Bandwidth and Learning

When I got a Nintendo game as a kid I would insist on reading the instructions before I or anyone else could play it. Part of that was getting an early edge over my impatient, button-masher friends, but mostly, it was just some inflexible self-induced order of operations. Fast forward to today. Open an Apple product or a copy of Madden 2020. No paper instructions. Just plug it in and walk through the tutorial. When I open a  boardgame I go right to YouTube to have a neckbeard explain it to me. Your kindergartners enter their own credentials into an iPad to study sight words. So what happened?

Bandwidth. First, there is no doubt in-person interaction is the highest bandwidth channel. Visual and auditory stimulus. Maybe even smell and if it’s a coach or trainer, touch. And that level of interaction will continue to warrant a premium. Yet today, video, interactives, and digital games offer increasingly cheap, high-quality mediums to improve learning and retention. And while software learning aids and Khan Academy are hardly new, it’s likely still reflexive to look for articles and books for an explanation of intellectual matters. YouTube comes to mind first maybe if you are troubleshooting your dishwasher. This week I came across this article explaining quantum computing. The content of the article though isn’t the point. It’s a heavy dose of college math if interested. Read the intro and turbo skim the rest. What is notable about it is how the creators of the article are enhancing the document with intermittent ‘spaced repetition’ exercises to help you gather yourself after every section. It’s an implementation of digital flashcards in which the intervals between card showings are a function of your retention.

Essays that incorporate innovative media to recruit emotion into the learning process and “reduce burden on short term working memory” will improve how you encode and retain content. A gift you didn’t think to ask for because the very possibility of its existence was obscured by the outdated limits of bandwidth which you haven’t quite shed. Like the proverbial fish in water. As creators themselves learn to communicate natively in this open environment, these and other embedded aids will become the norm. Online articles are not constrained like print media is. I’ll defer further explanation to author Nielsen’s prior article on the thinking that spawned his quantum essay.

I am watching how interactive games and powerful visualizations cross-pollinate with written sources to bring challenging subjects to life. Subjects whose ante may otherwise prove prohibitive for wide audiences.

Here’s my starter kit for seeing what’s possible:

  • Nicky Case’s blog. Start with an explorable about spaced repetition and how you can memorize something. Forever.
  • Brett Victor’s brilliant presentation demonstrating how to make machines more intuitive for how humans think rather than forcing humans to operate under computers’ constraints. It’s long and starts slow until it blows your head off. His website was a multi-hour rabbit hole for me.
  • My absolute favorite intro to machine learning using SF and NYC real estate to keep it fun.
  • Check out online magazine, the pudding, which uses interactive visualizations and data to tell teach you all sorts of stuff. Like which rappers would score well on the SAT verbal.
  • Let weird cartoons teach you science at Kurzgesagt or watch Red Bull-fueled millennial supernova Siraj Rival harness the power of clever video production and pop culture humor teach you all you can handle about AI, crypto, programming, and making cash online.

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