Dumbing it down fails

Computerworld just published an article, “12 predictions for the future of programming.” Future of programming prediction No. 10: Dumbing it down will fail is the one that caught my eye. It reads:

For the past 50 years, programmers have tried to make it easy for people to learn programming, and for 50 years they’ve succeeded — but only at teaching the most basic tasks. Ninety-five percent of the world may be able to figure out if-then-else structures, but that’s not the same thing as being a programmer.

I think that the same thing is true of amateur radio. We’ve dumbed down the Tech exam to allow more people to enter the hobby. I think that’s OK. We need a way to get people interested in amateur radio, and there is a place for operators who only want to do the very simple things like get an HT and talk through repeaters. “Real ham radio,” though, is about learning how circuits work and how to build your own antennas and, increasingly, how to program digital signal processing algorithms. That’s hard stuff, but there’s no way around that. We need to encourage people to acquire this knowledge and skills.

For me, this means is that while I’m OK with the Tech license being relatively easy to get, perhaps the General and Extra Class tickets should be harder to get. Maybe we should expect more from Generals and Extras. We should expect them to really know stuff.

I’m not saying that we should be hovering over them, ready to pounce on them the minute they say something stupid. It is still just a hobby, after all, and we can’t expect amateur radio licensees to be electronics engineers. We can, however, create an environment that values learning and encourages people to ask good questions so that they can get better at being radio amateurs.

I know that this is only a partly-baked idea, but I think we need to move in this direction. Not only that, it’s up to us old-timers (old farts?) to set the tone and lead the way. What do you think?


  1. Grant Henninger (KJ6ZZD) says:

    I see licencing completely differently than what you’re recommending. Licences should simply ensure that people aren’t going to hurt themselves or interfere with others. The real learning in ham radio comes after you’re licensed. You learn about circuits as you’re building your first kit radio, not before. You learn about propagation once you have your General ticket and are trying to get on HF, not before. You learn about SDR as you’re trying to get one working, not before.

    I agree with you that hams should celebrate a lifetime of learning and figuring out those hard things within the hobby. But those things are learned as they are being done, and you need a license before you can do them.

    • Dan KB6NU says:

      I agree with you, Grant, and that’s what the Tech license is all about. I’ve said as much in this post. Techs do have some HF privileges and can even learn about SDR with their operating privileges. I’m really not for artificially restricting people from doing things in amateur radio, but wouldn’t you agree that there are some basic things that you should expect a General Class licensee to know?

  2. Jim Myers says:

    So, you think that knowing how to program digital signal processing algorithms should a prerequisite to a General or Amateur Extra class license? You do realize that 99% of the general population as well as current ham radio licensees, including the “old-timers” would not be able to meet that requirement, don’t you?

    I postulate that you have no knowledge whatsoever as to the complexity of such programming. I’ll make you a deal – we both take a test on DSP programming, perhaps we should each have one day to create a MotoTrbo or P25 Phase 2 or D-Star DSP based decoder from scratch – that should be an adequate test of one’s ability to operate a ham radio – and the loser gives up their ham license for the rest of their life and donates all their equipment to a school ham radio club. In other words, I’m willing to put my ham radio future and high 5-figure equipment investment on the line, are you willing to do the same to back up your insane suggestion? Unless, of course, you feel that YOU should not have to meet the same requirements that you want to force on the rest of the world.

    I am very disheartened when people want to force requirements on others that they could not possibly meet themselves. Your blog is normally very good, but when you start suggesting that someone should know how to do DSP programming to get a General or Amateur Extra license you lose all credibility.

    Your suggestions would be the surest way to destroy the future of ham radio, is that your unstated goal?

    • Dan KB6NU says:

      You obviously read a lot more into my post than what I intended. I never said that someone should be required to program a DSP algorithm to get an amateur radio license. What I did say is that “It is still just a hobby, after all, and we can’t expect amateur radio licensees to be electronics engineers. We can, however, create an environment that values learning and encourages people to ask good questions so that they can get better at being radio amateurs.”

      Perhaps my use of the term “real ham radio” set you off. If so, I apologize for using it. As anyone who knows me will tell you I view anyone who has an amateur radio license as a “real ham,” and I’m always ready to help people learn new things and have more fun with amateur radio.

      I do stand by my statement that we should expect more from General Class and Extra Class licensees, though. Don’t construe that to mean that I think that the tests should be made so difficult that no one could pass them. That’s just silly.

