Training in the 21st Century

This article was written in January 2017, in response to a request for content for Radcom by the Chair of the RSGB TEC (Training & Education Committee).
Despite being submitted to both TEC and RadCom in January 2017, the article was never used, but is reprinted here for reference.

Training : Building a 21st Century Foundation – Pete Sipple, M0PSX

This article was inspired by a lengthy discussion in the RSGB’s Tutor’s Group, discussing the various ways that we help, or hinder, those looking to get started.  As a relative newcomer myself, I’m hoping that some of my experiences may help to stimulate some discussion within clubs on how we can all work better to recruit and train tomorrow’s radio amateurs.

Despite having a love of radio for decades, I stumbled into the hobby largely by accident five years ago, and was trained through all three licence levels by a local club. As I’d had some teaching experience, I became part of that club’s training team, and then went on to develop my own training material and to help roll out Foundation courses to two other local clubs. The next logical step for me, was to take the course online, and in 2015, our group launched its first Internet-based Foundation training course.

One of the key messages I took away from the excellent RSGB’s Train The Trainers course, is that people learn in different ways. Traditionally, we as amateurs largely teach in a classroom setting, using “chalk and talk” – walking through the syllabus with the aid of Powerpoint slides. Many trainers introduce props or their own aide memoirs to make for a more rich learning experience, but the general style of teaching is largely similar to what we experienced sat at desks back at senior school. To appeal to the next generation and to those who prefer to learn in other ways, we need a mix of tools. An online course is simply another way that newcomers can study, and like all tools, suits some, but not others. Online courses allow learns to study at their own time, either by reviewing text lessons in a virtual classroom, or by watching video tutorials.

Running the course for 18 months has given our group a unique perspective on amateur radio training in the UK. In 2016, just over 300 prospective M6s took part in one of our courses. Many of our students can’t get to a local club, but the majority seem to like the idea of being able to study in their own time, when they’re in the mood. Some whizz through the material, and others take their time to re-run the tests and go over their areas of weakness, something that’s often hard to do on a “chalk-and-talk” course. The biggest lesson that creating an online course has taught me, is that it’s actually quite hard for tomorrow’s potential amateurs to get started – and that’s often our fault.

Amateur radio clubs are, of course, the backbone of training. Even the various online courses still rely on clubs to lay on exam and practical sessions. The real heroes are the army of volunteer trainers, who expend large number of hours presenting material, assessing practicals, organising exams and making the tea for those setting out on their radio journey. From the information coming into me, connecting candidates to those passionate trainers, is a problem.

 

Falling at the first hurdle?

It’s amazing just how bad we can sometimes be at promoting the hobby. Before reading any further, take a few minutes to look at your local club’s website through the eyes of a newbie. How many of the following sections can you find on the front page?

  • A clear explanation of what amateur radio is all about
  • Photos of people operating a radio, or actively taking part in the hobby
  • Details of how to become a radio amateur
  • A “call to action” for those interested in getting started

The vast majority of clubs websites that I review, seem to exist for one purpose – to serve the club’s existing members. For the newcomer, a front page full of acronyms, callsigns and the society’s QSL policy is meaningless. By all means tuck that information away somewhere on the website, but does it need to be front-and-centre?

The homepage of a website is the gateway to the organisation, and is often found via a Google search. Frankly, some of the club websites out there are shocking, and I genuinely wonder how many casual visitors to club websites have fallen by the wayside at the first virtual hurdle.

 

The Postcode Lottery

In the process of writing this article, I reviewed 10 club websites that offer training. When looking at when the next Foundation course is available, I found that “TBA” cropped up a lot, as did “no courses planned at this time” or “please email us for details”. The most common question I hear from those on our online courses, is “where can I take my exam?” The most common complaint is that, after contacting all of their clubs in a 20 mile radius – they’ve drawn a blank. Websites without up-to-date course information, or nothing about training at all, are incredibly frustrating, as is firing off an email, only to hear nothing for a fortnight, followed by “we’ll contact you when we know what we’re doing”.

