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LONDON — When the world catches COVID-19, education is one to suffer most. The global picture during the pandemic has been desolate. During the first major COVID-19 disruption of 2020 school was closed in 105 countries, impacting 1 billion children. They had to stay at home and use the internet or roll their thumbs, as only half the world’s population has access to this technology. In fact, according to a UNICEF-ITU report, a two thirds of the world’s school-age children have no internet at home.
And if you live in a rural area in a less developed country, your chance diminishes to about 3%. The key word here is “use,” as having access to IP (at a cost) does not offer education on tap. Teachers are not so easy to replace, and teachers need students, too. According to Google Trends, over the last 18 months, some of the top questions searched were things like “How can educators support students who are struggling with distance learning?” and even “What does remote learning mean?”
If before the pandemic radio often evoked the image of music and some news, in the past year and a half radio has suddenly been rediscovered by many because of its friendly closeness, ease of use and large accessibility. The idea of using radio for information and education is not new, though a bit dull and seemingly dusty. Radio education often meant endless lectures read by disembodied teachers’ voices.
But digital radio in general can offer so much more simply because it is a modern digital technology that can deliver excellent audio carrying text and images, to also be stored and used later. So, digital radio can be your teacher, textbook, and your personal library all at once. By using DRM in the AM bands for example, the same information is offered to all listeners (in our case students) over large areas (rural and urban) in good audio quality but also using a lot of text, even internet text without the use of internet, and in several languages simultaneously.
This is the ideal picture, but world realities are more diverse and often contradictory as radio seems to be going down in the developed world and slightly up in the rest of the world.
In the United States, according to the Nielsen agency quoted by NAB, the Average Quarter Hour (AQH) listening of FM stations dropped 23.5% in just the past five years, impacting the competitive and financial viability of FM (and AM) stations, as the sector is heavily commercial. (Source: NAB Admits Listening, Revenue Declining, Radio Ink)
Additionally, it seems that over a third of recently surveyed adults say that Facebook is their primary source for news content. It is now accepted that YouTube alone today earns twice what the entire U.S. terrestrial radio marketplace earns in top line advertising revenue.
If we move the dial a bit, to Brazil for example, you get a completely different picture. According to Kantar IBOPE Media, in Brazil radio consumption increased by 2% during the past year reaching now 80%, each Brazilian listener spending, on average, four hours and 26 minutes listening to the radio. And most of the Brazilians listen to radio still despite a slight mobile consumption increase.
Who and How?
If digital radio is popular, it’s also a long-term solution for delivering education and thus bridging the digital educational, economic gaps. Digital radio is mostly needed in large regions and continents where radio is often the primary source of information (Africa, parts of Asia) but where digitization of the media still lags.
In a recent and interview with Mirta Lourenco we heard that UNESCO believes in radio which is encouraging if radio encompasses all flavors and radio solutions.
In DRM we have devised a plan to deliver exactly such education “bites without the bytes,” by using the power of shortwave DRM. Using the great quality of radio (universality, accessibility) the Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) digital radio standard will be used to deliver educational material (complementary audio and visual teaching material) to a chosen African country (as a test first), to compensate for the lack of IP connectivity or costly devices. But how can the students receive these lessons, maps, exercises, play and replay them? By using a receiver (still expensive for large parts of the world) or, even better, by using cheap tablets fed by one receiver (station) with no screen or other frills. The audio and text content of the lesson will be broadcast from the transmitter to those receivers to reach the tablets or dongles attached to mobiles. Even a huge TV screen, fed in the same way, could be placed in a big classroom, and serve as a ‘white or blackboard’, textbook and learning resource. This requires ingenuity, dedication, some technical skill, cooperation over countries and organizations and, of course, funds. Watch DRM’s video on distance learning and education here.
There is an inherent contradiction at the heart of this pioneering solution: an excellent digital solution for countries that are just starting their digital radio journey.
Then the content itself needs to be carefully selected, compressed, and simplified, so that the right data accompanies and completes the digital audio streams (in DRM three audio and one data channel per normal frequency, so one of these channels can be dedicated to education alone). The education broadcast requires a different lesson plan, a new mindset, and a new approach which will even shape a new teacher-student relationship. If internet is a flowing river of information, digital radio lessons are the gold nuggets on the riverbed that still need to be well polished.
And there is another trickier aspect. The big international organizations are fully aware of the education challenge in “normal” and in pandemic times. At the beginning of October, on World Teachers’ Day, top leaders of UNESCO, UNICEF etc. have homed on the global education “recovery need” and access to a qualified and supported teacher.
But the pandemic is not over, and distance learning is here to stay. UNESCO is devoting a whole week in November to remote radio with references often about local digital radio that works in Geneva or Brussels. The wide world needs a larger variety of options. And good international managers need to have an open mind, and support with enthusiasm, involvement, and funds, various projects, also investing in receivers and thus strengthening future distance learning options.
The author is Chairman for the Digital Radio Mondiale consortium.
[Photo Credit: Radu Obreja]