Continuing Ham Education

L. B. Cebik, W4RNL

Since the advent of the VEC program, there has been a dramatic reduction in the availability of quality technical self-instructional materials for radio amateurs. Part of the decline owes to the concentration of instruction upon the licensing process, which involves only rudimentary technical information presented in fragments. Although this presentation parallels the structure of the license examinations, it fails to give students any sense of the fact that communications electronics consists of a coherent and interrelated set of ideas, formulas, and techniques. Another part of the decline in available self- instructional material derives from concerns about the growing median age of licensed hams. Consequently, great and appropriate effort has gone into recruiting potential hams from among the nation's youth. The program, whose success is becoming apparent in license statistics, has taken energy from the next step in amateur education: post-licensing education in the basics of communications electronics.


The consequences of the lack of suitable instructional materials are many. Recently licensed amateurs have difficulty understanding the technical articles in QST and other amateur radio journals. Many of these amateurs feel that the space is wasted and clamor for more general interest articles. At one time, hams raised an equal clamor for more technical articles and more thorough technical articles. With few resources to ease the way into understanding the technical fundamentals of amateur radio, quality assurance of amateur signals rests more with the manufacturer's ability to make foolproof equipment and less with the individual amateur's ability to correct technical difficulties. Accompanying the reduced ability comes a potentially reduced appreciation of the importance of bringing signals into line with regulatory specifications. None of these situations, however, should be interpreted as meaning that hams, in general, do not want to know.

Despite the absence of suitable materials for amateur instruction beyond the requirements of licensing, significant numbers of hams do wish to learn the technical aspects of their avocation. Informal questioning of amateurs in my local region has produced some interesting facts about the desire to learn. At least 1 percent and perhaps as many as 5 percent of the hams in the area at any one time wish they could participate in some form of electronics education related to their interests in amateur radio. If one were to extrapolate from these figures that in any one year 1 percent of U.S. hams would participate in self-instruction or local classes, sales of instructional texts would number almost 5,000 per year, enough to ensure a suitable return on the investment in publishing such materials. If consciousness-raising and recruitment of interest are added to these unsolicited expressions, then sales and activity would be considerably higher.

The potential clientele for amateur instruction shows little demographic differentiation. Hams of all ages, from teens to retirees, equally express interest in further ham education. In real classes that extend for several weeks, the drop-out rate is highest among those in their 30s, who have a combination of jobs and children to divert them from their interest. Otherwise, attendees remain loyal to the class if instruction is good and if interest in the student as an individual is a key ingredient in the teaching. Classes for amateur licensees show little, if any, signs of socio-economic differentiation beyond that encountered among the amateur population as a whole. The understanding of a mystery--a very appealing mystery of how something magical works--has much of the appeal that it had in the early days of radio. It is an appeal without the boundaries that separate many other activities in society. I personally have taught college professors and plumbers in the same class, and they had much the same attitude and interest.

If these informally gathered data hold true over the amateur population as a whole, then the success in fulfilling the need for post-licensing amateur radio education will depend upon the quality of the materials and assistance we provide.


Individual and informal group instruction in radio fundamentals requires one or more texts written expressly for this purpose. Modern circumstances both of communications technology and of activities permitted under amateur service licenses strongly suggest that the older practice of combining all radio fundamentals in a single text is no longer practical or effective. In addition, the goals of self-study or small group informal education suggest that a single volume might be self-defeating, overwhelming the ham who wishes to increase his or her know-how. Therefore a series of texts, each covering a significant segment of the fundamentals of communications technology, appears best to describe the need.

Existing self-instructional materials do not meet the needs of amateur radio licensees. Current licensing manuals consist largely of questions and answers from the examination pool. In almost all such manuals, excluding the A.R.R.L. study guides, the only text is a brief explanation of the correct answer to a given question. Only League guides provide connected text to introduce ideas in a reasonably coherent manner, but the scope of these guides precludes the development of crucial basic ideas in radio communications. For example, the General Class guides have yet to introduce the concept of Q and its importance to many facets of radio work. Resonance, too, is missing. Wave conditions on feedlines is nowhere seen. Little wonder new licensees have many misconceptions of how things actually work if all they have read is a license guide. This is no criticism of such guides. They were never intended as substitutes for appropriate instructional materials.

