Thursday, February 16, 2012

Listen up – audio a massive boost for learning

My sons find it amusing that my iPod Nano has no music but around 500 podcasts, many from In Our Time on Philosophy, History, Religion and Science. Why? Because I travel a lot and like to keep myself stimulated on trains, planes and in other non-places. Like reading, I find the focus on one medium useful, especially for knowledge and reason.  So here’s some reflections on my audio experience.
1. Doubles productivity
Paul Maharg has developed some superb online, simulation tools for lawyers but one thing in his toolset did catch my eye. He has a ‘fastalk’ button for listening to audio/video faster than normal speed. This may sound trivial but it’s not. My iPod Nano also has a x2 button that allows you to listen at twice natural speed. As we read at about twice the speed we speak, this means that I can listen at reading speed. In terms of productivity, I HALVE talking time. Let’s apply that rule to lectures. If I listened to recorded lectures at twice the speed, I’d be doubling my productivity. Alternatively, I could listen to the lecture twice in the same time, which will dramatically increase retention through reinforcement. Either way there’s an enormous boost in productivity. Note that one study saw no significant difference in retention at double and even triple speed. Indeed, listening skills seemed to improve.
2. Review button
The ‘replay last thirty seconds’ button is also a godsend. If you miss a word, phrase, number or simply want to hear the point again, it’s easy. How often do students ask real lecturers to repeat something they hadn’t caught or understood? This instant review button is made for learning (quite aprat from pause, return to point from which you left, rewind and fast forward).
3. Note taking easier & better
I also take notes when listening to these podcasts. With just earphones and an iPod, my arms are free. It allows me to focus on the screen while I type or page when I write. If I’m looking at a lecturer this, as anyone who has tried to take notes in a live lecture knows, is difficult. And as we know that good note taking increases retention by 20-30%, there’s another productivity boost. Indeed, I find that the spare cognitive capacity, created by not having a live lecturer, allows me to write notes well, and in my own words, which is even more useful.
4. Avoids visual distraction
So is there any real reason to video the lecturer? I think not. Khan stays out of his videos as does Thrun in his Stanford content. They both state that this is a deliberate move and I’m glad. I don’t need to see their face to understand what they’re saying. For knowledge and reason that is primarily semantic, I find the purity of audio, like text in reading, ideal. Images and video are, if anything, a distraction. In terms of retention this type of knowledge is stored in semantic, not episodic, memory. That’s not to say that imagery doesn’t help in elaboration. However, the best form of elaboration for this type of knowledge is that produced by the imagination.
5. Imagination kicks in
When it comes to semantic memory, and knowledge of this type, freeing my working memory from ‘looking’ at a lecturer, also allows my imagination to kick in. This brings my own existing knowledge and thoughts to the act of learning, which I have no doubt increases elaboration and therefore retention and recall.
6. Audio easy to record & distribute
Audio is, of course, cheap and easy to record. Unlike video, you don’t have to worry about lighting and movement. Video files are many times larger than audio files, therefore easier and cheaper to store and distribute, especially on mobile media. Just kick that stuff out through iTunes and you’re up and running.
7. Audio convenient on the move
Given the ease of production and distribution, it’s an ideal form of mobile learning. All you need is a mobile or iPod and earphones. My Nano is literally as small as a watch (indeed it can be worn as a watch), weighs just a few ounces and can be attached to my lapel.
So audio can double productivity at double speed (or listen to twice) compared to actual lectures, can be reviewed, allows productive and meaningful note taking, eliminates visual distraction, stimulates the internal imagination and therefore retention, is easy to record, easy to distribute and perfect for mobile learning. That’s before we even get to the 24/7 access. On productivity, my claim that this approach 'doubles' productivity applies to the mathematically certain fact that you save half the time. That doesn't mean you've been twice as productive in retention. Here, however, the fact that you can take notes gives an evidence-based boost of 20-30%. That combined with the use of your imagination to elaborate the learning and listening to it twice, boosts retention even further, as does the absence of visual distraction. The claim of 100% increase in retention, is therefore, approximate but credible.


Clix said...

Do you know of any online players that offer x2 speed playback, ideally without distorting sound? (I would think that listening to Alvin, Simon or Theodore might be a bit distracting!)

Alan said...

I'm in agreement with your ideas here, but quibble at statements like "listening at twice the speed doubles your productivity" all that this does is let you listen to twice as much content in the same time, which has the potential to increase productivity, but by no means doubles it. I could miss the same points in half the time? I could listen twice and still not understand.

Donald Clark said...

Several senses of productivity here.
1. Time - I literally halve the time I take, compared to full speed or slow speed of a live lecture.
2. Retention - a) note taking is more efficient increasing attention b) imagination produces better elaboration and therefore retention c)if I listen twice I increase retention through reinforcement.
I suppose, 1 is certain, two is 20-30% increase through note taking and an increase through imagination.
I think this counts as a doubling. Note that I'm comparing this to the benchmark of a normal, live, spoken one hour lecture.

N B Shifrin said...

@Clix. Whilst I don't know of any online players, Downcast on iOS offers X1-3 speeds at various increments. Yes, it's a paid app but it will work on both an iPhone and iPad and synchronise between the two. No I have no affiliation with the makers of Downcast, I just think it's a brilliantly executed app.
I'm sure Android has something similar if not better.

Stuart Kruse said...

Very interesting article.

I can't help but compare this to the horrible audio narration used in traditional e-learning courses which seem to me to half productivity (force one pace of learning, multiple information inputs, etc).

I still hold out the hope that the real promise of technology is to kill the traditional course (be that an e-course or stand up lecture). The course is being attacked on so many fronts, I'm hopeful it can't hold up much longer despite it's robust defences!!


Stuart Kruse said...

It would be great if there was a mechanism for 'highlighting' chunks of the audio in a similar way to highlighting lines of text in an article or book, for future reference. Especially if this also made these 'highlighted' audio clips quickly available in one easy-to-access place - sounds like a needed iphone app to me!

Jim Hamlyn said...

That 2X function is deceptive - I think you'll find that it's it's nowhere near double speed - more like 20% faster.

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