Pioneers in Digital Learning

The Use of Radio to Broadcast Lessons

Jente Rosseel, Co-Founder

07 January 2018

The best way to find direction for the future, is by looking at the past. More than a hundred years ago (late 19th/early 20th century), our ancestors started to look into ways in which functions and parts of education can be automated and scaled to the masses. Their exploration gave rise to a more than 100 year old journey sewn with many innovative and valuable experiments. In our blog series: “Pioneers in Digital Learning”, we take a look at some of these experiments and how they evolved/what we learned from them. To start the series, we go all the way back to the invention of the phonograph and radio. Those inventions kicked off a new age of experimentation with technology in education. An age of experimentation in which we still find ourselves today.

With the rise of new technologies, come new opportunities for experimentation with education. In 1886, a smart German named Heinrich Hertz wrote a paper called “Strahlen elektrischer Kraft”. In that paper, Hertz was the first to prove that the famous Maxwell’s equations were accurate. He came up with a practical proof that James Maxwell, a smart Scotsman, was correct when he hypothesised that electric and magnetic fields travel as waves, rippling through space at the speed of light.

As it sadly goes with most of the people that will be highlighted in this series, Hertz and Maxwell died before seeing the practical implications of their work come to life. But the practical implications were huge! By the beginning of the 20th century, their work resulted in the invention of the radio. The first public radio broadcast happened on Christmas Eve 1906 in Canada. Without the principles and foundations Hertz and Maxwell hypothesised and proved, we would have no mobile networks, no satellite communication and none of the many other applications we depend on so much today.

Radio took off like a storm and started its conquest to cover the world. It was not long before people started to look into how to use this new technology for educational purposes. With that and with the invention of the phonograph 10 years earlier by famous inventor Thomas Alva Edison, our current age of experimentation with education technology had begun. It was not long before people started to record and play back lessons, and started to broadcast them over newly formed educational radio stations. Those broadcasts increased access to education significantly, sending lessons to the masses continuously over long range. Up until these stations started to broadcast, many children in very remote areas would have no access to education in their direct area. They either had to go to boarding school or be home schooled. The first new forms of mass and distance education were a fact.

“There is another function to which audio and video broadcasts contribute little or nothing. It is best seen in the productive interchange between teacher and students in a small classroom or tutorial situation.”  (B.F. Skinner, 1958)

As we mentioned, recording and broadcasting technologies transformed education. They brought an unseen increase in accessibility to education, and an enormous decrease of the cost to get educated. It was not long before researchers jumped onto the development and researched the impact of this technology in education. Notable amongst those is B.F. Skinner, one of the researchers responsible for popularising many fields in psychology and pedagogy, amongst which educational technology. In 1958, Skinner studied the use of media such as radio and video transmissions for education. Having done so, he raised the concern that these technologies cannot be a complete replacement for education. The problem is that they only serve one of the functions of a teacher or traditional education. “Radio and video transmissions present the material to the student and, when successful, make it so clear and interesting that the student learns.”  (B.F. Skinner, 1958) They have the sole function of presenting knowledge and theory to the student; the sole function of Content presentation.

However, teaching is much more than content presentation. As Skinner duly noted, “There is another function to which audio and video broadcasts contribute little or nothing. It is best seen in the productive interchange between teacher and students in a small classroom or tutorial situation.” (B.F. Skinner, 1958) There are a lot of other things that occur in a learning scenario, which can’t be covered without a duplex (two-way) or multi-plex (e.g. teacher and all students in a classroom) communication channel. Without those elements in the learning process, learning becomes inherently less efficient. Over the course of these blog series, we will come across ways in which some of these other elements of the learning process have been digitised (or attempted to). Just one example of an element which is lacking, is assessment with immediate feedback. We handle this topic in the next post, when we talk about the story of Sidney L. Pressey.

Even when other technologies started to take over, forms of education over radio still exist today. Australia was the first to take education over radio to the next level. In 1951, they founded the School of the Air. The School of the Air uses a duplex radio network (which was invented in Australia), to connect students and teachers with each other. Teachers sitting somewhere 100 miles away from their students would use radio to broadcast a lesson to their students in real time. All students had their own pedal radio back at home, with which they could connect back and broadcast back to the teacher. By doing so, the students came to sit next to their teacher over radio. They could answer questions of the teachers, and engage and ask questions back. Allowing such teacher-student interchange which is one of the functions Skinner talked about earlier.

The School of the Air still exists, providing education to children living across the far stretched and sparsely populated outbacks of the continent. Their technology now connects all students and the teacher together, creating a virtual classroom over radio. Students can hear the feedback of other students and engage not only with the teachers, but even with their peers. The school is now also putting a lot more emphasis on other digital technologies and eLearning.

And that brings us to the end of this first post of “Pioneers of Digital Learning.” To me it offers peace of mind that radio, one of the first early pioneers bringing forth the current EdTech revolution, still has its place in the ever growing pool of modern technologies today.


Skinner, B. F. (1958). Teaching machines. Science.

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