In 1937, as she lay ill in bed, Annie Oakes Huntington, a writer living in Maine, thought of ways to spend her time. She confided in a letter: “The radio has been a source of unfailing diversion this winter. I expect to enter all the courses at Harvard to be broadcasted.” Huntington was joining in an educational experiment sweeping the country in the 1920s and 30s: massive open on-air courses.
As educators contemplate the MOOCs of our day—massive open online courses—they would do well to consider how earlier generations dealt with technology-enhanced education.
We are not the first generation to believe that technology can transcend distance and erode ignorance. Nearly a century ago, educators were convinced that radio held that same potential. The number of radios in the United States increased from six or seven thousand to 10 million between 1921 and 1928. Many universities explored the possibility of broadcasting courses across the country and allowing anyone to enroll. Some onlookers believed those courses would transform higher education and eliminate lecture halls and seminar rooms. One observer noted, “The nation has become the new campus,” while another celebrated the “‘University of the Air,’ whose campus is the ether of the earth, whose audience waits for learning, learning, learning.”
By 1922, New York University had established a radio station, through which “virtually all the subjects of the university [would] be sent out.” Eventually a multitude of universities, including Columbia, Harvard, Kansas State, Ohio State, NYU, Purdue, Tufts, and the Universities of Akron, Arkansas, California, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Utah, offered radio courses. Subjects ranged from Browning’s poems to engineering, agriculture to fashion.
While each institution ran its courses differently, there were commonalities. Often, students registered by mail and received a syllabus by return mail. Some then mailed in assignments to the faculty. Several universities offered credit.
Hopes ran high that these courses might spread knowledge more democratically—that they would, in the words of one commentator, make the “’backwoods,’ and all that the word connotes … dwindle if … not entirely disappear as an element in our civilization.” By offering education to people from all walks of life, radio would reduce rural populations’ isolation and mitigate class differences.
Read the rest here and learn how the criticisms of these radio courses sound similar to the criticisms of MOOCs today.