Hands-Free Learning

Sam Hennessy Nov 10, 2017

Voice interface will power the next generation of learning apps.

We are entering a new era. An era where we can talk to our computers and they understand not only what we say but what we mean. Consumers are flocking to use these cutting-edge voice interfaces. They are also hungry for new apps that use them. Personal learning and self-development is a huge opportunity that is well placed to flourish in this new era.

People are paying the world’s largest corporations to listen to everything they say in their home. 


It sounds strange when you say it out loud. Smart Speakers like Amazon’s Echo range may have sold between 11 and 18 million units. The Google Home Smart Speaker may have sold between 6 and 11 million units. Apple’s plan to enter the market with its high-end HomePod is raising the stakes.

Are people using these devices? According to Amazon “Echoes are now a more popular platform for streaming Amazon Music than mobile devices.”

Owning a Smart Speaker is a clear statement that people like the idea of a voice interface and they’ll pay to get it.


I’ve got that burnin’ yearnin’ for learnin’


People want to learn and they want to do it for many reasons. They want to get a better job, start a business, or they simply love learning.

Podcasts are something we can look at for evidence of this. Most popular podcasts are fact-based. The HowStuffWorks podcast network is a group of 14 podcasts, all educational. In August 2017, they had 39 million downloads.

Audiobooks is another model we can look at. From 2009 to 2015 the number of published titles increased from approximately 4,600 to over 35,000. Audiobook revenue was about $2 Billion in 2016.

Online learning (aka e-learning) was worth $150 Billion in 2016. Most of this comes from business spending. I’ve not found a reliable source for consumer spending alone.

The point is, people want to learn and they want to learn with audio.


Hello, Owl. Teach me something.


We are going to design Owl. Owl is a theoretical voice interface learning app. For Owl to be able to help learners it’s going to need commands. Commands are words or statements that a learner would say out loud. Here are a couple of commands to give you an idea of how it would work.


Hello, Owl

This will get the ball rolling.

Owl: Hi! I’m Owl and I try to help people learn. To talk to me start by saying “Hello, Owl”. You can then ask me something like “teach me about leadership”, “I want to learn something new”, “I want to get a job in sales”, or “I want to get a promotion”. To get a list of everything I can do say “what can you do?”

After this first introduction the “Hello, Owl” command will place Owl into listening mode. Listening mode will get Owl ready to react to commands.


Teach me something

Asking Owl to teach you about a topic is like asking Alexa to play some 90s music. The difference is it's a pleasure to revisit good music you’ve heard many times before. This is not true for learning. This is why we need to enable Owl to get to know you a little first.

You: Hello, Owl. Can you please teach me about leadership?

Owl: Yes, but first can you tell me if you would consider yourself a beginner?

You: No.

Owl: Okay, would you say you know a little, a good amount, or a lot?

You: I’d say I know a good amount.

Owl: Would you like to learn about conflict resolution?

You: No

Owl: How about the negotiation of salary with your employees?

You: Yea, that sounds good.

Owl: Great. I’ll play a podcast from Harvard Business Review on that topic for you.


Shut up and take my money! 


All the technology needed to make this work is available and low cost. The voice recognition is not always 100% but people can get it working after a few tries if there is an issue. Voice recognition continues to improve at a steady pace.

There are a huge number of challenges that need to be fixed from a user experience point of view before we can actually implement this. Few people have experience designing apps for a voice interface. There will be a lot of experimentation before any standards emerge. This will be a point of frustration for users.

The market for this may be a small niche that is already well served by podcast and audiobooks.

Smart Speakers could be a fad and their current market could be the very fickle early adopter crowd.


The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades


Do people want to learn this way? It’s not something people are talking about in professional learning and development. It’s not something that is being talked about for schools and higher education. It’s almost like dropping the visual part of the learning would be a step backwards. A throwback to the days of trying to learn a language on cassette tape.

I’m certain we’ll see a product that will provide hands-free learning. It will have great curated content and will personalise and recommend content to you. It will let you skip, rewind, speed up, and resume the content. It will be fun, interactive, and it will inspire and encourage people.

It would be a way for an established learning company to differentiate themselves. It could add value without disrupting their core products. Or a startup could do it to disrupt the market.

Who will build it, who will use it, and will it be a success? I can’t wait to find out.


Over To You


I'd love to hear everyone else's thoughts are.

  • Would you like to learn this way?
  • Does this solve a problem you're having?
  • Are smart speakers a fad?
  • Will the voice interface be used for everything?

Leave a comment or email me sam.hennessy@filtered.com.


About Sam Hennessy
Sam is a PHP software architect, speaker, trainer, and author. He has worked professionally with PHP since 2000. Sam currently heads up software development at Filtered.
Read more by Sam Hennessy

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