Before MOOCs, ‘Colleges of the Air’

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.

Yet gradually problems emerged, and doubts spread that on-air courses would ever fully replace traditional colleges. First was the issue of attrition. Like most modern-day courses taught at a distance, completion rates were disappointing. Of those enrolled in one course, only half took exams. There were reports that listeners’ interest in erudition often competed with the temptations of entertainment. Listeners might tune into a lecture occasionally, but not with the regularity or dedication ardent advocates predicted.

Some also complained that the learning was passive.  In 1924, the journalist Bruce Bliven skeptically asked: “Is radio to become a chief arm of education?  Will the classroom be abolished, and the child of the future be stuffed with facts as he sits at home or even as he walks about the streets with his portable receiving-set in his pocket?” Answering his own question, Bliven wrote, “A good mind … must be built, not stuffed. … Radio, of course, faces squarely against this whole tide.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge was that radio did not offer opportunities for social interaction in the way that traditional courses did. A sociologist noted  in 1927, “There are certain fundamental things in man’s nature that tend to show us that broadcasting cannot … supersede the theater, the concert,  … or the lecture hall.” He continued, “Broadcasting has hardly any gregarious or association appeals.”

Finally, even when students endured the isolation and passivity of this new mode of learning, conquered the temptations of popular radio programs, and finished a course, it wasn’t clear what that meant. Students in Kansas State’s radio classes received certificates verifying they had participated in “the college of the air,” but these were not the same as real diplomas. Other colleges tried to make the classes count for university credit: Between 1923 and 1940, 13 institutions offered courses for credit, and nearly 10,000 students enrolled. But a mere 17 percent actually received credit, and by the 1940-41 academic year, there was only one radio course in the United States for which a student could earn credit—and nobody enrolled in it.

Decades later, as we contemplate MOOCs, much of this sounds familiar. In discussions of radio courses in the 1920s and 30s, and in the euphoria over online courses today, university administrators, along with journalists, gush about the potential of technology to extend the geographic reach of the university, even while acknowledging MOOCs’ experimental nature, the lack of a way to monetize them, and the need to build in greater interaction between lecturer and audience.

Admittedly, the past is not the present, and the “college of the air” is not a MOOC. MOOCs offer more possibilities for interaction than radio did. Yet while participants in MOOCs report a good deal of interaction among students, they report little to no communication with their professors—unsurprising, given the student-faculty ratio. And like radio, MOOCs still can’t offer the level of sociability or one-on-one interactions that brick-and-mortar classes do. (Even regular online courses don’t do that very well: Our cash-strapped, time-pressed students confide that while online classes are convenient, they still prefer to take courses in a classroom, with a professor, on our campus.)

The problem of what MOOCs add up remains. While some universities have promised to accept them for credit, in the long term, we may find, as proponents of radio did, that the courses play at best a minor role in helping students earn degrees.

Finally, MOOCs, like radio courses of the 20s, face competition from temptations less present in the traditional classroom. Many radio listeners resolved to “attend” courses, only to have those resolutions undermined by the distractions of easy listening. When there is no instructor physically present, attrition and inattention abound.

This isn’t to say that modern universities are perfect. But the limitations of early-20th-century “universities of the air” and 21st-century MOOCs remind us of what real universities do well. While MOOCs expose students to information, that is not the most fundamental dimension of learning. Perhaps most central to an education are the habits of mental discipline and the motivation it instills. Traditional colleges offer engaged professors who care if students attend class, answer their questions, and help them stay focused. Colleges offer spaces for a type of sociability that broadcast radio and MOOCs have yet to replicate. So long as they offer those advantages, universities are unlikely to disappear into the ether.

Susan Matt is chair of the history department at Weber State University, and Luke Fernandez is Weber State’s manager for program and technology development.

Return to Top