Radio: Revival and renaissance at CJRT Open College
Radio is an unusual medium for distance education in North America. It is used more in Europe and extensively in Africa. In fact, Tony Bates in his book, Technology, Open Language and Education, (1) from which excerpts were printed in the last edition of Communiqué, suggests that North America abandoned radio as a medium for (formal) distance education in the 1940's. If this is so, it was revived in the '70's and is flourishing in the '90's on CJRT-FM in Toronto. This revival began when a combination of factors sparked an idea and continued because of the pioneering efforts of Margaret Norquay, the first director of Open College. Margaret Norquay was made one of CADE's five honorary members in recognition of this work.
In 1970 Eric Wright, then the Dean of Arts at Ryerson ( he is now one of Canada's most successful crime writers) was aware of the fledgling activities of Open University in the U.K. and its use of radio and television for distance education. Ryerson then owned radio station CJRT-FM, and Ryerson professor Margaret Norquay was an experienced broadcaster -- experience she acquired working with the CBC in National Farm Radio Forum in an earlier career.
Eric Wright put this together. He asked professor Norquay to teach a sociology course on the Ryerson radio station. She did, and Open College was born. "There were many rocky days in getting radio education accepted and in establishing Open College" (Norquay, 1993).
The early Open College programs were, logically, adaptations of what goes on in the university classroom: a 20 minute lecture, an interview (interviews work well on radio) and classroom housekeeping, i.e. discussions of essays and information pertaining to examinations. Students who registered for a one-semester course listened to 24 one-hour programs, attended an in-person orientation and weekend seminar, received print materials, wrote exams and kept in telephone contact with their tutors. They regularly complained that Open College courses were twice as much work as classroom courses. As well as complaining about the amount of work, students confessed to finding it difficult to listen to so many programs; there was more content in them than needed for the course. But admission was open: adults could take classes while working and with no entrance requirements. This was a radical idea in the '70's and they felt the opportunity to learn was worth the extra work. Course registration was healthy.
By the mid '80's, CJRT had become an independent non-profit, non-commercial radio station supported by listener and corporate donations and a grant from the province of Ontario. But listeners were unresponsive to most Open College programming and the radio station was concerned that they were tuning out. It toyed with the idea of eliminating its educational service because "education was not good programming". It was evident that change was needed if Open College was to survive. So, change was made.
First, the number of programs per semester were cut in half. Experimentation and experience demonstrate that twelve one-hour programs per one-semester course work well in this medium. Second, some on-air professors, chosen because of their academic credentials and teaching experience, were difficult to listen to on air. To respond to this problem, some well defined criteria and a three step audition procedure were developed for selecting radio teachers. The criteria are: sound academic credentials, teaching experience, a wide range of contacts in the candidate's field of expertise and a "radio-trainable" voice. The audition process consists of a script reading and interview assessed by the CJRT and Open College production teams who do not meet the auditioning professor. Decisions are made by listening to an audio tape of the audition. If both parts of the audition are successful, the candidate prepares a half-hour radio program. If this trial preparation is satisfactory, the professor is hired to prepare the course.
The third and perhaps most significant development was what is now an Open College trademark, the "docu-lecture". Lectures, unless they are infrequent, or by outstanding speakers about dynamic subject matters, do not work on radio. One voice cannot be well-sustained for more than five minutes. What does work well is two voices in dialogue - the interview. Note how many talk shows and morning programs with two hosts engulf our airwaves.
The interview is the core of the radio documentary, a format in which Canada has long excelled. The docu-lecture is a combination of lecture and documentary: lecture in that it has defined learning objectives, and documentary in that the host professor interviews the most authoritative experts available on the topic being discussed. Small portions of script are intertwined amongst a number of interviews. A one-semester Open College course will contain from 40 to 60 such interviews, many with the best-known experts in their respective fields in North America.
Getting "the best" interviews is the major challenge for the Open College professor, made more so by a slim to meagre budget. Interview guests are invited to the CJRT studios. As well, the professor preparing a course takes a tape recorder to conferences and interviews researchers and academics in press and hotel rooms. Another way of getting interviews is by telephone. But CJRT does not own the very expensive telephone equipment needed for quality sound. To get studio quality interviews producers arrange "double-enders". Professors are asked to go to their campus radio stations where a telephone interview is conducted. The Open College producer and the campus radio station each record their end of the interview. The resulting tape is spliced together and quality sound achieved. In the United States NPR (National Public Radio) stations are used in addition to campus radio stations.
Increasingly, Open College professors engage in a bit of a game with themselves to see how many luminaries they can get. Dian Cohen, for example, who teaches The Global Economy, was successful in interviewing a cast of prominent economists including several Nobel laureates. Wesley Wark, for his course, The History of Espionage, was delighted to get interviews with real spies including a KGB agent seemingly anxious to explain his perspective, as well as figures from the CIA and British Intelligence. Robert Bothwell spoke with prominent journalists, historians, and politicians for his course, The History of Canada and Quebec; his coup being a venture into The House of Commons to interview the Prime Minister.
