By: Lizi Jones
Stanford University has gained repute in the last few years for its widely-respected online teaching platform, where it offers undergraduate-level courses on anything from cryptography to solar cells to formal logic. Now researchers and educators have added the fight against AIDS to the growing list of Stanford-based education tools offered for free, online, to the farthest reaches of the world, in the form of TeachAIDS. We have had the opportunity to see Piya Sorcar present the work of TeachAIDS twice in the last three months and are struck by how quickly their work has scaled.
TeachAIDS began as a graduate research project at Stanford in 2005, and stepped out as an independent NGO in 2009. It has since expanded to become an instructional tool used in more than 70 countries to teach any- and everyone from the level of individual health care workers to governments and international NGOs about the transmission, prevention, and treatment of HIV/AIDS.
The program uses personable avatars as professors whose task is to teach a twenty-minute HIV-prevention webinar. What makes this program different is the extent to which each webinar is tailored to specific regions around the world, from Africa to South America to India. Custom avatars teach their courses using local language and dialect and targeting issues specific to those areas and populations. TeachAIDS also spends a great deal of time and careful effort looking at taboos and stigma and figuring out ways to portray difficult subjects like intimacy in a way that is culturally acceptable. One of our favorite examples is the use of Bollywood film techniques and analogies to portray intimacy (see the photo illustrating the way the camera fades to birds in the tree instead of showing any actual intimacy between man and woman). In Piya's presentation she alluded to similar taboos around images of breastfeeding and childbirth in some cultures, something critical to the work Maternova does.
The upshot is that TeachAIDS communicates with its students in their own terms, making the messages more accessible to the widely-varying populations around the world afflicted by HIV/AIDS. The online platform means these messages can be changed or updated as research does, keeping the world at large more informed on the prevention, treatment, and eventual eradication of one of its most dire afflictions.
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