      What that “more” is, I don’t know exactly. I did say this was just a partly-baked idea. I do know that if hams ask me for help in being “more” or doing “more,” then I try to help them as best I can. I’m only human after all.

  3. Frank WA8WHP says:

    I agree Dan. Last night, at our monthly meeting, we tried out a form of jeopardy as our program. The winner by a big margin was the latest student to get his license using your No-Nonsense Tech study guide. We had a General class of 20 years, a General class of 5 years and a new student. I was gratified my student did so well, but I was rather embarrassed by the lack of basic knowledge among the old timers.
    Thanks for a great educational asset. We start another class session next week. Maybe I can talk some old-timers into a refresher session.

  4. Fred W8ZLK says:

    Be careful what you wish for. The FCC may require re-examination for license renewal, including some new, sophisticated questions that many old timers may not
    know, such as digital signal processing and microwave technology.

  5. Jim Myers KD7EIR says:

    I basically agree with Fred W8ZLK – If the FCC makes the license test harder, then all current licensees should have to re-test within 30 days and pass the current exam to maintain their license.

    • Bob, KG6AF says:

      Exam syllabus and difficulty isn’t determined by the FCC, at least not under existing regulations.

      Take a look at 97.503 and 97.523, and you’ll see that the exam syllabus is pretty much up to the the VECs. The FCC stipulates that (a) a written examination must be such as to prove that the examinee possesses the operational and technical qualifications required to perform properly the duties of an amateur service licensee, (b) each exam must ask questions concerning the privileges of the license class in question, and (c) the question pool must be open, common to all VECs, and contain at least ten times the number of questions in a given test (i.e., 350 for Tech and General, 500 for Extra).

      Amazingly, that’s about all they say. The rest is up to the VECs, which, acting collectively through the NCVEC, create the question pools.

      If you think the tests are too easy, or too hard, write to NCVEC officials (see ncvec.org) and tell them so. If you have ideas for a different syllabus, same thing. Better yet, form a group of amateurs who can develop syllabi and the question pools for them. If I were on the NCVEC, seeing a finished product (or something close to it) that represented the inputs of lots of amateurs would impress me a more than random suggestions from individual hams.

      If it were up to me, I’d keep the syllabus the same and increase the number of questions per pool, to eliminate learning the pool through rote memorization. I’d also get rid of low-value questions. For example, instead of asking the candidate to memorize band allocations for their license class, I’d give them a band allocation chart and confirm they can determine their license class’s frequency allocations from it. Similarly, I don’t much care if an Extra Class candidate has memorized the phrase “resistance circles and reactance arcs” for the Smith Chart question, but it would be interesting to show you can read a Smith Chart to determine the impedance seen at the end of, say, a 3/16-wavelength coax terminated in a certain impedance. In each of these examples, we’re trading off rote memorization for demonstration of a skill.

      Unfortunately, I’m as lazy as everyone else, so I haven’t submitted my ideas.

  6. George N6TQD says:

    I earned my Novice license back in the 80’s when we had to learn the 5WPM code and then take the written exam. The same with the Tech and then the 13WPM for General. When I took the Extra exam, the 20WPM code was a thing of the past, as was the Advanced ticket. I became inactive for a number of years and recently, within the past year, started to review so I wouldn’t appear too ignorant when I returned to the air. I was amazed how much more advanced both the Tech/General information was. Some I had forgotten, but a lot I never knew. I could not pass the General exam now, and I wonder how many other hams are like me (My pride says I will pass/understand both the General and Extra again, plus the 20WPM code, but what an embarrassment it is). I knew the material at the time, but with the digital/computer modes coming on, I was just left behind in the dust. I never kept up with the advances in ham radio. You can’t stay passive.

    Like computers, there are many facets of ham radio. Some want to just have QSO’s with DXing and others may want to get into the guts of home brewing. I really can’t understand where people are talking computer to computer and calling it ham radio. What if there were two tests. One for those that just want to talk and the other for the ones who want to really know the workings of ham radio.

    I don’t think it as dumbing down, but more of the ever advancing change of technology. At the time we knew it, but then it fast tracked away from us so fast that it left us ignorant.

    My humble opinion,

    George, N6TQD

  7. Ezara KC9YQD says:

    I’m mixed about this one. I support what KJ6ZZD has to say and feel that the knowledge one must learn to get their licenses is crucial for safety and understanding the FCC rules and regulations. Dumbing down all of the license classes to get more people into the hobby is a bad idea though

    I’ve always been fascinated by electronics and decided to get into Ham radio. I sat for, and passed, my Technician and General licensure on April 1, 2013. Since then, my interest in electronics has exploded and I want to do more with amateur radio. Studying for my Amateur Extra is opening my eyes to some new things. This one isn’t an “easy-peasy” exam and for anyone who is truly interested in the hobby and in electronics, they will put forth the effort necessary to earn their Extra ticket.

