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Cell phones spur 'Scientific Animations Without Borders'

A University of Illinois initiative takes advantage of widespread cell phone use in the developing world to more affordably teach sustainability and health practices.

Researchers at the University of Illinois may not be unveiling a major technological breakthrough, but their "Scientific Animations Without Borders" initiative could inspire a paradigm shift in the world of health and sustainable development education.

The Scientific Animations Without Borders team at the University of Illinois. L. Brian Stauffer

Currently, this kind of education outreach tends to be both expensive and time-consuming, with researchers often flying great distances for several weeks or months to teach, say, Haitians how to avoid cholera exposure, often with minimal follow-up.

So a team of extension educators in Champagne, Ill., is developing two-minute educational animations viewable on cell phones (see example here)--a tool that could save money and time, not to mention improve ease of use as people can watch the videos over and over at their convenience. (About 1.6 billion people, or a quarter of the world population, live without electricity in their homes, but more than 70 percent of the world's cell phone subscriptions are in developing countries, according to this compendium of research and statistics in 2010.)

"This is a very different paradigm from some other current development projects, where U.S.-based educators are flown to another part of the world, interact with people in the field for a few weeks to several months, and leave," says University of Illinois entomology professor Barry Pittendrigh in a news release. "From a financial perspective, this is a much cheaper way to do international development."

The team works via e-mail with aid workers, farmers, entrepreneurs, and an animator to develop several initial videos that teach, for instance, how to treat water to avoid exposure to cholera or how to eradicate pests attracted to cowpeas, a staple in many parts of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.

After the content is approved by the participating team members, collaborators develop two scripts--the narration itself, and instructions for the animator on what to draw. The sound can easily be swapped out to change the narrator's language, dialect, and even accent; the video on treating water, for instance, is currently available in English, French, Haitian Creole, and more.

The team hopes to build an entire library of educational videos that can be e-mailed or streamed through the school's Sustainable Development Virtual Knowledge Interface (SusDeViki) Web site. Most topics will confront health or agricultural issues, such as dealing with malaria, lice, and bed bugs.