Perhaps the two best basic texts for hams were Bob Shrader's Amateur Radio: Theory and Practice and George Grammer's A Course in Radio Fundamentals. Both are unavailable, and neither may be truly apt to the contemporary need. Shrader's book was keyed to older FCC study questions and was only as comprehensive as that question pool. As a one-volume coverage of amateur electronics, it could not address crucial points as leisurely as might be desirable. Yet, its thickness gives it a formidable appearance. Grammer's book is an A.R.R.L. classic and is still a model of lucidity and important detail. However, its World War II origins show, as the world of amateur radio electronics has widened almost beyond belief. The development of amateur radio instructional materials requires rethinking to capture the best of these books while meeting today's new circumstances.

Self-instructional materials in electronics abound. NRI and CIE have offered home instruction courses for as long as most hams can remember reading electronics magazines. Heath transformed its excellence in writing kit-building manuals into equally excellent self-instructional materials. However, commercial materials aim at a general electronics education sufficient to prepare the student for work as a technician across a broad spectrum of the overall field. Topics of special interest to hams occur only as advanced or specialized instruction, or they do not appear at all. Although these self-instruction courses are excellent at what they do, they do not immediately meet the needs of amateur radio licensees.

Even if there were suitable self-instructional texts, continuing ham education would have other needs as well. If the texts are to serve small group informal instruction as well as self-study, volunteer instructors would greatly benefit from instructor guides. Volunteer instructors very often have insufficient background or time to develop lesson plans, to create classroom-size visual reinforcement materials, or to design effective classroom demonstration experiments. The cause of good instruction creates a need for guides to assist instructors in their efforts.

The development of materials requires oversight and coordination. The use of those materials in group situations also calls for assistance and coordination. The fulfillment of these needs creates its own need for an effective organization of volunteers and others to ensure the successful production of materials and the establishment of classes for hams.


Fulfilling the needs of post-licensing amateur radio self-instruction and informal classes will require two coordinated developmental efforts: 1. creation of written instructional materials and supplements, and 2. organization of the people who are committed to and involved in various aspects of the instructional program. No organization inside or outside amateur radio is qualified to take on such a task except A.R.R.L. With access to writing and teaching talents, with access to clubs and other potential sponsoring groups, with experience in recruiting, teaching, and licensing new hams, with publication experience and facilities, with a staff experienced in dealing with amateur radio licensees, and with a membership that includes the single largest collection of U.S. hams, the League is positioned as no other commercial or nonprofit organization to undertake such an effort.

The activities required to develop a continuing ham education program represent a major addition to the current primary challenge given to the A.R.R.L. Educational Activities Department. It is possible to implement such a program in stages, reevaluating each stage before beginning the next. 1. The first stage, which is key to the entire program, is the development of texts. This stage requires oversight, recruitment of writers, determination of the basis of writer efforts--pay, volunteer, other--and coordination of publishing efforts. 2. The second stage would be the development and publication of instructional guides for use with the texts in classes. This stage might be undertaken solely as a service to affiliated clubs and potential instructors, even if the League determines to limit its activity in this field. 3. The third stage--which includes active recruitment of Educational Advisors to serve this effort, continuing assistance to sponsoring groups, and other activities associated with a continuing education enterprise--requires the greatest commitment of long-term League energy. Division of the project into stages represents one way in which the League may cautiously enter into such a program of post-licensing technical education.


Without adequate written materials, no educational program can succeed. The fundamental materials necessary for post-licensing amateur education are a series of texts which segment basic communications electronics into logical teaching units. The specific units chosen should reflect practical as well as theoretical considerations. For example, in the following proposed scheme, the subject of digital information techniques precedes basic VHF and UHF techniques. The reason for this progression stems from the tendency of newer Technician class amateurs to enter into packet and other digital modes early on. They use commercial equipment for RF generation and reception, while developing interfaces or interconnections with their computers and packet modems. Thus, understanding packet and its requirements is a more immediate need than understanding the nonadjustable transceiver that sends and receives packet. Similar considerations apply to the exact placement of every volume in the series.

There are numerous subdivisions one might use to teach electronics, but the following scheme has several advantages. First, each text presents a coherent topic which permits the student to increase his or her knowledge in a systematic way. Each avoids the temptation to collect a hodge-podge of information that lacks the proper connective threads. Second, the series of texts as a whole shows a similar developmental pattern. Third, the topics parallel in numerous ways the material in the A.R.R.L. Handbook, which allows students to read more deeply into a subject. Should an alternative scheme be chosen for a collection of texts, it should be educationally defensible in similar terms.

