In early 2022, my business partner and I finally took the plunge. We launched Assemble You, a business idea that had been percolating in the backs of our minds for nearly two years.
The proposition was simple. We love podcasts and audiobooks and knew that millions of people chose this modality as their preferred way to learn each week.
Since e-learning and video content became so accessible via the internet, it's become part of the furniture in L&D. But it's not a prerequisite - we don’t always need a screen. This expectation for digital learning to be screen-based has led to adult cartoons and click-through SCORM packages that are endured rather than enjoyed.
But are we hamstringing learners by doing this? Why force them to watch a video if it's not necessary? Learning engagement is a big enough challenge without adding unnecessary hoops to jump through.
So we thought. What if we created a learning company that just focuses on teaching through audio? Instead of podcasts that are long, full of ads and "edutaining", or audiobooks that can take you 8+ hours to get through, we'd create short, concise courses and deliver them in an easy-to-listen podcast style.
Assemble You was born.
In this article, I'll outline the case for audio learning by looking at various consumer data points around using audio for education, and data we've gathered from customers, pilots and our own original study.
Let's cover some assumptions we're making first.
What do we mean by audio learning? We mean anything designed to be listened to rather than watched. That means podcasts, structured audio courses, audiobooks and read-aloud book summaries.
Some modes of learning suit specific topics better than others. For example, could you learn to code by listening to someone explain it? Possibly, but it would be incredibly hard. Far easier to watch someone's screen or immerse yourself in a sandbox environment and practice as you learn.
Audio lends itself very well to particular topics. From speaking with people over the last year about learning via audio and assessing the available market, soft skills (power skills) topics, topics that require thought, or reflection, and topics that people might find uncomfortable asking someone about, or having on their screen in an office all come up as good contenders. Audio offers a level of privacy and reflection that other modalities do not.
The rise of podcasts over the last 10-15 years has been impressive. In 2006 around 11% of the US population has ever listened to a podcast (Edison, The Infinite Dial 2021). Fast forward to 2020, and that number stood at 55%. That’s over 150 million people.
Equally impressive is that the number of people that keep coming back to podcasts. In 2013 ~7% of people, when asked, had listened to a podcast in the last week. In 2020 that was 24% (Edison/The Infinite Dial, 2021). Nearly a quarter of the US population have been making podcasts a regular part of their life.
The number of podcast shows has risen to meet this demand. In 2022 there are an estimated 2.4 million podcasts with over 66 million episodes between them (DemandSage).
So listening to people talk is clearly interesting to a lot of people. But so is watching TV. Are people not just tuning into podcasts to be entertained? Are they not just free Netflix for your ears?
Entertainment features as one of the many reasons why people listen to podcasts. A 2019 survey found that 74% of people actually tune into podcasts to learn new things (Edison, The Infinite Dial, 2019).
Our own study in 2022 turned up something similar, with 63.4% saying they tuned into podcasts or audiobooks to learn new things.
Not only is there a vast and rising demand for quality audio content. One of the top motivating factors is learning. Yet many organisations aren’t offering any audio training content.
Audio is a growing consumer trend that can’t be ignored. Unlike Social Media platforms that seem to rise meteorically and are then replaced in a few years by the next, slightly different platform, podcasts and audiobooks as a category have been rising in popularity for over a decade.
So audio is clearly popular, but why? We’ve spoken with and surveyed people about exactly this in the last year, and there are four clear themes: Screen Fatigue, Convenience, Comprehension, and Privacy.
Screen fatigue, or “screen ache”, is a problem brought about by the knowledge economy and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. When a lot of the workforce stopped performing manual tasks for work and instead went and sat behind a computer screen, we started to realise quickly that our bodies are not great and sitting hunched over a glowing computer monitor or laptop. But things weren’t too bad. We all had in-office meetings to break things up a bit.
Then comes Covid-19, and that meeting time where you used to stretch your legs, grab a coffee and chat with people in real life all became on screen as well. Suddenly, millions of people found themselves tied to their screens for 8+ hours a day. In fact, “57% of Americans say the pandemic has caused them to suffer from more “screenaches” than ever before” (SWN Digital)
As an L&D manager, if you are asking staff who have had 6 hours of back-to-back Zoom meetings to sit and click through an e-learning package, or watch a video, you may meet some resistance.
Audio allows the listener to get away from the shackles of the screen. Close their eyes completely, or perform another task to maximise your time.
Never has our species had more demands on our time than right now. As a result, learning something new or sharpening a skill often gets pushed to the bottom of the pile of things we need to get done each day.
Yet, the number of people listening to podcasts to learn new things has increased.
Audio offers an opportunity away from the screen to learn. That means we can better utilise otherwise dead time to upskill. For example, driving, exercising and doing household chores.
If you’re thinking at this point, “I can’t ask my staff to learn outside of work hours.” People are already using audio learning in this way. They are listening to business podcasts, they are playing an audiobook on that long drive they have. Not only that, the workday is full of dead time, work travel and the commute for those that still have them being the big opportunities.
In a recent Infinite Dial survey on podcasts, they asked why people enjoyed listening to podcasts. The number one reason was that you can do other things while listening.
We received exactly the same feedback from a recent pilot we ran.
