Waiting for a coworker for lunch today, I happened to take a closer look at a display case that I pass every day without really looking. Inside are pieces of Wisconsin Public Radio history, including a brief description of the education programs that WHA (today’s WPR) offered to listeners starting in the 1930s. Full classes, many taught by professors and other experts in their fields, covering a range of subjects and delivered over the latest technological marvel – radio – that its creators hoped to use to reach and educate people with limited access to education? Sounds like a MOOC to me.
MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are the latest thing in education, promising unlimited participation and access via the technological marvel of our time – the internet. Professors at dozens of universities are teaching online courses and nearly every other university that hasn’t joined in is seriously considering their options. It’s new and hip and marketed as the way to reach people in the modern world.
But isn’t this just what the radio was doing in Wisconsin nearly a century ago?
In 1930, WHA began offering music and discussion of current events to students in rural schools in Dane County. The ten-week trial program proved a tremendous success and the station planned to incorporate classroom instruction into the regular broadcast schedule the following year.
Debuting in October of 1931, the “Wisconsin School of the Air,” as it was called, was designed for use in elementary and high school classrooms around the state. Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction assisted with the creation of lessons that they hoped would be particularly valuable to the students attending the state’s more than 6,000 one- and two-room schools. Producers believed that the radio curriculum would increase exposure to new ideas, enhance the learning experience, and most importantly of all, help to close the very real gap in educational resources and quality that existed between rural and urban areas.
Radio lesson topics included government, history, music, art, nature, health, and English. The series included programs like “Let’s Draw” (an art appreciation course where students mailed their artwork to Madison for grading) and “Afield with Ranger Mac”(a nature program hosted by Wakelin McNeel) that ran for decades. Teachers received study guides and educational suppliers offered higher quality radios to schools.
WHA also initiated the Wisconsin College of the Air to extend and improve adult education across the state. One of the most popular programs on the college slate was the Homemaker Program hosted by the affable Aline Hazard. She offered tips for cleaning, cooking, childcare, gardening, and introduced the latest tools and science of home economics. Together, the Wisconsin School and College of the Air brought useful information and education into homes and schools across the state on a technological platform that was relatively accessible to anyone.
At the end of the first semester in 1931, WHA reported nearly 11,000 regular listeners. By the next year, the regular audience had more than doubled to 23,000. The audience only continued to grow so that by 1960, roughly 290,000 students used the programs.
Other states followed Wisconsin’s lead in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly as commercial networks cut back on children’s programming. Nearly all were linked to universities or colleges, just like MOOCs today.
It seems to me that MOOCs are just a modern incarnation of the School of the Air, an attempt to give everyone a quality education using technology, whether on the air or online.