Radio can be a cost-effective and sustainable education technology. Considering that any school can be equipped with radios, there have relatively low entry barriers as well. The 2023 GEM Report reported evidence gathered by UNESCO showing that almost 40 countries use radio instruction to deliver education. Radios were also an important vehicle for education in the COVID-19 pandemic, with 40% of learners using radio and television instruction instead of, or as well as, digital options.
The benefits of radio instruction
Effective radio instruction programmes tend to be highly learner-centred, interactive and local, relying on an enabling policy environment that supports sustainability, allows decentralized broadcasting and signals government commitment. While traditional radio broadcasts are limited to one-way delivery and require synchronous participation, increasingly interactive approaches expect learners to engage with and respond to radio lessons through questions and exercises. Interactive instruction tends to follow the national curriculum, combines audio recordings and print materials, focuses on the active participation of children, and makes use of an adult teacher to facilitate learning. In most cases, radio remains the most cost-effective option and reaches a large number of learners.
Radio has a proven track record for delivering education to underserved rural learners across the globe. There is consistent and extensive evidence that interactive radio-based instruction has helped reduce education gaps between rural and urban populations, girls and boys, nomadic and settled communities, and other disadvantaged children and their more privileged peers, both in terms of access to education and quality of learning, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa use interactive radio instruction as part of their alternative and distance education systems. Radio remains the most cost-effective means of reaching large numbers of out-of-school children.
Nomads constitute about 6% of the African population and are found in at least 20 different countries across the continent. They are categorised into three major groups based on their mobile lifestyle. In northern Nigeria, where millions of nomadic school-age children face barriers to access, the National Commission for Nomadic Education designed and developed a radio distance learning strategy in 1996 based on evidence that nomadic pastoralists tend to use radio sets, which they carried with them while herding. Despite implementation challenges such as limited funding and untrained teachers, the Commission continues to improve the programme by updating the curriculum and establishing an exclusive radio station for nomadic education, with broadcasts in four languages.
The radio strategy was designed to complement other methods, including mobile schools equipped with audiovisual materials, and increase enrolment and participation rates. The quality of the programme’s interactivity and delivery has increased over the years through the establishment of radio listening groups, the development of teaching and learning guides, and recordings of radio episodes. Evaluations have documented its effectiveness in reaching 77% of nomadic pastoralists in North West Nigeria and increasing literacy, numeracy and life skills.
In Zambia, the government first piloted an interactive radio instruction programme in community learning centres for out-of-school children and orphans who had lost their parents to AIDS. In 2004, Learning at Taonga Market was launched, an interactive audio instruction programme noted as the first to use an MP3 player. Over the next 10 years, Learning at Taonga Market programmes were delivered to 3,000 community learning centres and 1.2 million students who consistently outperformed their peers in formal government schools.
Interactive radio instruction programmes were also developed in 2009 for grades 1 to 6 in French and mathematics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of the Projet d’Amélioration de la Qualité de l’Éducation (Project for the Improvement of the Quality of Education). They reached 3,000 schools, with 1.2 million students outperforming their peers in control schools in reading.
Radio instruction supports learning gains
Since the 1980s, studies in at least 25 countries have documented statistically significant, consistent improvements in student achievement that are positively correlated with exposure to interactive radio instruction.
The first formal experiment with interactive radio instruction, where learners ‘actively responded’ to broadcasts, was carried out in Nicaragua in the 1970s for children who were unable to complete their formal schooling due to their agricultural livelihood. Participating children quickly matched and even exceeded the mathematics achievement of nearby formal school students, despite the fact that many were not even fluent in Spanish. A more recent good example of interactive radio instruction for marginalised learners can be found in Cabo Verde, which has relied on educational radio to reach remote learners for decades. Evaluations have shown that children who had access to the interactive radio programme Projeto PALOP tested better in Portuguese and math compared to children who did not.
In 2018–21, among the poorest 20% of households in 24 low- and lower-middle-income countries, one quarter owned a radio. Benefiting from the access this brings to households, interactive audio instruction is implemented in almost 40 countries globally. The distribution of cassettes, CDs, MP3 files and mobile phones has allowed rewinding, replaying and recording content, countering any problems with radio reception. In Bangladesh, primary school students improved their literacy and numeracy scores through audio lessons using interactive voice response delivered through mobile phones. In Guyana, lessons from the government’s radio programme in mathematics are sometimes pre-recorded onto CDs or in MP3 format and delivered with accompanying audio players to classrooms.
One quarter of the poorest 20% of households in low- and lower-middle income countries own a radio
The benefits of radio instruction are proof that technology does not have to be advanced to be effective in education
Radio started being used in education in the 1920s, and has proved its worth over the years as a low-tech way of accessing education for hard-to-reach learners, including those in emergency contexts. Its effectiveness for teaching and learning ultimately depends on available resources, the policy environment, and specific educational needs and goals, however. In some local contexts, curriculum, scheduling and broadcasting costs. Radio-based instruction is therefore only cost-effective when large numbers of students are reached; it is less efficient when the target population is smaller, for instance with learners who speak a minority language. Sustainability can be supported through strong government commitment, continuous teacher professional development, the integration of programmes into existing curricula, and effective monitoring and evaluation.
As internet is reaching ever more remote communities and access costs decline, it is inevitable that the shape of distance education will change. But for the foreseeable future, radio remains relevant for many learners. And the lessons from decades of its application for learning remain relevant for all types of distance education.