Givology Staff's Blog

The Untapped Potential of Edutainment for Achieving Development Goals

by Brent Harlow
In previous posts for this series—which reviews current research on education in the developing world to better understand how effective different interventions are— I have covered studies that look at how altering specific “school factors” (or variables that can be controlled within the school) can affect education outcomes. However, while there are many things that can be done in the school to improve student success, there are also many “non-school factors” affecting student achievement.
In this post, I look specifically at research suggesting that mass media entertainment might be used to transform the attitudes, beliefs, and aspirations of the poorest families and communities in the developing world, and that such campaigns might complement programs and practices carried out in schools themselves.
Since [url=http://www.betsylevypaluck.com]Betsy Levy Paluck[/url] was recently awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” for her research examining how mass media and interpersonal communication can be used to change social norms, especially in the areas of prejudice and conflict reduction, there has been even greater interest in the field. But this use of mass media is actually several decades old, and can be traced back (in part) to groundbreaking work done at Televisa in Mexico in the 1970s.
[b]Telenovelas with social impact: in Mexico and beyond[/b]
In the 1970’s, the television producer Miguel Sabido (at Televisa in Mexico) had a moment of insight after discovering the psychological theories of Albert Bandura. The latter proposed that people can effectively learn “second-hand” through the experiences of others, especially those with whom they closely identify. Sabido immediately understood how this “social cognitive” theory could be applied to his own work as a television producer. He said, in a [url=http://www.mediadiversity.org/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=330]later interview[/url], that he was struck by the idea that “people could learn effectively from the lives of media characters [and that] soap opera characters, if carefully designed, [could] teach” (emphasis mine).
Sabido went on to develop a method of “differential modeling,” which he used in each of the telenovelas he produced at Televisa. In its most basic formulation, the Sabido method relies on the use of three character-types: one does what one should not do (the “bad” character), one does what one should do (the “good” character), and one undergoes a transformation that culminates with the decision to choose the positive behavior or course of action (the “transitional” character). The transitional character is meant to stand in for the audience, and is supposed to share their real-life struggles and challenges while also modeling ways of overcoming these obstacles. (Eliana la Ferrara discusses this in detail in [i]Mass Media and Social Change: Can We Use Television to Fight Poverty?[/i] Working Paper No. 564. Milan: IGIER—Università Bocconi, 2015.)
Thus, Sabido’s conviction—and the conviction of others who have followed in his footsteps—was that the telenovela could affect change by acting as a fully immersive medium allowing audiences to identify with transitional characters and learn to see themselves and their own possibilities in a new light. The telenovela would effectively expand audiences’ ability to imagine a wider range of life options, and shift their attitudes and preferences when it came to making important choices in the areas of health, education, finances, etc.
Sabido’s work at Televisa in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s addressed a variety of social issues, from adult illiteracy to problems surrounding the country’s growing population of “street children” in the 90’s. By the time “Los hijos de nadie” or “No one’s children” was produced in 1997, there was already a growing number of organizations willing to back social impact telenovelas. UNICEF partnered with Televisa for the production of “Los hijos de nadie,” but they were not the only organization interested in the use of mass media to address social problems and achieve development goals. In a country in which telenovelas are so popular—it is estimated that in 2015, 61.5 million Mexicans, or 48% of the population viewed them [url=http://arenapublica.com/articulo/2017/06/22/6147/telenovelas-televisa-](Link to source)[/url]—it has become clear to many that the form provides a cost-effective way to reach into millions of households and influence attitudes and behaviors in a way that could potentially complement the entire spectrum of development goals. Indeed, telenovelas—and mass media in general—have been used for this purpose in various countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, making “edutainment” a truly global phenomenon precisely at a time when television ownership has been expanding throughout the developing world.
But those who have long recognized the potential of using mass media for this purpose are increasingly asking the question: what evidence do we have that it actually works, and what sorts of approaches are most efficacious?
[b]Measuring the impact of edutainment[/b]
In May of 2016, the World Bank’s research group dedicated to development impact evaluation (DIME) launched a research program specifically dedicated to entertainment education (DIME's 2017 annual report, entitled [i]Impact Evaluation to Development Impact: Transforming Development Through Impact Evaluation [/i]can be found online). The program is being carried out in partnership with Televisa as well as Rede Globo (in Brazil), MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation, the Children’s Film Society of India, and UCLA’s Global Media Center, and a number of other organizations. It aims to look at how mass media can be used to bring about changes in perceptions, norms, and behaviors, especially in the areas of reproduction, health, gender equality, violence prevention and education.
