Interactive Radio Instruction : A Successful Permanent Pilot Project?

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Despite their increased diffusion through rich and poor communities around the world, many people still have serious reservations about large scale investments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) within education systems.  Spirited and long-running related debates related to their costs ("too expensive", their critics say),  appropriateness ("students needs lots of things before they need computers") and impact on learning outcomes ("we haven't seen any") continue in many places, and reasonable people can (and do!) take different sides of such debates.  There is, however, a low-cost educational technology with a long history that has demonstrated postive impact in many developing countries -- educational radio, specifically what is known as interactive radio instruction (IRI).

According to a World Bank toolkit published on the topic in 2005,

Interactive radio instruction (IRI) is a distance education system that combines radio broadcasts with active learning to improve educational quality and teaching practices. IRI has been in use for more than 25 years and has demonstrated that it can be effective on a large scale at low cost. IRI programs require teachers and students to react verbally and physically to questions and exercises posed by radio characters and to participate in group work, experiments, and other activities suggested by the radio program.

The key difference between IRI and a conventional use of broadcast radio to deliver education audio content is suggested by the term interactive.  In this context, radio instruction is considered interactive because it prompts specific actions by teachers and students in a classroom. Walk into an IRI classroom (at least a well-functioning one) and you will not find students or teachers passively sitting and listening to the radio. Instead, you should expect to see teachers and students engaged in songs, question-and-answer activities and various types of physical movement, as 'instructed' (or directed) by an audio program delivered via a radio (or increasingly, via CD or MP3).

The research literature around the positive, cost-effective impact of IRI in a variety of low-income communities in developing countries is pretty solid -- especially when compared with the still-weak evidence base we have demonstrating positive, cost-effective uses of other ICTs in educational settings in these places.  The World Bank toolkit declares that:

There is consistent and significant evidence that IRI can increase learning across subject matter, age, gender, and rural or urban location. Students show progressively greater learning with time.

A group from the Education Development Center (EDC), the U.S.-based NGO regarded as the global leader in IRI, visited the World Bank last week to present findings from recent work with IRI in Zanzibar, among other places.  The story EDC told us last week is consistent with previous conclusions*: that IRI continues to demonstrate a positive impact at low cost in some very challenging educational environments.

Many of the criticisms of the use of educational technologies stem from the poor evidence base on which related decisions for investment are made.  In comparison, such criticisms are quite muted when discussing the suitability of investments in IRI programs in developing countries.  Yet, given what we know about is cost-effectiveness, and almost 40 years after USAID funded the first experiments with IRI in Nicaragua, why do we not see more sustained large-scale IRI programs?  It is true that IRI has been used (quite successfully, most would argue) in almost 35 countries around the world, but IRI programs often wither after donor funding for them expires and foreign experts move on to another program in another place. A widely respected, former senior World Bank education official who is a passionate, long-time advocate for IRI put the question a little more bluntly in response to last week's standing-room-only presentation:

Why, despite repeated apparent successes, do IRI programs seem to be permanent pilot projects?

Now some may argue with the characterization of IRI programs as 'permanent pilot projects'.  In fact, statements on this issue put forward in the World Bank toolkit, as well as in a paper on this topic by an IRI pioneer, suggest that such a formulation, while nicely alliterative, is a bit too strong. 

Many potential explanations have been offered for why many IRI programs make for  successful pilot projects at scale but are nonetheless not sustained over time.    Here are a few of the commonly-mentioned ones:

  • Investments in educational technologies are driven not by the evidence, some will say, but rather by 'fads', interest in the latest fashionable gadget or educational approach.
    Support for IRI, which has at its core an 'old' technology like radio, naturally suffers as a result.
  • IRI investments are not expensive enough to be supported by donors.
    In other words: Donors -- especially places like the World Bank -- like big expensive projects, and IRI programs aren't 'expensive enough'.  (Note: The IDB did fund an IRI project in Guyana [pdf]).  This is a clever argument ... but is it too clever? In some ways IRI investments are ideal for donors, as they have (relatively, or at least comparatively) large upfront costs, but low recurrent costs.

  • IRI programs are often closely associated with a particular government; when the government changes, the program is abandoned. 
    Given USAID's critical role in supporting IRI around the world, IRI programs can become a political casualty of preceptions of a country's relationship with the United States. USAID has been by far the largest source of funds in support of IRI programs around the world, and it is difficult to imagine that we would know today what we do about the usefulness of IRI without the pioneering support of USAID.

  • Institutional constraints make it difficult to sustain IRI once a large donor leaves.
    IRI programs are often located inside small units in the Ministry of Education and often have little institutional weight, especially once donor funding disappears.  Negotiating with radio stations for broadcast time can become difficult once an initial 'novelty' period wears off, absent clear institutional frameworks and processes to ensure access to the airwaves.

  • IRI programs are predominantly directed toward poor, rural areas.
    The implication here is that, if IRI were also used more widely in wealthier, urban areas, they might achieve a greater level of buy-in from political elites that can help sustain them over time.

During last week's question-and-answer session, I asked the room for examples of how IRI programs have been sustained by countries themselves once USAID support and EDC expertise moves on. This question was perhaps a little unfair, given that most of the focus of the people in the room, and the presentation, was on the evaluation of the impact of IRI programs, not on their long-term sustainability.  That said, the accumulated experience and expertise of many of the event attendees was quite vast, dating all the way back to the first project led by SRI in the mid-1970s, and the examples put forward rather tepidly were not terribly encouraging.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that we are convinced of the cost-effective postive impact of IRI interventions (EDC certainly gave a compelling presentation in this regard, at least in my opinion):

  • Is it really that people don't believe that IRI is effective, or are there other issues at play here complicating prospects for sustainability?
  • To what extent should efforts be directed toward convincing institutions of the effectiveness of IRI programs versus tackling issues related to the long-term sustainability of such programs?
  • Does the nature of current support for IRI programs in some way make it more difficult to sustain such programs over time? 
  • Despite our rhetoric about documenting cost-effective impact, are other factors more important to enable investment in this area?
  • Do the challenges of sustainability of IRI programs after donors leave suggest that countries do not value the successes of IRI programs, especially those related to early childhood development, as much as donors themselves do?

Are we -- including those of us at the World Bank -- somehow not understanding a key piece of the puzzle here? 


*Critics may note that such consistency of conclusions is perhaps not surprising, given that two EDC staff authored the World Bank IRI toolkit.  This criticism is noted, but there is strong and wide consensus about the value of IRI in the development community -- at least among those who know of it.  The EDC staff people who authored the toolkit are globally acknowledged experts in this topic, both very highly regarded in the global educational technology community, and the Bank did do its own due diligence and peer review before publishing the toolkit.

For more information on EDC's work with IRI, please see the papers below.  The video shown during last week's presentation follows here:

Please note: Limited numbers of spaces are still available for what looks to be a fascinating presentation about the OLPC program in Uruguay at the World Bank on 13 May: Uruguay's Plan Ceibal: What Happens When *all* Students and Teachers Have Their Own Laptops.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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