Today most universities offer online courses that allow students to study and take tests without physically being on campus, but in the 1930s the distance learning technology of the future was television.
Both radio and television were initially envisioned as methods for point-to-point communication, but once radio broadcasting became mainstream in the 1920s universities saw the potential of the medium to reach a broad audience with educational programming. This was especially true in rural farming communities where long distance commuting to a university was out of the question.
Universities in the U.S. may have been at the forefront of experimenting with radio broadcasting, but frankly, they weren't great at attracting sizable audiences. As Douglas B. Craig explains in his book Fireside Politics, "many university stations [of the 1920s] began operations with high hopes of bringing education to the masses, but soon faltered as broadcasting costs increased, audiences diminished, and professors demonstrated that lecture-hall brilliance did not always translate into good radio technique. These problems were quickly reflected in an unfavorable allocation of frequency or broadcast times, sending many of these stations into a downward spiral to oblivion."
The handful of universities that were successful at attracting large audiences did so by introducing an almost confrontational approach to their presentation. University of Chicago Round Table, which began as a local Chicagoland broadcast in 1931 but ran nationally on NBC radio from 1933 until 1955, adopted a talk radio format that would be quite familiar to today's audiences. Rather than a single professor lecturing on a given topic, University of Chicago Round Table had three professors or scientists sitting around a triangular table while facing each other. These people would then debate scientific subjects like whether there was life on other planets and whether light is a wave or a particle. As Marcel C. Lafollette notes in "A Survey of Science Content in U.S. Radio Broadcasting, 1920s through 1940s, the goal of University of Chicago Round Table was to "keep it moving and keep it conversational" — a rule of broadcasting that holds true today.
Experiments in television brought universities that had failed at radio a fresh start, but it was still unclear as to whether these technologies should be used for narrowly targeted or broadcast purposes. In 1933, the University of Iowa became the first American university to broadcast TV. The first public demonstration of television in the state had occurred just two years earlier at the 1931 Iowa State Fair, and there was tremendous excitement by scientists at the University of Iowa to see what it could accomplish. Unreliable and unclear at the time, the rudimentary television technology of the early 1930s meant that the few experimenters who owned a TV (most likely constructed by themselves, rather than purchased in a store) had to turn on their radio in order to hear the broadcast, as the audio and visual couldn't be broadcast together. As noted in the March 16, 1933 Monticello Express (Monticello, IA):
University of Iowa's radio and television stations WSUI and W9XK are now ready to present the first scheduled series of sight and sound educational programs ever given by an American university. This announcement was made by the department of electrical engineering last Friday. The first broadcasts will probably be made once a week between 7 and 7:30 p.m., exact evening to be determined upon later. Details of the broadcasts are now being arranged and it is expected that a regular schedule of illustrated lectures will commence next week. Illustrated lectures have been chosen for program material because they are adaptable to radio and television synchronization pictures being confined to small areas with details.
In 1935, New York University professor C. C. Clark conducted a class using a shortwave radio transceiver (a radio that can both send and receive messages) from his home. Because the radio went both ways, Prof. Clark was able to take questions from the class. The April 1935 issue of Short Wave Craft magazine reported on Clark's experiment as a harbinger of the bold new way that classes may one day be conducted by television.
The article in Short Wave Craft included the drawing below, which proclaimed that it would be a scene "commonplace for tomorrow." Interestingly, the article also makes mention of the need for advertising to sustain such ventures — a controversial prospect at the dawn of television broadcasting.
The scene [below] will be a commonplace one tomorrow, without a doubt, when television will be as indispensable to our every day home life as the radio program receiver is today. Television advertising will be a "brand-new art" which our advertising experts will have to develop and perfect in the future.
The article claims that practical television broadcasting is just a year or two away, but doesn't mention the experiments at the University of Iowa. The magazine goes on excitedly about the commercial opportunities of television even though the FCC wouldn't yet allow stations to sell advertising in 1935.
As the illustration shows we will undoubtedly have lectures of every conceivable kind present to us right in our homes, when practical television arrives, possibly a year or two off. Mathematics, geometry, and dozens of other subjects will be "apple pie" so far as broadcasting them through the air by radio is concerned, when television is available for the purpose, compared to the present situation when it is quite impractical to attempt giving lectures on geometry or other subjects, which really require diagrams or pictures to make them clear to the uninitiated. Tomorrow our whole radio broadcast background, so far as the listener is concerned, will be changed when television becomes a common everyday convenience. Not only will various subjects be taught or lectured upon and brought into our homes, but the latest styles in men's and women's clothes, furniture, etc., will be flashed on our home television screen, and dozens of other advertised products, travel tours, etc., as well.
It would be another four years before television's coming out party at the 1939 New York World's Fair, and even then, the television receiver wouldn't become a staple of American homes until well after World War II. In 1952, the FCC set aside 242 noncommercial channels to encourage educational programming. One year later, it became apparent that the funding required to produce such shows was sorely lacking. Still, Life magazine tried to keep the faith: “The hunger of our citizenry for culture and self-improvement has always been grossly underestimated; the number of Americans who would rather learn a little something than receive a sample tube of shaving cream is absolutely colossal.”
This post originally appeared at Smithsonian.com.