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Watching television soap operas may not be the ideal approach for useful learning in a regular school classroom. But in the United Kingdom it is becoming a preferred way of teaching, using a TV soap developed in Kenya for an East African audience.
Soaps, by their storylines and drift, are usually developed with passive entertainment as the main goal. The soap opera produced in Kenya and aired in TV stations across East African countries is not much different. But with little value addition, it is now being used to teach students as part of UK school curriculum.
It is a novel way in which popular media is used in enhancing education, using its popularity to get attention of students who easily get distracted by sometimes-difficult subjects.
Makutano Junction, the TV drama series, documents life in a typical Kenyan suburban community. The subject of love, relationships and conflict within family and society is the main stuff of the show, as well as the intrigues that make a fascinating soap opera. Events of every-day life are told in a simple entertaining way, using artful storytelling, suspense and video images that resonate with the common life and living.
There are women who gossip at the marketplace, those who work hard in their small businesses so as to fend for their family, the adulterous who wreck havoc in families, and the cunning who always want to have their way. These are the aspects that make the story real, tackling issues that are common to humanity.
Most importantly, though, is that they are in a form that teachers and students would be able to draw lessons from it without putting much effort. Some of the subjects tackled include career choices, sexuality and teenage relations, living with HIV/Aids, human rights, alcoholism, community, pregnancy, among others. Many of these issues are those that students are likely grappling with at their age, and are able to relate to easily.
Makutano Junction is easily a hit in Kenya, with a regular audience of over 6.5 million viewers, according to Mediae, the series production company. In Uganda, it is even more popular and is ranked top in a survey conducted by a regional research company. The survey, quoted on Mediae website, indicates the drama has beaten "even local, long running and much loved shows."
Though the drama project was started as a way of reaching isolated rural audiences, it has become a showcase for global learning. It was successful in its East African 'home' but the producers wanted to export it as an experiment for innovative learning in UK schools. So, with initial funding from UK's Department for International Development (DFID), a pilot project took off in 2008.
Makutano Junction was also made available on the internet as a online resource. The soap opera was important for teachers across the UK facing the challenge of embedding global learning across the curriculum. "We've created an exciting range of teaching materials to help teachers meet these targets," Mediae company also notes on its website.
A teacher is quoted in the UK's Guardian report saying "secondary schoolteachers have a lot of specialist expertise, but sometimes they need a way in. Makutano Junction provides this link between the global dimension and subject areas."
Kate Lloyd, the head of Mediae's office in the UK, indicates that so far "we have taken (the drama project) to about 150 secondary schools in England and we had great success."
The 'online' library of Makutano Junction is a goldmine in terms of resources. It delves way in, providing the 'global dimension link' that teachers would be looking for. This is done through a compilation of written lesson/themes drawn from the TV episodes that are linked with actual extracts of the soap opera. Additional related materials, for example on African issues are provided These resources are grouped under Teacher Area, which teachers can download and use to deliver global dimension within curriculum subjects like English, Geography, Citizenship, Religious Education, drama, Media Studies, and art classes.
Students are encouraged to take a survey before and after getting into the Makutano Junction Programme. The questionnaire is embedded on the online resource website and is aimed at establishing the efficacy of the TV drama towards education.
Sample questions for students include:
"List five words that come into your head when you think about Africa.
"What words would you associate with Kenya?
"What do you think is the biggest killer in Africa?
"What do you think millennium development goals are?"
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the responses from students make for interesting reading:
"We expected Kenya to be really poor, but there are skyscrapers and that as well.
"I thought the men would dress in dresses, but they don't – they wear trousers. Some wear jeans, like us.
"I didn't expect there to be market stalls, like in Eastenders."
It is evident from the survey that Makutano Junction reduces the general stereotype and misinformation about global issues. After watching the drama series, there is a marked reduction in associations made to Kenya in reference to misery, violence, drought, poverty and perhaps significantly, wildlife. On the other hand, association with positive terms like Nairobi, farming, democracy, happiness, beauty and safari increase.
The responses also indicate that students enjoyed watching the shows, and irrespective of the fact that TV drama was used for learning, the entertainment value is not lost at all. In fact, 90 per cent of the students say they enjoyed as more than just a new form of learning.
Makutano Junction won the 2010 New Media Award in the UK. Judges at the One World Media Awards said it was hugely refreshing to come across a "brilliant idea, brilliantly executed"
Of course, the series was a big hit even before, in the classrooms. The judges noted that "Makutano Junction brings the voices of the developing world into the classroom so UK children can view them as peers. The result is innovative, charming and engaging and the judges feel it stands out as a model that everyone could learn from."
It was perhaps not mentioned in the citation that Makutano Junction is a traditional media form, but it is certain that innovation and value addition made it win in the new media category. In the UK, Makutano Junction TV soap opera was no longer the singular old format that East Africans watched on TV sets, but rather transformed into a multimedia online resource that blends text, images and videos, making it more systematic and palatable for use in secondary school curriculum.
The lesson was that focus had shifted not just beyond the traditional media role and how it disseminates information to the audience, but also beyond traditional education systems, beyond schoolbooks.