My Take on Ham Radio Training

Apologies to anyone I know who’s not interested in ham radio, but I’ve been asked by members of my ham radio club to outline some thoughts. I need somewhere to put it – so it’s going here. If you’re not interested in ham radio, stop reading now. If you want to know what ham radio is, see Essex Ham. If you’re already a radio amateur, read on.

Changes to Foundation

Foundation entrants at 12 year low (2017)

Foundation entrants at 12 year low (2017)

In August 2018, the RSGB announced that a new, and tougher, entrance exam would be rolled out. According to the RSGB’s own stats, last year saw a significant drop in the number of newcomers, and in 2017, the newcomer count has hit a 12-year low.

The new exam will be harder to pass, and more worryingly, harder to teach – and as all trainers are volunteers, some may decide this is a good time to stop, whilst others will rise to the challenge. To cover the extra content, courses will have to become longer (and may be more expensive), and the new practical exercises introduced will likely require volunteers and training clubs to buy new equipment.

To me,  it’s not immediately obvious how, at a time of decline, rolling out an exam that’s harder to pass and harder to teach, will inspire more training and more candidates. These things are vital to growing the hobby and ensuring there are more people coming into the hobby, than ‘falling off’ at the other end.

For those not familiar with the change, one of the changes being discussed at length at the moment, is the introduction of resistors in series and parallel. For those with an interest in electronics or kit-building, this is a trivial piece of electronics. But for those looking to get into a radio hobby, it could be seen as a hurdle. Admittedly one that some will jump with ease, but others may fail to see why, at entry level, this is relevant for a communication hobby.

Resisting Resistors

Resistors used to sit nicely at the Intermediate level. Assuming you’ve done your Foundation, you’re introduced to construction and start with some basic circuits, leading to a kit. Most amateurs don’t progress onto construction, but they’ve got their licence, had an introduction, and have been informed of the important safety stuff, so the grounding is there for those who want to go down that route.

From 2019, newcomers can’t sit their exam until they’re competent with resistors and Ohm’s law, and can use a multimeter to measure current in an LED, and the changes when an additional resistor is added in parallel with the first. Nothing to do with radio, ridiculously basic if you’re into electronics, too basic to inspire candidates to get into the exciting world of making LEDs get brighter, and a bunch of hassle for under-resourced clubs.

Hobby Comparison

I quite like the idea of looking at this from the perspective of another hobby – For the sake of it – let’s take metal detecting as an easy example…

If I wanted to become a detectorist (I think I have that right), I’d expect a club to teach me how a detector works, techniques for good detecting, the legal side of where I can detect, how to be safe, and some basic theory on types of metals, etc.

For amateur radio, I’d expect to be taught how a radio works, techniques for good operating, the legal side of where I can transmit, safety stuff, and some basic theory on bands, propagation, kit, antennas, SWR, etc.

I would not expect to be told that I couldn’t use a metal detector unless I could calculate the current across two tiny components and a light (and nothing to do with metal detecting). Nor would I expect to have to draw diagrams of the internal workings of the detector, recite two electronics formulae, learn how to use a current meter, or recall the colours painted on some of the internal components on a pre-surface mount version of a detector.

Sure, some people may want to build their own metal detectors, or understand the scientific theory behind how they work to degree-level – and that’s great. For them, there should be progressive courses – when that person’s had some time trying the hobby, and wants to learn more.

What would I change?

I’ve been asked to outline what I’d do to change things. Well, it’s too late. Quietly in the background, the RSGB has consulted Ofcom, made the changes and printed the training books, before any of us trainers got to see the changes. It’s a fait accompli, so discussing how I’d do it differently, is academic at this stage. Nonetheless, as I was asked – here are my thoughts, for the little that they’re worth.

I’d keep Foundation. I’d keep it at roughly the same length, for the same cost, and at roughly the same complexity, but with a few updates (drop packet, add DV, etc), and a slight change on emphasis:

  • More on operating and good practice (repeaters, nets, Q codes, talk groups, band plans, etc)
  • More on setting up a station
  • More on ‘radio’ (bands, propagation, SSB)
  • Less transmitter box diagrams
  • Less academic theory and resistor maths.

With the right weighting, this could be delivered in the same duration as current Foundation.

Foundation, to me, should be a taster into the hobby. Sure, it needs to include what Ofcom mandates for radio amateurs to be able to transmit in-band (and the existing licence conditions module does that perfectly well already). Safety’s an issue, so needs to be there too. Then enough material to get you on-air properly, and pointed in the right direction. As we all know, the real learning starts when you’ve got your licence.

As for the practicals? Here’s what I’d do:

  • Keep the QSOs (odd that “tuning into a signal”, reading signal strength and using AF/RF gain, have all be dropped from 2019!). It should be pointed out that 1 QSO for HF and one for VHF/UHF is a minimum requirement (clubs should be encouraged to do more than the mandated minimum when it comes to getting on-air!)
  • Keep Station Setup and Antenna Tuning (although at entry-level, more people are likely to have a VSWR meter, than an expensive antenna analyser)
  • Don’t implement the LED and resistors practical. It’s nothing to do with radio, and wastes precious training time that could be used on operating or radio material)
  • Morse – Apologies for offending any CWers reading, but I feel this should be optional, not mandatory. The criteria for Foundation should be “do you need to know this to get a licence and get started?”. The answer is “no”. I personally feel that the takeup for Morse would be higher if it was offered by training clubs shortly after a course, when candidates aren’t stressing about passing an exam, and will be more receptive to new modes.
  • Data – On the assumption that newcomers tend, in general, to get involved with data modes, before they get into CW or construction, and that the learning curve for data is more shallow than CW/electronics, then this needs to be covered early on. Should it be mandatory? Some of the theory, yes (e.g. audio levels), but the practical would be far better if offered by training clubs shortly after a course (as with CW)
  • Repeaters / Digital – If we’re saving time by dropping Morse and/or LEDs, that leaves time for a new operating practical. I’d opt for a “club’s choice” from “using a repeater”, “programming a handheld”, a very basic data mode, “using DMR/D-Star”, or something similar.

What’s next?

Between now (August 2018) and when the exams start, there will be a lot of activity. Some complaints from trainers and clubs concerned about delivery, and the creation of new books and training material. Some trainers will need to be ‘re-trained’, and some effort will be needed by clubs for the new practicals. What will the impact be? My best guess:

  • Best Case: RSGB provides some excellent material for clubs. Trainers do what they do best and deliver content to students so they understand, and pass. New trainers are recruited to supplement any possible gaps (SDR, DV, etc). The hobby grows due, in part or full, due to having a relevant syllabus
  • Worst case: Some trainers take the changes as an opportunity to give up. Some clubs struggle or stop training (cost / resources). The failure-rate increases as a result of the harder material. The drop in numbers continues or gets worse. Fall in revenue and members causes RSGB to phase in a new entry-level exam, for easy access to the hobby (perhaps limited to VHF/UHF only)

In reality, it’ll be somewhere in the middle, and it the impact will likely be discussed after the exam has bedded in for at least a year. Watch this space until the first year’s data is published in 2021.

 

There we go – my personal thoughts (which do not necessarily reflect the views of Essex Ham)

 

Pete M0PSX

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