Could animation make education more accessible?

By Glenn Gillis

Despite the socio-economic inequality among SA’s youth, could animation offer a way to improve educational outcomes?
Studies have shown that 65% of people learn visually and it is certainly one of our most enduring forms of storytelling. From cave art to Greek theatre, humankind throughout history has sought to express ideas visually in a way that captivates their audiences.

It’s no different now, we still tell stories to entertain, to inform, to trade and of course to educate (the why). Really, it’s only technology that changes (the how). And animation brings stories and visuals together in a way that can cut across cultures and literacy levels, and forces us to distil the essence of a message, making it incredibly useful in the “attention economy”. 

Benefits of animation for education

Visual storytelling is incredibly effective in helping people understand and retain new concepts. A recent Australian study found that using animated videos boosted students’ engagement and interest, improved their understanding of the subject matter and enabled more flexibility for self-directed learning. In addition, the study found that using characters created more engagement and that students from a variety of demographic backgrounds stood to benefit when we use animation as part of the mix of tools.

Animation works because it encourages the suspension of disbelief, and it allows the audience to connect with the underlying stories and characters at a far more fundamental level. We know from psychology that behaviour change happens because of our relationship to archetype, and when the audience can relate (or not) to animated characters then we move beyond trying to convince people to do something differently or new because of only facts. 

While it can never replace the explicit transfer of knowledge, animation can teach skills in an implicit way. We can understand the subtleties and nuances in situations without having hundreds of specific rules and policies. We know right from wrong when we see it in a visual context, and it is the application of these fundamental principles rather than pure information, that drives true learning. 


Another major benefit of animation is that it can do this at scale in a way that is very cost effective. We’ll never replaced those teachers who with a great story and a piece of chalk can fire the imagination of young people, but we can extract, trap and make those stories visually engaging using animation, so that everyone, everywhere can share in the same journey of the mind. Then we can do this in multiple languages, and we can compress this to deliver it to mobile phones and elsewhere cost effectively (versus live action, for example, which is more data intensive).   

Harnessing animation in the SA educational context

Although there is certainly cause for teachers to have reservations about animation the arguments for it are compelling. Consider for a moment South Africa’s high smartphone penetration rate of over 80%, according to ICASA. Doesn’t that represent an ideal mass distribution platform? And given the fact that animation cuts across cultures, shouldn’t we be using this universal visual language to maximum effect?

It’s no longer fair to use antiquated arguments to deny learners the joy of learning through animation. If children themselves are watching Youtube videos on their phones, shouldn’t we be using the same technology to teach them the curriculum? What we really need is a new business model to fund the development of deeply researched, rich animated content that drives true learning and ultimately behaviour change, because the new definition of learning isn’t about what you know, it’s about what you can do that couldn’t do before.

For more information on business topics in the Middle East and Africa, please take a look at the latest edition of Business Chief MEA.

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