DIME has already completed several evaluations, and the results have been promising. Researchers found that a movie intended to improve financial literacy and increase savings among entrepreneurs in Lagos had a significant positive impact. They discovered that the drama MTV Shuga led to a drastic decrease in risky sexual behavior and gender-based violence in Nigeria. And they found that radio spots aimed at getting people to adopt solar panels in Senegal were extremely effective.
Several more DIME studies are either ongoing or planned, and will lead to an even greater understanding of the potential role of edutainment in a variety of areas. They will evaluate the effectiveness of edutainment at reducing teen pregnancy rates (in Brazil), stopping sexual harassment in public spaces (also in Brazil), reducing bullying in school (in Mexico), changing the aspirations of young women (in India), increasing school enrollment, retention, and completion rates (in Nigeria), and preparing young children for school.
Beyond DIME, there are other studies showing that edutainment can have a significant impact in a variety of areas. In her 2015 report entitled [i]Mass Media and Social Change: Can We Use Television to Fight Poverty?[/i](cited above), Eliana Ferrara includes a review of the scholarship to date on “the use of entertainment media programs for achieving development goals.”
The author reviews several studies and finds that relatively low-cost entertainment media can have a significant impact on fertility preferences, gender norms, migration, and social capital. One study she reviews—M. Cheung’s “Edutainment Radio, Women’s Status, and Primary School Participation: Evidence from Cambodia” (Stockholm University working paper, 2012)—looks at the effects of community radio programming in Cambodia on issues pertaining to education and women’s empowerment. The author finds that the programming has positive effects on children’s school attendance, as well as on women’s decision-making powers, attitude toward domestic violence, and son-preference. Another study—P. Kheefer and S. Khemani’s “Mass Media and Public Service: The Effects of Radio Access on Public Education in Benin (Policy Research Working Paper Series 5559, The World Bank, 2011)—finds that exposure to community radio increased parents’ investment in their children’s education and increased overall literacy rates among children in Benin. A 2012 paper—E. La Ferrara, A. Chon, and S. Duryea’s “Soap Operas and Fertility: Evidence from Brazil” (American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 4[4], 1-31)—studied the impact of Rede Globo’s telenovelas on fertility rates in Brazil. The authors found that these programs—which feature lead female characters with relatively few children—had an impact on women’s preferences when it came to ideal family size, and led them to choose to have fewer children, at least insofar as this choice was theirs to make.
[b]The future of edutainment in the education sector [/b]
After reviewing these and many other studies, La Ferrara concludes that edutainment can be a cost-effective and wide-reaching tool for promoting development goals. As more studies are published in the next couple of years, there will likely be an increased understanding of how mass media might be used to reach into households and shift attitudes and preferences vis a vis education, and change important “non-school factors” affecting children’s ability to be successful in classrooms throughout the developing world. Changes in attitudes, beliefs, and norms in health, gender equality, and education in the community at large might, in this way, complement and reinforce the important work being done inside these classrooms. Indeed, many of the programs currently being evaluated by DIME address the very issues that Givology partners—especially those running life-skills and health training programs—take on from within the school or classroom environment.
To take just one example, Givology partner Solar Meninos de Luz (located in Brazil) has long recognized the importance of getting communities invested in the education of the students, and creating strong bonds between families and school. One way they have sought to achieve this is through their “Parent School” program, in which parents are invited to the “Solar Theatre” one Saturday every month to view videos and movies and hold discussions with professionals at the school in order to create greater harmony between the families and the school, and ensure that students are receiving the support they need to achieve their educational goals.
Or, going back several years, Givology supported a community theatre project for Shining Hope for Communities. They would dramatize stories of girls who had empowered themselves and risen above the various obstacles confronting girls living in Kenyan slums.
But edutainment has not only been used to form bridges between schools and the students’ families and communities. It is being experimented with inside the classroom as well. As mass media becomes increasingly pervasive in the developing world, and provides important frames of reference for students, it seems likely that teachers who are able to integrate that experience with classroom instruction will be more effective. DIME currently has studies underway that look at how the power of technology and entertainment might be brought into the classroom and used to create novel approaches to achieving educational goals.
These studies, as well as others, are sure to increase our understanding of how edutainment might be used most effectively—both inside and outside the classroom—to make progress toward an array of development goals in the years to come.

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