Making (radio) waves
World Radio Day reminds us of the power and reach of interactive radio instruction for students—and teachers
February 12, 2016 by Mary Burns, Escola Superior de Educação de Paula Frassinetti
11 minutes read
IRI in a Guinean classroom ©EDC

In the hyperstimulating,  hyperconnected  and multimodal technology world we inhabit, celebrating an “old” single-use technology like radio feels quaint. More so since radio and its variants - interactive radio (and audio) instruction (IRI-IAI), broadcast radio, two-way radio - have often been overlooked in the crowded field of more sexy distance-education technologies like online learning and mobile apps.

Voices carry

Yet, distinct from these technologies, radio has a rather illustrious history as a proven educational tool.

A glance at radio through the decades—from the BBC’s “wireless” education programs in the 1930s, to Schools of the Air in the 1950s and 60s that used two-way radio to reach children in remote “bush schools” in the Australian outback, to the first interactive radio instruction program, “Radio Math,” for Nicaraguan children in 1974, to ELA, EDC’s current audio- English-language program for students and teachers in Latin America—shows the power of the human voice to engage, entertain and instruct.

And radio, through the decades, has carried the human voice to the remotest and most difficult-to-access parts of the globe in a way that is educationally powerful, scalable and cost-efficient.

Turning on and tuning in to learning

Radio is the most widely used communications technology in many of the poorest countries of the world (Burns, Montalvo & Rhodes, 2010). The cost of a radio or audio player is often low enough to be affordable for most schools and using the equipment requires little to no training. Teachers simply “tune in” (in the case or IRI where programs are broadcast during the school day) or “turn on” (a CD player with pre-recorded audio programming) and the learning begins.

IRI and IAI have been primarily viewed as vehicles for student instruction. But their dual-nature structure—teaching teachers as they teach students—makes them powerful vehicles for teacher instruction, too.

Because of IRI’s broadcast nature, new teachers can be added to existing programs with low marginal costs. Because teachers can listen to radio broadcasts or audio programs during the school day, schools do not need to worry about paying for substitute teachers, paying teachers’ travel to workshops, or losing class time.

The benefits of IRI/IAI for teacher professional development include:

An Indian teacher uses IAI as part of instruction. ©EDC

An Indian teacher uses IAI as part of instruction


Just-in-time, just-enough, job-embedded professional development

Each audio episode is essentially a small, structured, in vivo teacher professional development session. Teachers and students react verbally and physically to prompts, commands, questions, and exercises posed by radio characters. Though the approach is often highly behaviorist, over time, through ongoing replay of broadcasts, teachers are often able to internalize and perform new instructional activities (Gaible & Burns, 2007).

Impact on teachers’ instructional practices

Because they are supplemented by music, text, games, and resources, IRI/IAI encourage teachers to adopt teaching strategies that engage and motivate students so they can better master specific learning outcomes. [Click here to hear more from a teacher in Madagascar on this topic.]

Improving teachers’ content knowledge

Though student learning has been the focus of most IRI evaluations, IRI’s impact on teacher learning has been extensively documented. Radio instruction has proved effective in offering basic content knowledge to teachers—particularly when combined with print and supported group study (Burns, 2011).  

Changes in teacher attitudes and dispositions

Anecdotal evidence of IRI’s impact on teachers’ attitudes is strong, with teachers reporting that IRI has increased their motivation, enabled them to overcome embarrassment at their lack of subject mastery, changed their approaches to teaching and learning, and made them more gender-sensitive in their classrooms (Anzalone & Bosch, 2005). 

Just-in-time support

The highly scaffolded nature of IRI/IAI means it can provide coaching and support to teachers in ways that other technologies cannot (Christina & Louge, 2013).  Further, unlike other modes of professional development, IRI/ IAI compensates for the learning curves associated with often fragile “new knowledge” with little degradation in the quality of instruction. For example, a teacher may learn how to use a science kit in a face-to-face workshop and then often “muddles through” application of the kit back in the classroom. But because it’s so directive, IRI and IAI programs can direct the teacher through application of this new learning in a way that mitigates the degradation of instructional quality.

But it’s not an elixir

Benefits notwithstanding, not all of the above happens as flawlessly or universally as I’ve described. Many teachers, for example, revert to rote instruction when radio program initiatives end. Like all technologies, effective IRI programs depend on the creation of high quality, engaging content, reliable equipment and infrastructure, and funding for capital and recurrent costs. 

Other issues—the low frequencies of many community radio stations, solar interference, broadcast schedules that don’t align with the school day, and failure to use the programs as intended—can neuter the potential of IRI.  Alternatives to traditional analogue broadcasts, such as satellite-based audio transmitted to satellite radio receivers or as data packets to computer receivers make programming especially expensive.

Using CDs, MP3 players, or cell phones addresses some of the issues around broadcasts while adding other challenges—poorly made equipment that breaks easily, the logistical complexity of getting equipment and CDs to schools in hard-to-reach places, storage, loss, theft, and increased marginal costs.

Back to the future

Despite these limitations, radio is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance—or at least a renewed appreciation. New media options—online radio, mobile phones, podcasts, digital radio, in addition to analogue radio— have increased radio listening figures in many parts of the globe (RAJAR, 2015; Pew Research Center, 2015) and burnished its professional development bona fides—making it not simply a “just-in-time” but an “on-the-go” form of PD as teachers can listen to podcasts as they commute to and from school, for example.

When Liberia’s schools closed due to the 2014 ebola outbreak, IRI programming (though EDC) was utilized to reach millions of out-of-school children. And with millions more children out of school because of conflict, broadcast radio and IRI have been tapped as the best options to provide some degree of “schooling.”

I’ve interacted with IRI only as a reseracher, not as a practitioner, studying IRI in Guinea, India and (now in an evaluation for the OAS’s InterAmerican Teacher Education Network, which uses radio to reach teachers in the Amazon region).

To me some of the most compelling benefits of IRI/IAI are captured in the simplest of vignettes: Indian teachers crediting radio for making them feel “confident” and “proud” that they could teach well; parents in rural Guinea raising money to purchase a CD player so their child’s school could take part in audio programs; and the lure of “radio day”— when children in India or Liberia or Nigeria, who would otherwise be working in rice fields or selling wares on the street or skipping school because it is boring, make sure to go to class because they know that on that day something special will happen.


Anzalone, S. & Bosch, A. (2005). Improving educational quality through IRI: A toolkit for policy makers and planners. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

Burns, M., Montalvo, M. & Rhodes, R. (2010, March). Lessons from the Global South: What the world’s poorest countries can teach the US about mobile technologies.  Learning and Leading with Technology 37 (6), 16-19.

Burns, M. (2011). Distance education for teacher training: Modes, models and methods. Washington, DC: EDC.

Christina, R. & Louge, N. (2015). Expanding access to early childhood development using Interactive Audio Instruction: A toolkit for policymakers and practitioners.  Washington, DC: World Bank.

Gaible, E. & Burns, M. (2007). Using technology to train teachers: Appropriate uses of ICTs for professional development. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

Pew Research Center. (2015). Audio fact sheet.

Radio Joint Audience Research. (2016). All radio listening Q4 2015.

Related blogs

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • Global and entity tokens are replaced with their values. Browse available tokens.
  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.