The day before Valentine’s Day, hundreds of thousands of people watched a video that featured the sentence “I love you” in 100 different languages. That video, widely shared on social networking sites, was made by Memrise, a learning site based in London. Languages are among the things you can learn through its memory techniques. And, unlike Rosetta Stone, the site is free.
Memrise is not unique in using the Internet to advance education. Universities offer quite a number of classes online, many of them free. More than 13,000 courses from 250 institutions around the world are gathered under the umbrella of the OpenCourseWare Consortium, for instance. A smaller number of universities are represented by Academic Earth, though that site includes some of the YouTube video courses offered by the Khan Academy, which we've discussed before.
Free online education is also available at the UK Open University LearningSpace. It offers more than 600 free courses, ranging from mere minutes to 50 hours in length. Each course identifies a goal -- what you should be able to do once you complete the course -- and each course is ranked by users.
Most of the online courses are aimed at college or high school students, but another site, WatchKnowLearn, offers video lessons for school and life issues confronting kids ages 3-18. The site even includes instructions on topics like Internet safety and manners.
What distinguishes Memrise from other online learning platforms like the ones mentioned above is its commitment to memory. Its two founders specialize in memory. Ed Cooke, the CEO, is a “Grandmaster of Memory” whose feats include memorizing a randomized pack of cards in less than a minute. Greg Detre, the CTO, studied the computational neuroscience of human memory and forgetting for his PhD from Princeton.
Memrise claims its technique is based on three core ingredients: science, fun, and community. The combination is the setting for developing “a Garden of Memory.” The idea is that learning a new word is tantamount to planting a seed. Fixing it in your short-term memory is the equivalent of it sprouting. And getting it into long-term memory is the transfer into your garden, where “you have to water it (review it) to keep it from wilting (fading).” Review exercises are designed to make the watering feel less like a chore than a game.
The fun aspect is central to keeping kids tuned to the site -- learning Spanish for hours instead of just idling on the computer, for instance. If you have two people working on the same skill, as I have in my own unscientific sample, they compare their progress, which is an even stronger motive to do better than the rankings that are built into the community system. The community idea is also supposed to be reinforced by giving people “high fives,” a sign of congratulations that appears on their profile, and by helping one another out by inserting memory hints and tips on posted courses or even creating new categories for learning.
Memrise’s stance values human memory over the ability to look anything up online. The site clearly states:
We're deeply committed to harnessing technology to make people smarter, more curious and more individual. And we're deeply opposed to any technology that makes people dependent, ignorant or addicted to something meaningless. That's a big part of the reason we’re so obsessed with combining every last nugget of wisdom from cognitive science with the best web technology to help you grow your mind.
Though Memrise is still in beta, and its managers have not yet indicated how they intend to draw a profit from the free services (advertising targeted to registered users is my guess), Memrise has won the confidence of investors. On Feb. 16, it received $1.05 million in funding from a number of backers. The plan is to use the money to further develop the content and tools on the site and to add mobile apps.
— Ariella Brown is a freelance writer, editor, and social media consultant.