1. Basic DC, AC, and RF Circuit Concepts: This is the basic volume of the series and covers fundamental circuit concepts and the action of most major passive components. It would introduce Ohm's Law and related topics, AC and RF phenomena, reactance and Q, resonance, filters, transformers and coupling, and impedance matching.

2. Analog Circuit Concepts and Amplifier Devices: The second volume would introduce the concepts of amplification and oscillation, along with the basic amplifying components: the transistor, the FET, and the vacuum tube. It would thoroughly cover low and high power amplifying circuitry and biasing amplifiers for each class of operation, along with adjunct topics such as positive and negative feedback, spurious oscillation, frequency limitations, amplifier types, and the op amp.

3. Digital Devices and Techniques: Volume three introduces the reader to digital integrated circuit functions and to the dominant lines of digital ICs. Beginning with gate functions, the volume would not only provide insight into the available functions and combination of functions, but would demonstrate practical circuits for ham applications. It would also cover specialized digital ICs found in amateur use and explain basic computer and memory chips.

4. Basic Antenna and Feedline Concepts: If one considers the A.R.R.L. Antenna Book a reference manual and Maxwell's Reflections a special purpose advanced text, then a truly basic introduction to the fundamental concepts of antennas and feedlines does not exist. Such a volume would introduce antenna energy conversion independently of antenna type, later relating the properties of practical antennas to basic concepts. The text would also introduce transmission line concepts independently of past misconceptions. These fundamentals would expand to include specialized antennas, such as ground-mounted verticals (and arrays), beams (both parasitic and driven), and others; impedance transformation; and transmitter-to-line impedance matching.

5. Digital Information Techniques: This volume introduces digital information techniques ranging from CW to RTTY, AMTOR, and Packet, along with information on specialized telemetry and other modes of encoding RF signals with decodable data. Included would be information on the principles of encoding and practical techniques for accomplishing the goal, with supplemental details to prepare the amateur to participate intelligently and successfully in each mode of operation.

6. Voice and Picture Modulation: Analog information encoding upon RF signals is a companion to the preceding volume and would explain the dominant methods of modulating and demodulating RF with decodable voice and picture information. Double side-band AM, SSB, and FM would dominate the volume, although the volume should permit the reader to appreciate the entire spectrum of modulation types included in FCC regulations, along with practical circuits and techniques for implementing them.

7. Basic Transmitter and Receiver Design: With the conceptual building blocks established so far, the reader is prepared to understand the basic concepts used in the design of modern transmitters and receivers (or transceivers). Historical designs (such as regenerative receivers and frequency-multiplying transmitters) could well illustrate both design objectives and limitations. However, the circuits and overall functional flow of modern units would be stressed to encourage understanding of equipment typically used by amateurs.

8. Basic VHF, UHF, and Microwave Techniques: This volume would introduce hams to the special considerations common to VHF, UHF, and relevant microwave equipment, circuits, and devices encountered by radio amateurs. The coverage would include receivers and converters, transmitters and transverters, and antennas and feedlines, with appropriate mention of safety precautions applicable to frequencies above HF.

9. Basic Test Equipment and Techniques: Completing the series would be an introduction to the basic concepts, circuits, and instruments used to measure electronic phenomena. The text would emphasize instruments reasonably available to amateurs and techniques amateurs might use to measure relevant but special parameters, such as reactance and impedance.

The overall format of the proposed texts might well be the current A.R.R.L. standard: 8.5 by 11 inches in size with two columns of text and variable size graphics to sustain interest in the page. Each volume would run 100 to 150 pages, divided into several chapters. Wherever possible, photographs should complement graphics and circuit diagrams to familiarize the reader with the appearance of components, circuits, and instruments. Each text chapter would include the following: 1. presentation and illustration of basic concepts and relationships, 2. extended explanations of critical ideas, 3. notes on the relationship of the current concepts to others in electronics, 4. sample practical applications with actual and usable circuits, 5. experiments the reader can perform, where applicable, and 6. references to other books for further information on the subject.

Mathematics is inevitable in any electronics text: in these texts, formulas may run to reasonable complexity so long as explanations of the terms and relationships are given. However, for mathematics beyond high school second-year algebra (for example, polar notation, complex trigonometry, and statistical notations), an appendix or a side bar in the chapter should explain the rudiments of notation and procedure to orient the reader. Calculus should not be necessary.