“The best thing about having learning like this is you can go for a walk and listen to the modules on headphones. For me, this is a perfect way of learning and you get the opportunity to think about the content.”
“It makes learning portable with the ease of access via any smartphone at your pace and convenience”
“I find the small audio bitesize clips very easy to fit into my day. Walking the dog is a great opportunity to have a clear head space and listen to a 10min podcast.”
So what are people doing when listening to audio? In a 2022 survey we ran, the results are interesting. Over half of the respondents said they listened to podcasts and audiobooks while travelling, exercising and doing chores. Interestingly, nearly 65% said they listened while relaxing or resting. This last point backs up the argument around screen fatigue. If you’ve been stuck at a screen all day, an audio resource is a nice way to relax or learn something new.
Interestingly, this data changes a lot when you adjust the demographic. For example, 75% of Gen Z respondents said they listened to podcasts and audiobooks while exercising and not as much while resting. Younger people are consuming more audio on the move.
Convenience was a huge driving factor for us starting Assemble You. The only learning I was managing to squeeze into my day was when I was driving or exercising. All other times were consumed by work and the demands of having a young family. There are hundreds of people I’ve spoken with in the last year who are in a similar situation.
Audio can significantly aid comprehension, too.
Several academic studies have examined the impact of audio on learning, specifically around distributing lectures in this way. Williams and Fardon found that “audio recordings of entire lectures distributed via University networks have been found to be highly popular and beneficial to students” (Fiddler, Middleton and Nortcliffe, 2006).
Another study that looked at making lecture notes and lectures available to students via audio found
“Recordings can be used to help non-native speakers with the English language. Students can record a lecture if they are having difficulty understanding and then listen back later and check any difficult words in the dictionary.”
(Rossiter, Nortcliffe, Griffin & Middleton, 2015)
The National Literacy Trust released a research review that showed “engagement with audiobooks can benefit children's reading skills and enjoyment, as well as their mental wellbeing and emotional intelligence”.
We’ve spoken to multiple organisations in the last year that employs staff whose primary language is not English. A big challenge for these L&D/Compliance departments is to ensure that their staff are workplace compliant.
In many cases, they will be issued with an e-learning course that they find difficult to access.
In some examples, we spoke to organisations that were hiring trainers to spend one-to-one time talking through e-learning. The main job these trainers were performing? Explaining the concepts orally.
Listening can be much easier for a non-native speaker than reading and writing. Audio has a big opportunity to help solve this problem and ensure the retention of different subject matter.
A Spotify study on millennial and Gen Z listening habits found that 58% of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.K. said they turn to podcasts to get answers to hard or personal questions before talking to their families about it.
The same study found that 40% of millennials and Gen Zs rank their trust in podcasts higher than their average trust in traditional media sources.
There is something about audio that’s intimate, private and safe. It’s often not flashy or over-produced. Instead, it provides an accessible and safe space for people to deepen their understanding of different topics. Many of those might be sensitive.
Put yourself in the shoes of a first-time manager in an office. You suddenly have to deal with a sensitive situation that you feel ill-equipped to handle. You also feel embarrassed or find it difficult to chat to someone more senior about it. So you need to find a solution for yourself. Given the option of an e-learning course as guidance or a short audio course, which would you choose?
The biggest question that audio needs to answer is this:
Is audio as effective as other methods of learning?
We’ve already covered some elements of this. So as a reminder:
Pitch audio against reading, and the results are interesting. Daniel Willingham found that there is little difference between listening to a book and reading it. In fact, he says:
“listening to an audiobook is exactly like reading print, except that the latter requires decoding and the former doesn’t.” (Daniel Willingham)
Decoding is the work your brain is doing to figure out the words from print. So listening, in fact, reduces cognitive load.
In our 2022 survey, we asked our respondents whether they found podcasts, audiobooks or audio courses an effective way to learn new things. 92% of them said yes.
To be clear, these were people that classified themselves as regular podcast/audiobook listeners, so the data will be slightly skewed. One thing is clear, these listeners like learning through audio, and they find it effective.
We ask a similar question when we run a pilot or proof of concept with an organisation. In this scenario, the people we are surveying have been given access to some of the Assemble You courses for a short time. We then ask them the question:
86% of respondents, to date, have responded positively to this.
As usual, there’s a mix of activity from learning departments around audio. Some have started recording leaders and sharing lessons from the top, others are buying access to book summary libraries that include an audio option. But the majority are lagging despite a clear indication from our consumer behaviour that people are learning via audio.
As mentioned above, in our 2022 study, we asked respondents if they found audio an effective way to learn new things. 92% responded yes.
We asked the same people (who were all employed in full-time jobs) whether their company currently provided them with any form of audio learning, be it in audiobooks, podcasts, courses, book summaries etc. 86.4% said no.
People are listening to learn. It’s convenient, great for certain subject matter, helps with comprehension, and is effective. It enables and supports learning in otherwise dead time and pulls people away from the screens that inevitably damage our health.
Could it lead to more engagement with digital learning compared to video or e-learning? That’s the hypothesis, and early signs are strong. One partner of ours saw over 1,600 downloads of our courses in the first six weeks of making them available.
The people have spoken. They want audio.