For over 80 years it’s been quietly delivering formal and informal learning to millions worldwide, especially the poor and marginalised. Far from being an old technology it is now transforming itself through podcasts, digital and internet radio.
Radio is a broadcast medium and so has several practical, educational advantages:
· has huge geographic reach
· reaches very large numbers of people
· audio is cheap to produce
· audio is cheap to transmit
· radios are cheap
· local languages can be used
· can be self-sustaining
Formal learning, where radio is used on its own or is integral to a blend of distance learning materials that deliver formal courses, has been delivered for many decades. Unsurprisingly, it has long been used In large, sparsely populated rural areas, where schooling is difficult to organise, such as Australia and in most developing countries. Radio remains the most popular and accessible form of educational technology in Africa.
International Educational Systems has taken radio into marginal populations, such as refugees, nomads and those who simply cannot afford to go to school. Women have also been reached in some societies, where schooling is impossible or difficult, for example the Somalia Distance Education Literacy Programme (Somdel) supported by the BBC Worldwide Education Trust, where 70% of those who passed the course were women.
However, much radio in rural areas is used directly by schools, as it can deliver consistent and high quality content. Radio has been of particular use in health education, especially HIV/AIDS. Farming and food distribution has been taught in 39 African countries through Farm Radio International.
There has been radio delivered teacher training in Mali and training for health and education stakeholders in Sudan. One of the features of many of these initiatives is their delivery in local languages and their sensitivity to local cultures. In some cases, such as the Sudan Radio Services, radio time has been sold to pay for the educational services making it truly sustainable.
However, one of the criticisms of radio education is its focus on outside originated content, abstracts life skills and a lack of practical vocation content, especially farming, as the majority of children are the sons and daughters of farmers. Cheap wind-up or solar powered radios are now widely available from developers such as The Freeplay Foundation. This gives radio a real edge over TV and computer technology. Typical target audiences are in the tens or hundreds of thousands, some in their millions.
Audio and learning
Audio also has several cognitive advantages in learning:
· listening is a universal skill
· note taking is easy
· imagination has to be used
· great for visually impaired
· easy to deliver in multiple languages
· good in language learning
· obviously essential for music
The use of the imagination is a fascinating point as it has been argued that this leads to deeper processing and higher retention in some subjects. The obvious downside is the lack of images and the fact that broadcast media are not under the control of the learner. The lack of control has been remedied by recording and podcasts have significantly improved the power of radio to teach and inform at the learner’s own pace.
A whole culture has developed around radio learning to include ‘listening groups’ and support materials such as comics and workbooks. In Australia, short-wave radio was used to transmit and receive between farmsteads and therefore among groups of teachers and learners, sometimes mimicking traditional teacher-classroom arrangements. Increasingly, for example in Zambia, we have seen radio’s power amplified by the supplementary use of iPods and mobile phones.
Radio is still used to educate in formally. The BBC’s R4 has over 10 million listeners a week and purely educational broadcasts, such as the highly academic ‘In Our Time’ have been running for years with many hundreds of podcasts now free on iTunes, covering science, philosophy and history. Radio has also been used, by the likes of the Open University and others for successful local advertising.
Radio and propaganda
Of course educational radio is not always worthy as it has also been used for propaganda. Major and minor powers still use radio as a form of educational colonialism. The Nazis were the first to see the totalitarian power of radio with Goebbels claim that, "radio will be to the twentieth century what the press was to the nineteenth". The Japanese used ‘Tokyo Rose’ and the North Vietnamese "Hanoi Hannah" against US troops and the Nazis Lord Haw-haw, against the British. The US has used radio for propaganda against many countries including Panama, Cuba and Iraq.
Radio and new media
Podcasting is the true heir to radio. To timeshift an audio experience and put it in the hands of the learner, gives them is convenience and control. Internet radio has given many access to distant radio stations and led to growth in stations with a very specific focus. Far from being a dead or dying medium it is finding new purposes and new channels.
Radio is scalable, in the broadcasting sense. It’s low cost and reach have seen widespread use, not only in the developing world but in developed countries like the UK, where radio has long been respected as a source of high quality educational content. Video is very far from killing the radio star.