Eavesdropping: A New Format for Online Learning?

I tried to sit through an online lecture the other day. I made myself some lunch, opened my computer, and pressed play. 

It didn’t work. My mind wandered off in a million directions, and after 20 minutes I realized I hadn’t absorbed anything. I know I’m not the only one — humans just aren’t meant to sit through lengthy monologues.

Yet lectures continue to dominate the learning landscape. Even buzzy online learning companies, such as Masterclass and Knowable, use approximations of the traditional lecture format.

Lectures have endured in online learning for a couple of reasons. First, they’re efficient. A single instructor can reach an infinitely large audience, and learners can access the material for a low price. Second, casual learners are often interested in the type of “lean-back” experience that asynchronous media can provide. Learners aren’t always seeking mastery and interactive workshops; sometimes they’re just looking for a little entertainment that stretches their brain.

This leaves me with a question: How could we create a format for casual learners that’s both engaging and cheap?

I’m among the many people now working from home because of the pandemic, and one of the things I miss most is my commute. I used to walk out of my door, put on my headphones, and lose myself in a podcast. Sometimes I’d arrive at my office without remembering the journey at all because I’d been so engrossed. And most of the time, I’d learned something.

What makes podcasts so interesting when lectures are so boring? 

Many of the most successful podcasts aren’t one-way monologues; rather, they’re conversations. In one conversational format, a reporter researches a story and then explains their findings to a host — as in Throughline (history), Planet Money (economics), and Radiolab (science, usually). In another conversational format, a host interviews an expert — see Hidden Brain (psychology) and How I Built This (entrepreneurship). 

And then listeners get to eavesdrop on the conversations.

In these conversations, the person asking questions acts as a stand-in for the listener. Often they’ll ask the very question I would have asked, which makes me feel like I’m a part of the conversation even though I’m just listening.

Online learning instructors could borrow from this approach to create more engaging experiences. Instructors could choose one student and have a conversation, while the audience gets the chance to eavesdrop.

One startup that might pioneer this format is Superpeer. Right now, Superpeer mainly enables experts to have paid, one-to-one video calls. These experts could in theory record their one-to-one sessions and then make the recordings available to a large audience. A casual learner would then have the chance to be a fly-on-the-wall as the expert gives advice.

Clubhouse is also tapping into this eavesdropping effect. In Clubhouse, most of the audience is eavesdropping on a handful of speakers, though Clubhouse sessions generally lack the structure and precision of an online course.

And just because eavesdroppers aren’t interacting directly with the instructor doesn’t mean they can’t interact with each other. Eavesdroppers already have a couple big things in common: their interest in the content and their affinity for the instructor. This is a great starting point for relationships.

With eavesdropping, inside every conversation is the seed of a community. This applies not only for instructors, but for everyone else as well: How many conversations do you have per week that would interest folks who aren’t present?

Next time, hit the record button, and let in the eavesdroppers :)   

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment, or send me a reply! And if you’re new here, subscribe for more explorations of novel ways to build community.

Thank you to the Compound Writing members who edited to this piece: Louis Pereira, Joshua Mitchell, Stephen Scott, Tom Critchlow, Ayomide Ofulue, Katie O’Connell, Joel Christiansen, Adam Tank, Ergest Xheblati, Mike Lamb, Amber Williams, John Lanza, and Nick Drage.

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