As an adjunct to the texts, it might well be possible to design or adapt computer programs in BASIC to perform calculations demonstrated in each text. There are many public domain programs covering basic electronic formulas up through calculations of amplifier parameters and transmission line functions. There are two ways of presenting these programs: 1. as a collection of independent programs, and 2. as a coherent program under a single master menu per text. Without much difficulty, a programmer of moderate experience could write a master menu program to link the program collections in each text. The result would be a reasonably comprehensive computer program for basic amateur radio mathematics.

The use of the proposed texts in informal classes taught by volunteers sponsored by local radio clubs or similar groups requires little more of the student than attentive reading and listening, abetted by hands-on experience. However, much is required of the average volunteer instructor who often has little teaching background. Therefore, instructors need guidance in the use of the texts in classes, which calls for a series of instructor guides. The current A.R.R.L. guides for Novice/Technician classes and for General classes are two variations on the guidance theme. The guides should be keyed to individual texts in the series and contain lesson plans for each unit of material. Each plan should include a teaching time estimate, a set of objectives, requirements for teacher preparation, a list of required materials, and a list of classroom demonstrations and experiments. The last element, the demonstrations, should be outlined in detail, with hints on how to make them effective in a classroom. In addition to these detailed lesson plans, the instructor guides should also have a master plan for the entire volume and other information to assist prospective instructors to estimate and plan for the duration of the class term. Each guide should also contain graphics that the instructor can use in the classroom, either by photocopying pages from the guide or by transferring the graphic to an overhead projector transparency.

In addition to the specific guidance needed to teach each text, instructors should have access to more general assistance in teaching classes of this type. Such material may be appended to each volume, or a master instructor's manual might be produced. Such a manual would be similar in relevant content to the current League Instructor's Manual, with adjustments made for the differences between conducting licensing classes and teaching continuing education classes. Among the new material might be how to retain student interest and loyalty in a longer term class, how to master mathematical operations, how to use hands-on experiments in class to reinforce the relationship of theory and practice, how to learn the needs of individual students to make teaching more effective, and a number of other topics.


However modest or extensive, a ham continuing education program requires human effort. Some person-hours will be volunteer; others will be paid staff; still others will be by contract or other temporary paid vehicle. The organization of the program to ensure the most efficient and effective use of all personal exertions also has ramifications for program costs. Even if the initial stages of the program are small, they require the definitive assignment of an A.R.R.L. staff member. The most logical placement of the program is within the Educational Activities Department. The need for a full- or part-time assignment to the program will vary with the workload as the commitment and the program develop.

For the text phase of the program, the staff member would coordinate writing and publishing efforts to ensure a set of worthy League publications. The staff member would work directly with authors or with a series editor. Similar considerations apply to the writing of instructor guides, although the sources of materials may be more diverse and require extensive contact with instructors and possibly with Educational Advisors in the field. If the program extends (either sooner or later) to extensive field efforts with club or group sponsorship of classes and volunteer instructors, then staff coordination responsibilities will grow almost exponentially. Part of that task will include extensive informational assistance to ensure that groups and instructors have the best and most complete set of materials possible. Another part of the task may well be the recruitment of club sponsors and volunteer instructors to initiate and enlarge educational programs at a local level. Although precise activities may differ from those presently undertaken by the Educational Activities Department to recruit youthful new hams, they will be no less extensive or demanding.

Any program as extensive as a continuing ham education program requires general oversight. First, the program must meet the terms of League policy as determined by its Board of Directors. Second, the program must be expert, meeting the highest standards of publication and continuing education. Third, the program must be responsive to real needs expressed by individuals and groups of hams throughout the country. Fourth, the actions and products of the program and its personnel must come under periodic review.

Perhaps the best means of meeting these needs would be a volunteer program planning and oversight committee composed of several different types of members. 1. The committee should include one or more Directors to ensure that all detailed plans meet the terms set by Board policy. Director members would also ensure knowledgeable and regular reporting to the Board on the progress of the program. 2. The staff member(s) assigned to the program should participate fully in the committee's work. Most feedback and problems will likely come first to the attention of a staff member. Too, staff members are most likely to be thoroughly conversant with practical and temporary problems, such as publication delays. 3. Volunteer experts in education and in writing technical materials who are also radio amateurs should be members of the committee. Whether in planning, review, or evaluation, these members can best assure that the elements of the program meet the highest standards of technical continuing education. Indeed, part of their task may be to establish these standards.

