“Do you like school”?, I asked Lucy, an eight-year-old orphan in a community school near Lusaka. “Yes”, she replied with enthusiasm. When I said why, she replied, “because Mrs Musanda loves me.” “How do you know”?, I asked. “Because of how she speaks to me”. I then asked Lucy if she knew what Mrs Musanda looked like. She described her in detail. I posed this question to Lucy’s classmates one-by-one. They all confidently told me about her appearance, size, hairstyle and what clothing she wore.

Except Mrs Musanda was the voice of the teacher on the radio. None of the students had ever seen her. Each child had a minds-eye picture of what she looked like and described her in detail. While each Mrs Musanda looked entirely different, they all had one thing in common: her voice made a personal and deep-rooted connection with each student. It was then that I understood the profound power of radio to spark a child’s imagination and how a friendly voice could help vulnerable children feel cared for, encouraged and supported.

In this case, Mrs Musanda was the main actor in a long-playing Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) primary school programme in Zambia called Learning at Taonga Market. It went off the airwaves in 2015 nationally mainly due to the cost of broadcasting fees, however, it continues to aired on local language community radio stations. During its nearly 20 years, Taonga Market helped provide a free basic education to an estimated 800,000 children, most of whom were marginalised due to being orphaned or growing up in chronic poverty.

COVID-19 the great disruptor

Today, with COVID-19 disrupting education for billions of students across the globe, radio education has renewed importance as an effective, reliable and highly personal medium for fuelling learning – that can reach millions of students – wherever those students are. While education ministries, UN agencies and NGOs are scrambling to respond with alternative learning measures, tens of millions of children will not be reached – because of lack of access to the Internet and other resources, including a power supply.

In East and Southern African alone, an estimated 127 million school children remain at home. In most areas in Africa a mere 22% (according to UNICEF) have internet access. In rural areas, where the majority of the population lives, only 16% have electricity.

Countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan, Somalia, DR Congo, Sierra Leone, Malawi and South Africa have long-established traditions of radio learning and have developed curriculum-based school lessons. With many communities being in far flung rural areas, coupled with a shortage of schools and trained teachers as in Zambia, radio has helped to bridge the gap. And for the tens of thousands of children in Africa who live in care homes or orphanages, radio can play a key role in providing learning opportunities. Audio learning brings supplemental benefits, as it has been shown to help students with memorisation, concentration and focus.

radio education

When schools are in session, radio education bridges additional divides, including income, age and literacy level. Radio-based schools accept grade 1 students who are well beyond the government-mandated age of seven. I’ve met many teenaged students, hankering to learn, who courageously participated in primary classes, like orphaned 18-year-old Tumaini. Tall and wearing a makeshift uniform, Tumaini sat in a grade 1 class on a tiny plastic blue chair in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, so he could learn to read and write. He told me he felt humiliated because he couldn’t read money. I’ve also met grannies in radio classrooms who never had the chance to go to school and want to be able to read to their grandchildren.

Radio education also provides support and instruction to teachers. In community (non-government) schools, teachers are seldom formally trained and might be a literate adult who volunteers. For these teachers, radio-based teacher training builds capacity, helps with lesson plans and supports class administration.

In South Africa, where I live, the Open Learning Systems Education Trust (OLSET), which ran radio school broadcasts of English in Action for 16 years, taught teachers and students to speak and write in English. It was the first radio distance education project I worked on and we helped ensure the programme reached thousands more students using our original model big black wind-up radios (right). Back then rural schools were unelectrified and teachers couldn’t afford to buy batteries to keep the radios powered.

Since our inception in 1999, Lifeline Energy has distributed more than 200,000 solar and wind-up radios and MP3 players in community and government schools and refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa. Averaging 40 or more children in each classroom, those radios and MP3 players have reached many millions of students.

radio for early childhood development learning

We understand that Mrs Musanda is re-emerging from retirement. And classmates just like Lucy are ready and eager to meet their new teacher, even if now it’s from home and not in a classroom. This is a critical time to elevate and re-engage the power of radio to deliver consistent and accessible learning opportunities to Africa’s vulnerable and rural students. Doing so can help stem COVID-19 educational losses and empower students who will serve as future leaders in their communities.

radio in the classroom
Author | Kristine Pearson

Author | Kristine Pearson

Chief Executive of Lifeline Energy

Kristine Pearson is the founding Chief Executive of Lifeline Energy since 1999. She was previously an executive with a large South African banking group. Kristine is a fellow of the Schwab Foundation of the World Economic Forum; received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the African Women’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum; served 8 years on the Women’s Leadership Board of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; was named a Hero of the Environment by Time magazine and was a recipient of the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award.

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