  8. Aeroengineer1 says:

    I wanted to post on this topic as a person that is not a HAM licensee. I have not yet gone after my HAM license because I see this not quite necessary for what I am currently doing. There are two main reasons that I have not yet gone after my license. The first reason relates to what would be gained from it. One of the benefits is the community of license holders. There is a prebuilt community that is exploring radio. Unfortunately, because I am looking for information about digital radio as well as the SMT electronics that support it, there is very few in the community that seem to have this type of understanding. Because of this, they would not be able to provide the mentorship that I am looking for. The more vocal parts of the HAM community that I see are more about operating their equipment for voice transmission and less about understanding and pushing forward RF advancement. I am glad that this community is fulfilling that need, it is just not inline with what I am looking for.

    The second reason that I have not gone after my license is that there is no need for it yet. I plan on making receivers for my 75MHz RC transmitter, and potentially a 2.4GHz multiprotocol transceiver in the unlicensed band. As I understand it, if I make only 5 transmission devices with the best engineering care, a license will not be required (I have already confirmed that I do not need a license to build the receiver I want to build). I do have one area that may require a license in that I would like to make a small RX/TX pair to operate in the ~100-200kHz range for RC submarine operation in salt water. This is an area where I may need to get a license so that I could get a waiver to operate in those frequencies.

    In the end it sums up to this. I would love to see requirements like this get into the tests. It would once again bring into the equation people that have a desire to increase their technical knowhow in current technologies. These people would then be available to mentor others that have an interest in learning these technologies. It may also increase interest in promoting once again the technical aspects of radio as opposed to just the usage aspect. I mean no offense to those that enjoy the hobby for voice communications. I too hope that they continue to enjoy and have a path to express their support for usage of the airwaves for amateur usage.

  9. While we in amateur radio debate testing requirements, argue about what is real radio, and agonize who knows what operating modes, people in the Maker community are just _doing_. They hack and build stuff and new people coming into the community build stuff they see that interests them. We need to stop focusing on barriers to entry and yardsticks to measure who knows what, and just focusing on doing things. It’s that simple. We also need to remove “dumbing down” from our vocabulary.

    • Dan KB6NU says:

      Point taken, and I think that’s what I’m trying to get to when I say, “create an environment that values learning and encourages people to ask good questions so that they can get better at being radio amateurs.”

      Here in Ann Arbor, we have a thriving maker community. There is a “club” called GO-Tech that meets every second Tuesday of the month. I say “club,” but there are no dues and no officers and no boring club business to attend to. They just meet and talk about their projects. They get 50-100 people to attend these meetings.

      To put it in the context of this discussion, they don’t “dumb things down” at all. Each project is what it is, and technical excellence and creativity is highly valued, and everyone is more than willing to share.

      Thanks for your comment.

  10. Dan,
    I agree with K3NG, let’s lose the “dumbing down” phrase as it serves no purpose than to piss people off. Let’s also add “real ham radio” to the not-helpful list of phrases. Ham radio has always embraced a wide range of interests.

    Jim Myers,
    I think you misinterpreted or over-interpreted Dan’s point. In case you aren’t aware, Dan is one of those hams that has spent a ton of energy helping new hams get started in the hobby. He is not one of those guys that looks to put barriers in place for other people.

    To me, Dan’s post essentially raises the question of “what is the purpose of having licensing and associated exams?” I think it is to require a minimal standard of knowledge for a particular license class. The key word is “minimum”. And, yes, the exam process, with a published pool of questions, has a number of problems, but it’s the process we have to work with.

    Should the General and Extra exams have questions relating to DSP and SDR? Sure, because these are technologies used in amateur radio. Should we expect a ham to be able to design a D-STAR decoder from scratch? Well, that is a silly question. The General question pool already has a few very basic questions related to DSP, so it becomes a question of how many questions and how difficult they should be. Don’t forget that the exams cover a lot of ground, including operating procedures and rules/reqs. There’s a tendency to try to load too much into the exam process and have it become the key driver for increased learning.

    I think the place to focus our energy is (as Dan wrote) to “create an environment that values learning” and that includes non-technical topics such as developing new operating skills.

    73, Bob K0NR

Speak Your Mind