Learning through your ears with Yehoshua Zlotogorski, founder of Alpe Audio

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Welcome to a new edition of our series of interviews with founders of tools for thought! Yehoshua Zlotogorski is the founder of Alpe, offering audio courses to learn on the go. The courses are delivered by professors at leading universities and top entrepreneurs, such as Drew Boyd from the University of Cincinnati, and Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI and former President of Y Combinator.

In this interview, we talked about how humans can learn through our ears, the power of self-education, the relationship between education and well-being, finding time to learn when we have a busy life, building a lifelong learning habit by having skin in the game, the importance of meaning and repetition, and much more. Enjoy the read!

Alpe - Audio courses on the go

Hi Yehoshua, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Alpe has a unique approach to learning. What gave you the idea to offer audio courses? 

Being stuck in traffic! It sounds silly, but that’s honestly what caused me to found Alpe. I had been working in a startup that was situated 1.5 hours away from my house and while the time I had to learn had shrunk dramatically due to work and life, my need to learn new things had only grown. So I found myself trying to learn in the only time that I had: while I was commuting, at the gym or running errands around the house. I tried everything: podcasts and audiobooks (I love both) as well as online courses from Coursera, Udemy, Youtube and Khan Academy.

Unfortunately none of them fulfilled my learning needs. Each had their own drawback: listening to a video while commuting is a terrible user experience and often I couldn’t understand the content because I wasn’t seeing the slides. I love listening to podcasts and audiobooks but I found that I simply wasn’t retaining the information I was hearing and that it was hard to actually find relevant sections to listen to find the knowledge I was looking for specifically. The lack of a learning structure also hurt — I never knew where to start: was it important to listen to all the episodes of a podcast or just start at the most recent one?

I found myself pulling over to the side of the road anytime I heard something I wanted to remember, then pulling out my phone, writing down notes and sending myself an email with the notes so that I wouldn’t forget it. Which is ridiculous. That’s when I started researching what a mobile education platform would have to offer to fulfill my needs. Audio clearly had to be a large part of it, since it’s the best format for busy ‘on the go’ learners like me. Initially I received a lot of pushback against audio based learning, but two things gave me confidence: the first was my own personal experience. I’ve been listening to podcasts since 2011 and have learned so much simply through osmosis.

The second thing was my B.A in Talmudic studies and history. The Talmud, which was composed ~500-700 AD,  is one of the greatest literary works in the history of the world. It spans 60 volumes and has over two million words, and like many literary works of the ancient era, was learned entirely orally for hundreds of years. My B.A had involved studies of how this was done and the different mnemonic devices that were used, so I had every confidence that humans can learn well through our ears — we just have to change the way we teach.

This is fascinating. Let’s talk about lifelong learning… Why do you think it’s important to let people take their education into their own hands?

I feel like this is preaching to the choir for the Ness Labs community! There are many studies that point to the importance of remaining relevant in an ever changing work environment, so I won’t repeat that. Instead I’ll speak from personal experience. The single common thread that’s helped me progress both personally and professionally has been my desire to keep on learning, irrespective of the topic. This has enabled me to be more relevant in the positions that I’ve held, opened up new opportunities for me and contributed to my general well being simply as a curious person!

It’s also been proven that the more “useless” facts that we remember, the easier it is for us to learn and retain new material and so in a way lifelong learning is also a way to constantly be training your brain and a way of “staying in shape”. Lifelong learning is a skill that needs to be cultivated and developed just like any other skill that benefits our well being. Unfortunately, most of us come to ‘learning’ with leftover baggage from school or university and many things that one must learn aren’t always taught in the right way. Learning is hard and that makes it a hard habit and skill to cultivate. But, the rewards are well worth the effort.

It’s unfortunate that as a society over the past century learning institutions have been more focused on winnowing those who shouldn’t proceed down the learning path than to help everyone develop learning skills and habits that will benefit their well being. Historically, increasing education has led to an increase in general well being, today we finally have the tools to make this accessible for everyone.

Do you think audio courses can make self-education more accessible?

The short answer is yes! An amazing leap forward in making information accessible has occurred over the past 20 years — Wikipedia, Khan Academy and Coursera are great examples of platforms and companies that have made most of the information in the world accessible but to quote one of my favorite books on education and learning “Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn” by Sanjay Sarma: “Making information accessible isn’t the same as providing an education.”

Just because information is online doesn’t mean that: (1) Learners have the time and focus to learn; (2) Learners have the personal dispositions to self educate; (3) Learners have the material means to access it. Audio can’t solve all three of these problems completely, but audio courses can address them better than today’s options, especially in reducing friction to learn, a topic I covered in a recent blog post: Making Education Accessible with Audio Courses.

It’s hard to find the time to learn in a busy lifestyle. Audio courses are a perfect solution for this. They fit into your timetable, they accommodate you, not the other way around. You can start learning on your way to work, school or while you’re taking the dog for a walk. You can review what you’ve learned later in the day during lunch or a bathroom break and finish up the lesson on your way home or evening run. Audio is a low friction habit that helps us build lifelong learning habits.

Reducing friction is a key component of making learning accessible. While only a few people can dedicate time to video based learning, everyone from the security guard at the mall to your Uber driver has time for audio courses.

