Campus History



Massive open online courses (MOOCs) may be the newest trend in higher education (see “Behind the Screens,” in this issue), but at the UW, the practice of using mass-media technologies to connect the public with university instruction dates back more than eighty years.

WHA, the campus-based radio station, began broadcasting College of the Air in 1933. Think of it as a massive open radio course. The half-hour weekly program was designed for those in need of vocational training during the Great Depression. The first course was dedicated to agriculture, and several of the subsequent courses focused on home economics. One aimed to teach people how to type.

“It was bold at the time,” says journalism professor emeritus Jack Mitchell. “It was very much the Wisconsin Idea, trying to make the university help everybody.”

The series in that form ended in 1935 and shifted to a sort of university live stream, complete with wired classrooms. Literally. A wire was strung from the radio station in Vilas Hall through steam tunnels and up into lecture halls, such as the 1942 classroom in the photo above, where Chester Easum PhD’28 taught German history at the height of World War II.

The first lecture broadcast this way was a music appreciation course taught by university band director Edson Morphy. At its peak, the series broadcast up to three lectures every weekday.

In the late 1970s, Mitchell and his station colleagues experimented with different options for getting university content back on the air. Their efforts evolved into the radio and television shows now known as University of the Air.

Published in the Fall 2014 issue


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