A final note about the interview and interaction, something distance educators are continuously striving for. The interview is a form of mental interaction. Perhaps this explains why it is so much more engaging than a monologue. Different perspectives and varying points of view are often passionately portrayed. In this form of dialogue listeners and students can agree or disagree; mental engagement is required.
In order to further develop and refine the interview process Open College adopted principles from The Method of Inquiry, a question-driven approach to student learning developed by Marcia Heiman and Joshua Slomianko in Cambridge, Massachusetts (3) and further refined and tested by Susan Shapiro at State University New York, in Buffalo (4). We use the analysis of questions in this method to sharpen the interviewing techniques of host professors and to make the docu-lecture more analytical and more interesting. Open College developed a one-hour audio tape on self directed learning for distance education students based on The Method of Inquiry. It is given to all registered students and is available for individual and bulk purchase.
With the changes to Open College delivery there have come some changes on the part of CJRT-FM. The radio station no longer talks of eliminating Open College. On the contrary, Open College is recognized as an asset. According to BBM - Bureau of Broadcast Management - some 50,000 people a week tune in to Open College. They call to order tapes of programs and many tell us they contribute money to the station because of Open College.
Campus stations from across the country broadcast Open College courses too. Prior to the October 30, 1995 referendum, The History of Canada and Quebec course was broadcast on campus stations from Memorial University in St. John's Newfoundland to Camosun College on Vancouver Island. A number of universities lease Open College courses, some because they want to include another medium in their mix and others because they can lease a course they would like to offer, but can not afford to or do not wish to develop it themselves.
The most recent Open College development was putting a course on the World Wide Web. Students are given a choice of taking Organizational Behaviour in the traditional way or by accessing it on the Web with real audio. While this course works if the student has the necessary computer equipment, we recognize that it is in the early stages of development, similar to the early Open College lectures. As yet not enough adaptations have been made to it to take advantage of this new medium. More analysis, development and experimentation will be needed to gain a value-added component to the learning process. (Visit our site at http://www.cate.ryerson.ca/~opencollege).
What is next for Open College? Goals include selling more audio tapes to the public (they make excellent automobile listening), getting courses broadcast in other countries, and attracting international students who may find it an advantage to study by audio cassette by listening to North American professors and increasing their English language skills at the same time as earning a university credit. Commu-nication with tutor by e-mail will aid this process. As for radio, digital broadcasting is on the horizon and this could completely change radio stations as we know them. Developments here are too preliminary to guess how educational programming will be affected. But once digital broadcasting has been established it is conceivable that educational institutions will transmit their own educational products.
Radios, nevertheless, will remain almost universal. I say "almost" because radios are not readily available to some people in lesser developed countries, in Africa, for example, where they do not have electricity and cannot afford the ongoing cost of batteries to run a radio if they had one. Enter the wind-up, or more officially, the Freeplay Clockwork Radio. Developed in the U.K. and manufactured by BayGen Power Co. in South Africa, all that the wind-up radio needs is human energy to wind it up after every 40 minutes of play. This new low end technology has the potential to facilitate the development of distance education in remote areas where even print-based distance education is unknown.
For example, Open College provided training to a producer charged with developing radio-based education for high school students in Namibia. He described a typical educational setting in South Africa: students gathered outside in a circle, listening to a radio slung over a tree. He was concerned that students there would not be able to hear the programs he will produce because there are not enough radios. The schools may not have electricity, and even if they could afford a radio, they would not be able to afford batteries to operate one. We told him about the wind up radio. Ironically, he came halfway around the world to learn of a solution to his problem; a solution that is being produced in South Africa, which borders Namibia.
Finally, a word about cost. To produce an Open College course in the docu-lecture format, and suitable for radio broadcast, costs a minimum of $120,000. This is many times what it costs to produce a course in print, yet a fraction of the cost of producing a course for television. Our changing economic climate hit home on November 29, 1996 when CJRT-FM lost, beginning in the current fiscal year, its entire government grant, which was 40% of the station's budget. Changes were therefore made both in the station and at Open College. Course production has been curtailed and every possibility is being explored to make both Open College and the station survive.
In conclusion, with courses mushrooming on the World Wide Web and audio
finding its place there, the development of digital broadcasting, and the invention of the
"wind-up radio", the future of this accessible, "almost abandoned" medium of distance
education is bright and challenging; indeed a renaissance may be ahead.
Bates, A. (1995). Technology, open learning and education. London: Routledge.
Norquay, M. (1993). Personal reflections on the early years of Ryerson Open College. Journal of Distance Education, 8(2), 71-83.
Heinman, M. and Slominako, J. (1988). Methods of inquiry. Cambridge, Mass: Learning to Learn.
Shapiro, S. (1992). Report on method of inquiry project. Section in unpublished master's
thesis, State University: Buffalo, New York.
May Maskow is the Director of CJRT Open College.