Animation Without Borders: Mobile Cartoons as a Teaching Tool

Posted by MelissaUlbricht on May 14, 2011.
A team of scientists, animators, and educators are working together to create animated videos that can be sent and downloaded to mobile phones around the world. The animations can be done in any language, are targeted toward low-level literate learners, and convey methods to obtain safe water in Haiti or  techniques to farm effectively in Africa, and concepts such as value in a marketplace exchange.

This University of Illinois project is called “Scientific Animation Without Borders”, or SAWBO, for short. The project started about a year ago. As the team delivers the animations via mobile phone and other mechanisms, they also hope to deliver a more collaborative and bottom-up approach toward effective educational materials. spoke with university faculty and graduate students to hear more about animation, education, and mobile technology.

From Concept to Cartoon

The SAWBO team originally looked into the possibility of live action videos, but found the translated voice-overs challening; a live action video would require the team to re-film over and over for every language and translation.

Animation was the answer, said founder and university faculty member Barry Pittendrigh. With animation, the team could “get very technical ideas across in a very clean way,” and it is easier to do voice-overs with animation. The animation format can also be easily understood by low literate learners, in their own language, he said.

For the last two years,  the SAWBO team had been developing the Sustainable Development Virtual Knowledge Interface (SusDeViki).  According to a university article, the SusDeViki website is a platform to “collect, review, organize and distribute educational materials designed to help subsistence farmers and small-scale entrepreneurs learn – and adopt – sustainable practices in different parts of the world.”

The site is an open access library of animations (and other content) that can be distributed around the world. All downloads are free. “You can go to the literature and you can find a lot of papers describing concepts that you can use to help people in developing nations. But the actual tangible extension of tools is really hard to find in any organized manner on the web,” Pittendrigh said.

The SAWBO team found that many of the tools that did exist were not aimed at lower-level literate learners. “Or even in some cases,” Pittendrigh said, the tools were not “appropriate for extension agents so they could easily take that material, learn about it, and take it out into the field.”

Watching Videos on Mobile

The primary delivery mechanism for the animation videos is via mobile phone.  Transmission occurs via Bluetooth transfer. In this way, videos can be shared by agicultural extension agents who download the file from the SusDeViki site and then to mobile users.

But “there are some areas where you have a fair amount of penetration of bluetooth technology and there are other areas where that has not occurred,” Pittendrigh said.

To this point, there are multiple mechanisms of  pushing the animations into the field, outside of mobile or bluetooth delivery. “We are firm believers that there is not any one single approach or one size fits all,” Pittendrigh said. “People will find creative mechanisms to share it that we havn’t imagined yet.” One group in Haiti, for example, requested a format and delivery that would work on television screens in hospitals and waiting rooms.

In some cases, the team works with partners who download and deploy the animations to farmer field schools and other organizations.

“Cell phones are just one mechanism of deploying the video,”  Pittendrigh said. He stressed that no matter, the delivery, the important thing is for the video to be open access, and free.

How are Translations Done?

For translations, the SAWBO team seeks help from the diverse student population at the University. Tololope Agunbiade, a graduate student with SAWBO, said, “when we want a video in a particular language, we look for students on campus that speak that language, and speak it well.”

The team has been able to find student help for all needed languages, even when it’s a particular accent or vernacular from a specific region. One group reached out to SAWBO and requested “street Swahili” in addition to the more formal Swahili video that was already available. In many cases, such requests are completed within the country, then the MP3 file is shared on the SusDeViki site so that the library grows and others may access it and share it via mobile.

The average length of an animation is 1 to 2 minutes, including credits. Julia Bello, also a SAWBO founder, explained that the animation has to be short so people do not get bored and they understand the message, but, “it takes a little while to distill the ideas down to a series of steps,” Pittendrigh added.

So far, there are four teaching videos and a series of new animations is in progress. In terms of language variance, there are about 30 to 40 videos posted on the SusDeViki site. Some videos have had thousands of views and downloads, while others with more specific or regional languages have had fewer downloads.

What are the Topics for the Animations?

The short term goal is to have an impact on educators and help them be able to demonstrate concepts with easy-to-understand and localized content. A longer-term goal is to develop a library of animations. “As access to video-enabled phones and bluetooth-enabled technology improves, more people can get the videos directly into their hands,” Pittendrigh said. Three general topics for animations are women’s empowerment, marketplace literacy, and agriculture and life sciences.

Some topics and concepts are driven by funding — an animation on increasing cowpea yield, for example, came from a specific agricultural USAID grant. In other cases, the team has gone out to the field, talked to extension agents and scientists in a host country, and asked: What is it that you teach that has impact? What do people want to know about? What type of messages can be put on a larger scale and deployed to more people?

The SAWBO team has also been contacted by other organizations and partner groups with suggestions for topics. Video topics come from a number of different sources, Pittendrigh said. “But high priority is given to something that we know is a technique or approach that will have impact on people’s lives.” An extensive peer review process on the SusDeViki site adds credibility to the concepts and content.

Production Costs and Challenges

While there is no set cost for a unique animation (it depends on length, complexity, number of characters, and more) the team keeps production costs lower by tapping into a volunteer translator network. For example, a complicated animation — one that is 2 to 3 minutes — can be done for under $10,000, although this includes a lot of staff time on campus. The animation itself is expensive, but once complete, it can be published in multiple languages for little additional cost.

One challenge for the team is to try to find ways to asses how people are disseminating and using the information, as well as whether or not the teaching tools are working to change people’s behaviours. Another challenge is inherent with SAWBO’s bottom-up approach: by nature, the content is customized for different social and cultural users, said SusDeViKI co-founder Madhu Viswanathan.

“It’s important not to overstate that this somehow is self-contained education,” Viswanathan said. “I think it can reinforce education and raise awareness.”

“This is part of the beginning of a discussion to develop a different avenue in the academic community where we can interact and develop more effective materials, in collaboration with the rest of the world,” Pittendrigh said.

Videos posted with permission and copyright of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees.

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