The Role of Interactive Radio Instruction in the COVID-19 Education Response

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At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has forced over 1.5 billion students out of school, governments in resource-constrained countries have looked to interactive radio instruction (IRI) to ensure educational continuity. In the past week, we spoke with the Rising Academy Network to consider what an IRI programme could look like and why policymakers have adopted this intervention.

Interactive Radio Instruction: key characteristics 

The majority of IRI programmes focus on core subjects such as maths, literacy and life skills. During the current pandemic, curriculum specialists have looked to develop or re-purpose audio material (⇡Richmond, 2020) to align with current national education standards.

A typical 30-minute IRI broadcast will follow a three-part structure that explains a concept to listeners, asks radio actors to practically apply new ideas and suggests tasks for students to complete at home. Interactive home-based activities can include quizzes, written exercises, role play and storytelling. During lessons, caregivers will receive instructions on how to support children with unfamiliar content.

Interactive Radio Instruction: accessibility, complementarity and potential impact

In response to the immediate health crisis, IRI can enable the most isolated students to engage in education. While less than a third of Sierra Leoneans have a 3G-enabled SIM card, the majority (⇡Wittels & Maybanks, 2016) still have access to radio. In countries with low connectivity rates, IRI can help governments mobilise readily available technology to ensure access to learning opportunities.

Meanwhile, educators can employ other learning resources to complement IRI initiatives. During the 2014 Ebola Crisis, the Education Development Center (EDC) used SMS text blasts to send class schedules to all students on their IRI programme in Liberia. Education providers could also consider hosting live call-ins to discuss radio content or delivering newspaper supplements with complimentary print material.

In the past decade, education radio initiatives have shown some promising results. In South Sudan, for instance, the Speak Up IRI programme has helped 7,500 out-of-school children improve their literacy, numeracy and English language skills. This example corroborates the findings of an earlier EDC study of 15 IRI projects (⇡Ho & Thukral, 2009) between 1975 and 2000. These positive results may stem from the opportunity to provide learners with curriculum-aligned content of a consistent standard. When educators design radio scripts, evidence from previous pandemic responses (⇡Hallgarten, 2020) suggests that a process of engagement with civic leaders and religious groups can enhance community buy-in. Even if the impact of IRI initiatives in confinement conditions remains unclear, educational radio could provide children with an important link to learning ahead of an eventual transition back to school.

If you are interested in learning more, you can consult the following resources:

  1. The Rising Academy Network’s On Air web portal to access lesson scripts and pre-recorded audio content
  2. USAID’s interactive radio and audio instruction resources from Liberia and Kenya
  3. The following Skoll Foundation webinar which explores how education providers can teach children at home without internet access

Links and references

A complete list of references for this blog post is available in our evidence library here: references for blog post on Interactive Radio Instruction

Education Development Center. (2014, November 4). Learning in the Time of Ebola (2129771:94S7Y4NZ).

GSMA. (2019). The GSMA Mobile Connectivity Index.

Hallgarten, J. (2020). Evidence on efforts to mitigate the negative educational impact of past disease outbreaks (2339240:DQJN5Z7Q). 19. 

Ho, J., & Thukral, H. (2009). Tuned in to student access: Assessing the impact of interactive radio instruction for the hardest-to-reach (2129771:BKG2QR5K). Education Development Center. 

Richmond, S. (2020). Repurposing Established Radio and Audio Series to Address the COVID-19 Educational Crises (2129771:2E2H28DW; p. 9). Education Development Center.

Rising Academy Network. (2020, April 8). Rising Academies—Rising On Air (2129771:5YNQTEA7).

Schulze, C. (2019). Final Evaluation Report: Evaluation of Africa Educational Trust’s Speak Up II in South Sudan (2129771:4KGVFBW7).

Skoll Foundation. (2020, April 3). Learning without Schools? Education, Relief, and Government Partnerships during COVID-19 (2129771:X8MZMPUI).

USAID. (2020a). Interactive Radio and Audio Instruction Resources: Liberia (2129771:C7VZL68E).

USAID. (2020b, April). Interactive Radio and Audio Instruction Resources: Kenya (2129771:UJG7W6TR)., A., & Maybanks, N. (2016). Communication in Sierra Leone: An Analysis of Media and Mobile Resources (2129771:GTQ7UMGP). BBC Media Action.

Björn Haßler
Björn Haßler