We do of course have the excellent RSGB Coursefinder, but it’s only as good as the information provided by the clubs. In discussion with other trainers in the RSGB Tutor’s group, it’s clear that some clubs are not aware of how to update their own entry, or don’t even know of the existence of the resource, despite monthly reminders via the RSGB Club newsletter.

If your club is serious about offering training – publish a date (or at least a month and year), and make sure prospective takers can find it. Also, whilst many in your club may not be fans of social media, it’s hard to deny that Facebook and Twitter are huge and are to be ignored at your club’s peril. For traditionalists, a line or two in the local paper is pretty easy to achieve, and even if it doesn’t generate candidates, it’s awareness for the hobby.

 

Comedy Timing

If our poor perspective candidate has made it this far without giving up – they’re to be rewarded. They may however fall at one of the ‘timing’ hurdles:

In my corner of the country, we have half a dozen clubs offering training, and at the time of writing,  three of them have actually published course dates. In typical “you can’t make this up” fashion… all three of the local clubs picked mid-January to start their Foundation courses this year. After that, they appear to offer nothing for newcomers until the Autumn, where the courses again clash.

Secondly, there’s the timing of the courses themselves. Locally, most candidates have two choices – to give up their entire weekend and sit through 15 hours of Powerpoint, practicals and exam, or to rush straight from work for a number of consecutive weeks on the trot to consume Powerpoint and practicals in chunks. Those with families, odd working hours, transport issues, or the desire to eat, are often left with Hobson’s Choice – Sacrifice, or give up.

 

Fortunately for the hobby, many are blessed with perseverance, or a flexible local club, and are able to join our ranks. It’s apparent, however, that many radio clubs out there have substituted the word “radio” for “social”, and don’t offer anything to help the newbies. No newbies – no hobby, and no way to replenish and refresh the club’s membership.

 

“We don’t do training”

Training can be seen as a big undertaking for a club, particularly once that’s constrained by a lack of volunteers or energy. Many clubs have shied away from offering training, as they feel it’s too much work. In the last 5 years, however, the landscape has changed, and clubs not offering training should be encouraged to take a fresh look. It’s no longer necessary to build up a multi-skilled training team, make costly up-front venue bookings, and create reams of training material and slides. There are plenty of free resources out there, and for the Internet, Smartphone and YouTube generation, self-learning is an increasingly popular option.

To capitalise on this, a number of clubs now offer a “fast track” session for home-studiers. Candidates can learn at their leisure, then take the mandatory practicals and exam in a single session. It‘s possible for a club to complete the practicals for a small group within 2 or 3 hours, and with the exam talking less than an hour, a half-day session once or twice a year is all that’s needed to help bring new blood into the hobby.

If training’s really something that your club doesn’t want to touch with a 10-element Yagi, at a minimum, add something to your site directing newcomers to a nearby club, an online course, or the RSGB, to give newcomers a fighting chance.

A better offering?

Even clubs that run regular and popular training courses shouldn’t rest on their laurels – can more be done? Do you offer provision for self-learners? Could you perhaps run a ‘Foundation practical’ session at your club night, or an extra Foundation exam alongside your Intermediate course? Do you give your students links to online videos, mocks and material so they can brush up between lessons? And what of your neighbouring clubs? Tempting as it is to hang on to your training leads, surely the candidate is the priority, not the club. Stagger your courses to avoid a local training drought, and don’t be afraid of directing someone to a nearby club rather than letting them go off the boil waiting for next year’s course.

 

If you’re involved with the running of a local club, perhaps set aside some time at your next committee meeting to look at the training ‘big picture’. If you’re a member of a club and you feel it could do more to recruit and train newcomers, then bring it up with your club’s committee.

Tomorrow’s challenge is how to keep the new M6s that you’ve recruited, both interested and inspired – but that’s a story for another day…

 

Draft 01 written by Pete Sipple M0PSX – 18 January 2017

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