The extensive series of texts suggested for the continuing ham education program presents a major writing challenge. To ensure the highest quality writing, each volume should be prepared by a writer of known quality. Coordination of production would be handled by the League staff member assigned responsibility for the program. However, the staff member should not be expected to be responsible also for the accuracy of the technical content and the consistency and quality of the writing style of each volume in the series. Rather, the program requires a series editor for this duty. Consistency of graphics (both type and quantity), terminology, chapter and paragraph size and style, index considerations, allowable volume-to-volume repetition of material, amount and type of mathematical material, and numerous other tasks that contribute to making the series a cohesive whole strongly suggest the need for a series editor whose work would be no less than that of the individual volume authors.

The associated instructor guides may be a function assigned either to a staff member or to one or more experts in such matters. The requirements for lesson plans built around the texts and the requirements for usable classroom graphics may suggest a collaborative effort. A master teaching guide that would include recruiting and teaching aids may be otherwise assigned. The final products, however, require oversight and editing by a single hand to ensure consistency of style, level, and format.

A relatively small number of volunteer Educational Advisors (EAs) currently serve the efforts of the Educational Activities Department. Most of these dedicated teachers and teaching experts are concerned with the recruitment and training of youth for entry into the ranks of radio amateurs. If a program of continuing ham education comes into existence and includes assistance for clubs and other groups which sponsor classes, then further recruitment of specialized EAs seems in order. Continuing education of people of all ages and levels of background presents problems somewhat different from those facing teachers of licensing classes. The term of student commitment is longer. The technical level of the material is higher. The balance of understanding and mastering the mathematics of various principles differs from that associated with basic licensing. The required sophistication of classroom demonstrations is much greater. These and other differences strongly suggest the recruitment of specialized EAs with expertise and interest in post-licensing continuing education to supplement the current array of EAs. These volunteers could go a long way toward easing the burden of the program on the League staff member assigned to shepherd it.

Recruiting clubs and other groups to sponsor continuing education classes for hams requires a continuing effort. In the area of recruiting and teaching potential hams, the Educational Activities Department is already familiar with the formidable task of acting as a liaison with these groups and providing them with timely and effective services. Similar, but largely distinct, activities would be required to assist groups who may take an interest in teaching classes over the material in any of the texts in the proposed series. Servicing instructors and sponsoring groups and making them part of the League family would require a significant commitment of staff time and energy. Nonetheless, providing such services would be as crucial a step to program success as it is in the present programs of the Educational Activities Department.


The primary benefit of a program of continuing ham education would be, overall, an amateur community whose technical knowledge more closely approximates regulatory expectations. Although amateur radio will always hold an important place for the individual whose principal, if not sole, interest is communications, encouraging and making possible further technical expertise is an equally important aspect of the traditions and the potentials of the service. The joy of understanding may be sufficient reward for some hams. For others, the ability to engage in building or servicing equipment may be the result. Some younger hams may proceed from amateur continuing education efforts into careers in electronics. Hams of many ages may begin to participate in the more experimental aspects of amateur radio, whether these involve digital signal processing, new modulation methods, greater computer-radio interface capabilities, VHF-UHF-microwave experimentation, or satellite activity. The baseline measure of success, however, is simply a closer adherence to and appreciation of the technical requirements of amateur transmitted signals.

The proposed program of continuing ham education does not compete with any existing educational program. Rather, in a manner consistent with the traditions of amateur radio, the program might help to increase the number of people entering technical electronics careers. In the end, however, such a program--while not applicable to every ham--would raise the general level of technical know-how among individuals and groups throughout amateur radio. That accomplishment would suffice to justify the energy and resources required by the program of continuing ham education. With the VEC program and its associated recruitment and educational activities well-established, the time may be ripe to give full deliberation to this next important step in educational services to the amateur community.

From Proceedings of the 1992 National ARRL Education Workshop, (Newington: ARRL, 1992), pp. 34-41 L. B. Cebik, W4RNL. Data may be used for personal purposes, but may not be reproduced for publication in print or any other medium without permission of the author.

Go to Educational Notes Index
Return to Amateur Radio Page