Educational Broadcasting

Educational Broadcasting


Educational Broadcasting, use of radio and television to assist teaching and learning.

Pioneers of wireless telegraphy (radio), such as Marconi, working 100 or so years ago, believed the new technology would soon be put to useful purposes. Shortly after it was set up in 1922, the British Broadcasting Company, later the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), began to see how it could use “wireless”, as it was first called, to assist learning. John Reith, who, as a public service broadcaster, aimed to “educate, inform, and entertain”, set up the first National Advisory Committee on Education in 1923 and appointed a Director of Education, a school inspector, who, in 1924, wrote an article in the BBC’s programme listings magazine the Radio Times, proposing a Broadcasting University.

The earliest experimental broadcasts to schools emanated from Glasgow and London in 1924 and by the autumn of that year regular secondary school and adult education broadcasts were in place, with regular supporting publications coming soon after. A new weekly publication, The Listener, began publishing transcripts of educational talks from 1929 and developed into a magazine until 1991 when it ceased. As the services grew, education officers were appointed to liaise with the educational world and to advise on policy. Separate Advisory Committees for School and Adult Education were set up and, for the latter, a Group Listening movement was encouraged. During the 1930s the whole system flourished, with most subjects on the curriculum treated. Mathematics was, interestingly, an exception.

Among initiatives at this time were new ways of learning, emphasizing a more imaginative, child-centered approach. Programmes in Gaelic and Welsh were introduced for children in Scotland and Wales. In the early 1930s, it was not thought appropriate to make broadcasts for younger pupils. However, largely because of improved broadcasting practices, using drama and music in place of straight “talk”, such broadcasts quickly became successful later in the decade. History and foreign language teaching series were firm favourites.


The British system of educational broadcasting, transmitted nationally, was soon widely studied and used as a model in many countries, notably those in what, later, became the Commonwealth, and in more distant countries, such as Japan. It was realized that radio had great potential in both formal and informal education by adding to what teachers could provide, reaching isolated groups of learners, filling in for non-existent teachers, and acting as an agent of in-service training. Before long, “radio schools” were operating in countries with dispersed and remote populations, a notable example being the School of the Air in Australia, where two-way radio supplemented correspondence courses.

World War II severely disrupted life in Britain, but school broadcasting flourished and by 1945 some 2,000 more schools were using the service than in 1939, with 30 weekly series offered. Music, drama, and arts and crafts became popular subjects, along with civics and current affairs. Educational broadcasts became an anchor for teachers who, in the words of one headmistress, saw them as “lifebuoys in a queer, turbulent, scholastic sea”. As the war ended, Forces Educational Broadcasts were devised to help demobilized service people with their return to civilian life. Television then became the centre of interest, with pilot experiments in school television in 1952 leading to a permanent service in 1957.

By the mid-1960s a comprehensive system of school broadcasts was being provided both by the BBC and Independent Television (ITV), which had started school television broadcasts just ahead of the BBC in 1957. Channel 4, which was launched in 1982, now handles school broadcasting for commercial television. The visual medium added a new dimension to learning and, significantly, mathematics became a successful subject for educational broadcasting, helping pupils and teachers to deal with the “new maths”, then much in the news. Apart from continuing series in such subjects as modern language teaching, science, and history, adult education broadcasts began to address social issues such as parenting, old age, illiteracy, and unemployment—what became known as Social Action broadcasts.

In less-developed countries, educational broadcasts became a tool in social and political development, with campaigns treating health and farming issues. By the 1960s there was considerable evidence that educational broadcasting was a powerful branch of distance learning.

Much work had been done worldwide, when, in 1969, a major step was taken in the United Kingdom with the setting up of the Open University (OU). This combined the practice of correspondence learning, a well-proven distance learning technique, with educational broadcasts. It was effected by an alliance with the BBC, which created a department to make the radio and television programmes. These were the first broadcast in 1971, accompanying the OU printed courses, prepared by course teams, including the BBC producers. The OU model is now being used worldwide and uses a very broad range of new educational technology.

In the late 1990s the consultative method of deciding educational output with councils started in the 1920s, was changed. An important strand of programmes supported pupils taking new national examinations, and the Internet came into play. The “new” technology was now more interactive.


The Internet is the latest “new” technology to propel a development in educational broadcasting. Prominent examples in the past have been the transistor, which allowed many more people to use radio conveniently, especially in developing countries where teachers were scarce; stereo sound; black and white television, followed by colour television, which was an important addition to programmes dealing with subjects such as natural history and geography; improvements in recording techniques, cassetting, and disc recording (CD-ROMs); and the growth of transmission systems, such as cable and satellite, resulting in much increased coverage.

There have been many successful and unsuccessful attempts using satellites to transmit educational radio and television. India, in 1975, saw the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment, aimed at small, distant villages, supported by money and know-how from the United States. Canada and Australia, among many other countries, devised distance learning projects. Most of these earlier, often ambitious, schemes, faced the problems experienced by their earthbound forerunners in the 1920s, namely inefficient transmitting and receiving apparatus, unreliable liaison between users and providers, inadequate backup print material, inappropriate syllabuses, and ultimately the need for human contact.

Most of these problems have been solved to some degree in developed countries, with even liaison and interactivity partially solved. Efficient postal systems, the telephone (fixed and mobile), and various recording and playback systems based on computer technology all have a part to play in educational broadcasting in the new millennium. The Internet and its websites are now familiar to many children in developed countries and among educational elites elsewhere, but it remains of little significance to very much more, who lack the most basic means of subsistence.

Reviewed By:
John Cain


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