands

Now the software has taken on a life of its own.

TeachAIDS often has formal partnerships with government agencies and local non-government organizations. This was the case with Botswana TeachAIDS Day, organized by the Ministry of Education in collaboration with UNICEF, Stepping Stones International and other sponsors.

Elsewhere, unexpected parties have taken over AIDS education.

For the past five years, TeachAIDS users have ranged from the Indian military to a South African pastor who traveled from town to town in his car, burning CDs for schools. The animations were broadcast on television channels during World AIDS Day and on giant projection screens installed in rural African towns during the World Cup.

“There are stories of people who can use it despite the lack of electricity,” Sorcar said. “They will do something creative, like find a car battery and use it to charge a laptop computer they brought.”

By 2016, TeachAIDS hopes to have 150 versions in over 80 languages ​​available in over 190 countries – fully serving the regions that account for over 90 percent of AIDS cases globally.

Supriya Misra, TeachAIDS, (408) 462-AIDS, [email protected]

Max McClure, Stanford Press Service, (650) 725-6737, [email protected]

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