Audio courses can make quality education and lifelong learning accessible to an entire population who doesn’t have time to sit in front of a screen: manual laborers, taxi and Uber drivers for example.

Alpe Audio - Learning new skills with audio courses

What about people who consider themselves visual learners, how are you convincing them to invest in audio courses?

The most common feedback I heard when I started working on Alpe is that ‘we can’t learn through audio’ or ‘I’m a visual learner’. Being an avid reader and note taker I sympathize with the need to review things visually for them to really sink in. But, in my daily routine, audio trumps visual learning every single day, simply because it’s convenient. When you think about learning as a way to reduce friction first the question then becomes: “how can I learn through audio without giving up on quality”? Before starting Alpe I dove head first into this question and the answers that I found in the research surprised me.

Two things makeup the majority of learning: meaning and repetition. Neither of these has  anything to do with your senses. Each Alpe Audio course has both meaning and repetition built into it to make the learning stick, whether you’re in front of your phone or not, both in the audio lessons themselves as well as in the app. 

Each lesson has a written editable summary so that you can review the material visually afterwards and take notes. We provide flashcards with key takeaways as well for the same reason. The idea isn’t to force learners to learn only through audio, rather it’s to meet our learners where they are – in their busy lifestyle and make sure we can provide them with the right learning that fits their needs. 

When it comes down to it, regardless of your learning style, learning for 25 minutes a day during your commute is infinitely better than not learning at all because you don’t have the time. 

I’ll end with a teaser on the visual vs audio debate: cognitive scientists have shown that learning styles are less meaningful than we think and for all intents and purposes in this context, dont exist! (I’ve written about this in our blog here). 

Audio courses are a different approach to self-education, but you also have some pretty unique features, such as “Learn and Earn.” Can you tell us more about that?

Alpe is built around helping learners build a lifelong learning habit. Audio is the main part of that, but the entire product is built around that: summaries, flash cards and spaced repetition, breaking down lessons into smaller chapters for easier navigation and ‘Learn and Earn’ is part of that.

We know that having skin in the game helps us achieve our goals, whether they’re dietary or gym related, so why not build this into our daily learning experience? The idea behind Learn and Earn’ is to incentivize learners to ante up, just like in poker, so that they’ll want to achieve their learning goals for the week. We know that loss aversion is a very powerful motivator, so let’s allow learners to put it to good use!

To sweeten the deal, at the end of the week if you’ve lived up to your goals, you not only receive your ‘ante’ back, but you also split funds of those learners who haven’t lived up to their goals. We don’t make any profit off of Learn and Earn, it’s purely helping learners build the right incentives. 

The quality of the courses depend a lot on the instructor. How exactly do you select instructors at Alpe?

The quality of the course has two main factors: the quality of the input content and how we adapt that material for the audio, on the go, format. For example even if you took the best course in the world and didn’t adapt it to audio first learning, it wouldn’t be a good Alpe Audio course. It would be like taking the best book and dividing it into a series of blogs for each chapter. That wouldn’t work – a blog is different from a book and an audio course is different from an in person or online course.

Our team at Alpe is heavily involved with the audio course creation side of things to ensure that the courses live up to our standard and are implementing the best practices for audio learning.

We’ve been hand picking the instructors to work with based on their content, the topic and their readiness to work with us and implement these best practices into their material. Over the past 12 months we’ve also started to automate this process using AI and are now opening up our ranks of instructors so if anyone wants to teach on Alpe – please get in touch!

It’s great that you are putting so much care into selecting the instructors while ensuring teaching on Alpe is open to everyone. What about the students side of things — what kind of people use Alpe Audio? Any popular topics you didn’t see coming?

Mainly entrepreneurs and young professionals in their first few years in the workforce who are looking to upskill or change careers. Most of our content is geared towards them: product management, principles of finance, creative thinking, the neuroscience of productivity and a series on marketing and pricing. 

What’s surprised me the most has been the interest by professors and universities to partner with us and include the material as part of their course syllabi. Covid threw everyone online, and as a result traditional institutions have become much more open to alternative learning approaches.

And what about you — how do you personally use Alpe Audio?

Over the past few months I’ve started using flashcards in my daily learning, so the ‘Maestro’ learning tab in Alpe, where learners find automagically generated flashcards is a big help for me to make sure I’m actually remembering the material. 

I experience a unique side of Alpe that our users don’t get to see since I’m heavily involved in the content creation process. I’m essentially learning every course through the creation process which is great for lifelong learning!

Absolutely agree, big fan of the generation effect. How do you envision the future of Alpe Audio?

It’s time for a mobile first learning hub. A ‘Tool for thought’ that’s built for all those hours when we’re ‘on the go’ — a mobile first tool for thought. I want Alpe to be that: a mobile first learning hub that makes quality education and learning accessible, personalized, fun and engaging all the while being convenient and as low friction as possible.

Thank you so much for your time! Where can people learn more about Alpe?
Best is to download Alpe and give us a try. You can also read more of our thoughts on our blog, or I’m happy to chat directly, I’m @yehoshzl on Twitter or via email. We also launched on Product Hunt!