Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Amateur Extra exam - a retrospective

After months of study I successfully passed the Amateur Extra exam last weekend. I did it for several reasons. First, I like to finish what I start, and the Technician and General levels were nice but just didn't feel like where I wanted to stop. Second, I wanted access to a larger slice of the radio spectrum that the Extra ticket provides.

But as I studied the ARRL curriculum I began to wonder how I would actually use this new knowledge. Sure, the RF safety material is important, as is the discussion on rules and regulations. But exactly how will I use my new ability to calculate half bandwidths or circuit Q. I don't plan to build any tranceivers from scratch, nor do I plan to do radio repairs. Moreover, the Extra curriculum provides nowhere near the background skills remotely required to do either.

So what's the point of studying this content? If it's meant to be a gate keeper and keep all those grubby CB types off the world bands, then it works...sort of. But I often hear old timers moan about how tough the exam used to be, that a 5 wpm code test means nothing, and that publishing the exam questions makes it too easy to pass the test. And it's particularly galling to them that us new guys don't build all our of own equipment. What we do, according to them, is merely operate 'appliances.'

Of course, all of this "in the old days" stuff is nonsense. If you could have bought a SSB transceiver on eBay in 1920 you would have done it. I immensely enjoy photography, my other hobby, but I didn't build my own digital camera. Does this make me any less of a photographer. I don't think so.

Even more, as an educator with advanced degrees in teaching and curriculum design, I can say with confidence that tests are not inherently required to be difficult. Look at it this way. You start with a needs analysis (a fancy way of saying you look at what people gotta know to do their job), gather the content that will help them do it, and then design a test that will measure whether they meet those requirements. If you correctly identify what they need to know, teach it competently, and then test to see if they learned it, where's the difficulty? You're simply asking them to apply what they've been taught. What's more, you can even start with the test and use that to teach the salient points.

Does this mean that those who have recently passed the Extra exam will have the same knowledge as someone who has been involved in the hobby for 20 or 30 years? Of course not, any more than new college graduates have the knowledge of seasoned professionals. But they do have the requisite knowledge to enter the field and begin to build their experience.

And this brings me back to my original point. How am I to use this new information? Designing a circuit by choosing capacitors, calculating resistors and then selecting the closest values, using truth tables, or any of the advanced trigometric calculations are pointless. Instead why don't we focus on newer digital modalities, computer skills, VoIP protocols, and use of cloud computing that more accurately reflect where the hobby is today?

Adhering to modes and methods determined by the way things used to be does nothing to advance the hobby, and it needlesly antigonizes the next generation of enthusiasts. Let's focus on the essentials of producing competent hobbyists at each license level and encourage them to grow their skills as they move forward.

-Steve KB3IHX

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