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Making Interactive Radio Instruction Truly Interactive with Community Radio and Mobile Phones

Revi Sterling

Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) isn’t sexy per se. It doesn’t employ cutting edge networking and caching technologies. It isn’t an Android application. It doesn’t even do social media. IRI may not have the whistles and bells that often support (and sometimes distract) in ICT for Development, but what it lacks in bling, it makes up for in effectiveness.

  1. It scales – one tape player, one moderator, many students.
  2. It engages – students’ attention spans are courted and kept.
  3. It reaches – thousands learn, in places where cellular coverage providers, electricity utilities, and governments have little incentive to provide service.

However, IRI lacks the “R” – the radio in Interactive Radio Instruction refers to the content, not the mechanism. Students listen to voices coming out of a rectangular device, much like a radio. Where does “real” radio come into IRI?

I have been self-taught with IRI, reading what I could on the subject by experts like Mary Myers and following EDC efforts – probably the most comprehensive programs to date. However, as many community-based organizations know, having the experts create an IRI initiative for a community is expensive (and likely worth the expense, unless the expense is simply out of range). Custom hardware initiatives, such as the Talking Book by Literacy Bridge, offer alternative ways to conduct IRI-based education.

Through my own work in trying to add interactivity to community radio, I’ve gotten good exposure to educational programming and have come up with some permutations of IRI that seem appropriate for communities and less expensive than “expert” IRI providers, even if the processes are not as clean. The traditional model of tape recorder, tape, and teacher starting and stopping the tapes is always fine and good, but limited in terms of extensibility, and collaboration with other schools and organizations that can be helpful in curriculum development and subject matter expertise.

Tapes and their players break. The interactivity is based on information dissemination, not information exchange, remaining a one-way communication system. While real-time two-way communication is a luxury in many communities, there are ways to truly make IRI interactive and to engage radio. It’s time to upgrade the I and R in IRI.

Using Community Radio

I’ve worked with elementary schools where teachers outsource teaching to CDs and IRI programs, even though IRI requires in-class moderation of learning modules. Lessons were often repeated, and learning became rote. As part of an unrelated project to build a closed WiFi network that connected wifi-enabled phones to the community radio station in town, the radio station saw the opportunity to offer interactive teaching, inviting subject experts and teachers come to the station to deliver lessons. Radio receivers are more common than tape players, and having educational content on the air gave the content cachet and visibility that won students and non-students alike to listen.

In addition to delivering lectures and lessons, the radio gave the WiFi phones to the students so that they could answer questions and take quizzes on air. Kids wanted to have their say on the radio, and parents wanted their kids to do better in school as it reflected well in the radio program. Classroom attendance grew, as did program complexity, using SMS and interactive voice recording systems as the community radio producers and teachers became more creative. This may not be a case that can be replicated in every community, but leveraging community radio stations is a great way to add a “real” R to IRI.

Using Mobile Phones

Similar to this, on another closed network in an Amazon educational scenario, teachers from the only high school in 400km used the mobile handsets to call other river communities on speakerphone. There was no community radio in this community, and some of the towns were a three day boat ride away. It used to be that the high school would send books and academic materials on these dugout canoes for educational use, but the river and rain more often than not ruined the texts.

Here, the original IRI model provided an effective blueprint from which to modify for geography and need. Students in other towns, facilitated by the primary school teacher or elder in the community, listened along with the lesson and were prompted to respond to the academic conversation a la conference call.

No Standard Solution, Many Options

There are natural and immediate critiques to both of these scenarios. In the first case, public praise may not be a great pedagogical model. In the second, the often-terrible connections between communities required the use of Citizen’s Band radio – one of the original ICTs! Certainly the content creation is the hardest part – this is a bit easier where English is a national language, but the judgment call needs to be made by someone much more knowledgeable about education that some of us general ICT folks are.

  • Is there a national curriculum standard to follow?
  • Does that standard have relevance to the students in this community?
  • If not, what supplemental information is necessary for community-specific education?
  • Does this content reach into vocational/health/development content?

I’ve found no dearth of content in education departments at colleges, where masters of education students are mostly willing to help for a lot less money than content experts demand – and they are also well-versed in curriculum standards and national tests, if that is an aim of the school using IRI for preparation.

Let’s also not forget richer media in the search to integrate community radio and interactivity into IRI. CD and DVD players are common in several communities, primarily in South Asia. Visual cultures seem like a natural fit for such projects as Digital Study Hall. The cost is relatively low, the scale potential is high, and the ability to show – rather than just tell – can’t be replicated by IRI or community radio. It follows one of the most effective models I know, the “see one, do one, teach one” model.

So let’s start leveraging all the ways to hear one, teach one, do more.

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