Listen to the Radio…..and Learn!
Interactive radio learning provides instruction and support for teachers in the world's poorest communities.
June 24, 2013 by Mary Burns, Escola Superior de Educação de Paula Frassinetti
9 minutes read
Photo: © Curt Carnemark / World Bank

Reaching the World’s Poorest Teachers via Interactive Radio Instruction

Technology is increasingly providing instruction and support to teachers in the world’s poorest places.  A quick global scan reveals an increasing variety of technology options to help teachers acquire basic skills, learn new instructional methods, deliver content and curriculum, provide “just-in-time” and “just enough” instruction, and share models of best practice.

One example is interactive radio instruction (IRI), an approach that uses one-way radio to reach two audiences (students and in-class teachers). The radio “teacher” orally delivers content and directs the in-class teacher to apply a variety of instructional approaches within his/her classroom. To get a much better sense of how radio instruction works, have a look at the video from India below:


T4 India IRI example from Education Development Center on Vimeo.

Based on the national curriculum, IRI uses a series of structured learning episodes in which the radio teacher prompts students to sing songs, participate in individual and group work, answer questions, and perform certain learning tasks. Teachers and students respond to these radio prompts, hence the term, “interactive.”

IRI’s relative—interactive audio instruction (IAI)—shares all of the attributes of IRI—in particular, its dual-audience, direct-instruction approach. With IAI, however, lessons are recorded onto audio tapes, MP3 players or CD-ROMs and played in class at a time of the teacher’s choosing. As a non-broadcast technology, inter-active audio instruction doesn’t have the reach of radio and is therefore not as cost-effective—the unit cost of IRI is slightly more than $1.00 per student. IAI, though, avoids inconvenient program scheduling or poor radio signals.

Teacher training is increasingly digital, but….

In a world and age in which teacher training is increasingly digital and multimodal, audio- based instruction is increasingly regarded as anachronistic because of its reliance on “old” analogue technologies like radio or CD-players, its audio-based nature, and its highly didactic approach. Though admittedly not à la mode, these three conditions are, I believe, a source of strength of IRI/IAI as a professional development approach, especially for teachers in the world’s poorest places.

Think about technology….

First, radio is still the most commonly owned technology in the world. In Africa, home to the world’s poorest teachers, radio ownership rates in some countries (e.g. Rwanda) exceeds 90 % (Winthrop & Smith, 2012). This degree of familiarity and ubiquity has three immediate advantages for teacher professional development:

  • Teachers need little training compared to other technologies, to use a radio
  • Radio’s reach means that it can deliver instruction to teachers in rural areas as well as urban areas, thereby narrowing the very common global urban-rural teacher divide when it comes to professional development. Its broadcast nature means that IRI can provide instruction to un- and under-qualified teachers, the bulk of whom (in Sub-Saharan Africa at least) reside in rural locations (See Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Unqualified teachers by location (Bennell, P. & Akyeampong, 2007)

chart for blog post

  • Because of its ‘one-to-many’ nature, designing for radio involves standardization of content which ensures a degree of equity. IRI students and teachers, no matter their gender or location, all receive equal access to the same instructional content.

Radio’s  ubiquity, reach, and relative ease of use have helped to make IRI and IAI effective modes of educational content and instructional delivery for teachers in the world’s most fragile and impoverished environments.  For example, my organization, Education Development Center (EDC), has used IRI to successfully provide in-service teacher training in post-conflict South Sudan. Perhaps the best known IRI program, OLSET’s English in Action, provided English language instruction to 52,000 teachers in South Africa over a 16-year period (OLSET, 2010).

Next, IRI’s ‘orality’ fits well in cultures that have strong oral traditions. Besides being a culturally familiar and engaging medium, the aural nature of IRI has a practical advantage: It means that teachers don’t need the literacy or technical skills, as would be the case with other media (for example, the internet), to access content and instruction.

Think about learning.....

Finally, IRI is didactic and directive (programs often tell the teacher what to do, say and write) and its highly scripted nature is not appropriate for many teachers.  But for teachers who are not completely literate, who lack fluency in the language of instruction, and who have no formal educational training, IRI has an important compensatory value. It helps teachers with their own literacy and assists them in grasping some of the fundamentals of the national language.

In Guinea, for example, teachers shared how IRI helped them understand the distinction between the French prepositions “sous” and “sur.”  IRI helps to redress the lack of formal training or the weaknesses of an under-developed teacher pre-service system. It provides in-class, on-the-job teacher training to the 19 year old with little more than an école normale diploma or the community member who is chosen by the village to “be” the teacher.

Listen to a community teacher in Madagascar talk about how IRI provided her with in-class support:


Most of all IRI and IAI have proven successful in shifting teachers toward instructional practices that involve some degree of collaboration, communication, and play. Because it is so behaviorist, didactic and uniform, teachers are often able to internalize a core set of practices and implement them with fidelity, and eventually, automaticity— key ingredients in the sustainability of any innovation.

I’ve witnessed this in Guinea and India, where months after funding for IRI programs had ceased, teachers still conducted the same active learning routines and techniques they learned via IRI—minus the radio and programming. The teachers had “memorized” IRI’s instructional techniques, and through many months and years of sheer repetition, they had internalized these approaches. They could, they told me proudly, teach in interactive ways—even without the radio or CD-player.

For more information on how teachers perceive the benefits of IRI/IAI, watch a teacher in Colombia share (in Spanish) how IAI helped improve her knowledge of ELL.

This is the first of a three-part series on technology-based teacher professional development in developing countries. The next post will examine web-based teacher professional development and the final post cell phones for teacher learning


Bennell, P. & Akyeampong, K. Teacher motivation in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. (2007). Brighton, UK: Department for international Development. Retrieved from

Open Learning Systems Education Trust. (2010). OLSET. Retrieved from

Winthrop, R. & Smith, M.S. (2012, January). A new face of education: Bringing technology into the classroom in the developing world.  Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute. Retrieved from

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