Piya Sorcar develops interactive software to educate children about HIV

Can technology help surmount the major barriers to effective learning of HIV/AIDS — cultural and sociological?

This question took founder and CEO of TeachAIDS Piya Sorcar, on her journey, being chronicled here.

Ms. Sorcar decided that it could, and set to developing interactive software to educate children on HIV in a way that is sensitive to the country's cultural mores. Today, the National AIDS Control Organisation has master copies of her work being distributed nationwide. The software has also been distributed in States, where other forms of sex education are banned, she says.

“In 2005, while I was doing my master's [followed by my Ph.D.] at Stanford, I came across several reports noting that India was the next hot zone for HIV/AIDS. We conducted our own Stanford Institutional Review Board-approved study among high school and college students in India, and our findings corroborated the previous research,” she says.

The software uses video, interactive menus and voiceovers to understand the issue. The simple tutorial voiced by Shabana Azmi and Shruti Hassan (http://teachaids.org/software) starts with “the premise that prevention is better than no cure.” While Ms. Azmi is the voice of the friendly doctor, Ms. Hassan is the young person looking for answers.

Fifteen complete versions will be available in a few months. The base curriculum, which de-couples HIV/AIDS education from the traditional sex education, is similar in all versions. “We take a biology-based approach to explaining the transmission of the virus. All the videos can be accessed for free from either our website or our YouTube channel. Anyone can download the materials or replicate them by emailing us at info@teachaids.org.”

The software can optimise learning and retention, regardless of the knowledge or comfort level of the educator. Where the educator is highly knowledgeable or has access to a medical or health expert, the software can be used as a supplementary tool to reiterate key concepts and messages. The animation can simply be played in the classroom to impart comprehensive and accurate knowledge to learners. “We have an entire team of world-class medical experts who have vetted the accuracy of the materials.”

The ‘Interactive' version allows users to interact with the animations through question/answer sessions.

This option is ideal for individuals or small groups operating the animation on a computer. The “Linear” version plays the animation straight through. This is ideal for projecting the animation to groups.

“Through in-depth interviews with young people and educators I realised that there were many images, words, or actions which are not acceptable in cultures. We got around those taboos by using euphemisms or indirect illustrations, which our research indicated were culturally acceptable — yet still, unambiguous and clear,” Ms. Sorcar explains.

The earlier tests, which used pictures from the traditionally-used AIDS education materials, revealed that the students were highly uncomfortable with images depicting various modes of transmission. For instance, a relatively small reduction in the amount of skin exposed on a picture of a woman breastfeeding greatly improved comfort. After building the revisions into the animations, a field study in India revealed that 98 per cent of young people felt comfortable with the software.

Various schools in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa and West Bengal are already using this.