- Fiji, Pacific Islands
Non-communicable diseases or NCDs are a huge problem in the Pacific Islands, resulting in more than 70% of deaths across the region. A few years ago, we were asked to see if we could use storytelling and creative technology to help. The result was Beyond the Stars: an innovative health education program bringing together film, virtual reality, storybooks and interactive games to inspire healthy eating habits in school children across the Pacific Islands.
Take a look at the statistics and it’s clear that NCDs like diabetes, obesity and heart disease are a huge problem. Often caused by preventable factors such as diet and physical activity, more than 36 million people worldwide die as a result of NCDs each year. But if we were going to make a real difference, we’d need to understand more than the numbers.
We worked with international experts across education, nutrition and behaviour change, and with people on the ground in Fiji to develop the program into something that was both educationally sound and culturally appropriate. Indeed, in the two years it took to create Beyond the Stars, we spent the equivalent of three months on the ground working with local experts, teachers and children to better understand the problem and how best to address it.
As we embarked on this collaborative process of design and development, we also started planning how our education program might foster actual change. From the very beginning, we worked with monitoring and evaluation (M&E) experts to develop a Theory of Change. This evaluation framework would help ensure whatever we created had the highest chance of real impact.
This process involved defining our three main goals for the Beyond the Stars program. Achieving these goals would not only demonstrate the potential impact of our approach to NCDs, but also give us invaluable insights into how this kind of creative technology program could scale into the future. With these goals in mind, we could develop the rest of the program.
Beyond the Stars begins with an animated film. Shown at the beginning of the education program, this film introduces children to the mythical story world. With bright, energetic visuals that extend Pacific Islands traditions of oral storytelling, the film frames broader ideas about health and nutrition within a magical, fantasy world for children to explore.
Within this world, children learn about how, long ago, their ancestors lived in harmony with magical guardians who knew the secrets of nature. They also learn that over time, those secrets have been lost and both the land and the people have become sick. But hope is not lost – one day, a brave young hero may rediscover the guardians’ secrets and bring health and happiness back to the land.
Next, children are invited to explore the magical world of Beyond the Stars through a virtual reality (VR) experience. Here, children are asked to become the hero of their own story. This choice, to accept their quest and take control of the narrative, marks the beginning of their personal learning journey.
The virtual reality experience gives children a vital experience of immersion and agency. This helps foster an emotional connection with the story, heightening their engagement with future learning as they progress through the rest of the education program.
At the end of their virtual reality experience, children are presented with their own copy of the Beyond the Stars storybook. Appearing in both the virtual and real worlds, the storybook helps children to realise that what they learn in the fictional world could also affect their own lives.
Throughout the storybook, children are invited to explore different aspects of the story as they learn about healthy eating, physical education and the environment. Supported by example lesson plans, the Beyond the Stars storybook combines curriculum, national policies and global recommendations into a vibrant learning resource that is both easy and fun to use in the classroom.
The final piece of the Beyond the Stars education program is the mobile game. Played on smart devices, this interactive, story-driven game uses tangential learning to provide a fun, child-driven approach to education. This approach helps encourage children to actively participate in a more personal and effective learning process.
Throughout the interactive game, children must work to keep their village healthy while also travelling to other islands on their quest. These new islands feature mini games that allow children to explore educational content from different angles in a practical yet safe environment, reinforcing and personalising their learning.
With each of these elements completed, it was time to test. To do that, we launched a pilot program with 12 teachers and 300+ children in 9 primary schools across urban, rural and remote areas of Fiji. Supported by extensive teacher training, the pilot saw teachers and children use the full Beyond the Stars creative technology program at least twice a week for five weeks.
This pilot was backed by a comprehensive measurement and evaluation process that included child surveys, interviews with parents and teachers, data collected through the interactive game, and reviews from our own team. Having this wide array of different datasets would give us the ability to cross-check results, and ultimately have more confidence in our findings.
At the end of the pilot, once the data collection and analysis was complete, we saw some fantastic results. Looking at the quantitative child surveys, we found that children were not only more able to identify between healthy and unhealthy foods, they were also significantly more likely to want to eat healthy foods. These results were supported by qualitative surveys with both teachers and parents.
From the qualitative interviews, we found that children appeared to have experienced a shift not just in their attitudes towards healthy foods, but in their behaviours as well. While teachers reported a noticeable change in what children were eating at school, parents also suggested that the program had inspired them to rethink the kinds of foods they were eating at home.
And finally, our approach of using story and creative technology was found to be a promising new way of teaching and inspiring healthy habits. Indeed, many teachers reported that Beyond the Stars was not only more effective than their usual teaching methods, but that their school was already using its approach in other subjects and year groups.