Teenagers in Africa who watched MTV Shuga – a show about sexual health in Africa – were twice as likely to get tested for HIV, and had better knowledge on HIV transmission and were more sympathetic towards HIV positive people. These are the main findings from a study by Eliana La Ferrara from Bocconi University in Milan based on a study of the effectiveness of educational TV in Africa. We spoke with Eliana to find out about the research, why she thinks it was so successful, and what lessons there might be for eLearning.

What makes MTV Shuga work?

  • The story. Stories are much easier to understand than dry information. In fact, improvement in HIV testing was stronger among people who reported that they were more engaged with the story. The study also found that people who are immersed in a story are less likely to counter argue with the information presented. The lesson for eLearning is clear: try to tell a story rather than just simply teach.
  • Characters make all the difference. Characters that viewers can see as role models can strongly influence real life behaviour. 
  • And the production quality matters a lot too… Create characters that are authentic: “that are not just angels or devils. You need transitional characters, people that viewers can identify with in the good and the bad side”

How did Eliana and her team find these conclusions? They organised an experiment with young viewers in urban Nigeria – some watched MTV Shuga, while others watched another series – and reported the effects.

The takeaway: an effective story can create real change, even of deep-seated preferences and prejudices such as with HIV.

You can watch the interview here: