Are you one of those people who's always wanted to learn a new language, but just can't find the time? If so, a collection of apps developed at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) might just be the ticket. The suite of apps is designed to make productive use of those "micro-moments" throughout the day when you're left twiddling your thumbs by filling them with vocab tasks.
Even in our world of ever-faster computer chips and high-speed communications, it's often a case of hurry up and wait as our computer or mobile device connects to a Wi-Fi network, an elevator makes its way to our floor, or content crawls in on a poor phone connection. The CSAIL team's WaitSuite apps are designed to make use of this otherwise wasted time, providing bite-sized snippets of vocabulary teaching in what they call "wait-learning."
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The "WaitChetter" instant messaging app will keep things on topic, teaching words that are related to a person's current conversation, while the "ElevatorLearner" app makes use of Bluetooth iBeacons to detect when someone is waiting for an elevator to arrive and send them a word to translate as they do.
The team claims that users of the suite's "Wait Chatter" instant messaging app learned roughly four words per day, or 57 words in just over two weeks. They also found that integrating learning directly into common tasks enabled them to better maintain focus on these tasks. This was because they didn't get distracted by completely leaving the task at hand to do something else, such as check social media.
"With stand-alone apps, it can be inconvenient to have to separately open them up to do a learning task," says MIT PhD student Carrie Cai, who leads the project. "WaitSuite is embedded directly into your existing tasks, so that you can easily learn without leaving what you were already doing."
Unsurprisingly, the team found that the effectiveness of the system was largely dependent on wait times. For example, vocab flashcards weren't really of much use if the Wi-Fi connected quickly, while those for whom connecting was slow reported the wait was less frustrating thanks to the flashcard. This was also the case for "ElevatorLearner," where the typical wait time was 50 seconds, leaving plenty of time for wait-learning.
Cai says the WaitSuite could also be used to teach things other than foreign language vocabulary, such as math, legal jargon or medical terms. In the future, the team is also hoping to branch out from flashcards and test other formats, such as audio.
And for those that are thinking those idle moments during the day are a welcome relief in our fast-paced lives, there's the possibility of using the approach to remind users to take a breath and practice mindfulness instead of reaching for their phones whenever boredom strikes.
The WaitSuite is demonstrated in the video below.