Content: how much do we care?

This week Nick Robinson – of ELTjam and MaWSIG fame – wrote a guest post on Book Machine called ‘Content is no longer king.’ I’ve read the post a few times now and have been thinking about the best way to respond (I do work for a company known for its high-quality content, after all!). Here are my thoughts…

Nick’s phrase ‘drinking from a fire hose of content’ perfectly encapsulates one of the most frustrating aspects of modern life, and certainly a challenge that faces any 21st-century educator or learner. Personally, I can’t stand the fire hose. As much as I love Netflix (Orange is the New Black binge-watcher that I am), I can’t help but long for my old LOVEFiLM subscription; I chose the films I loved, and I received the DVDs at random. No hours wasted browsing libraries or genres, overwhelmed by choice.

When it comes to learning a language, we have options. Many options.

Nick’s alternatives are undeniably important. No one is going to dispute that a misstep in one of the five areas he mentions (UX, access, choice, cost, and data) can jeopardize a product or service. Over the last few months I have selected – and dismissed – apps and digital language-learning tools for many of the reasons above. As I use tech to support my language learning (and I already pay a reasonable rate for private tuition), cost is key. If an app isn’t free, I won’t download it. Simple. I also avoid apps that aren’t intelligent enough to process my learning data: I want something that can tell me if I’ve been wrong before, and help me avoid being wrong again.

Nick cites Netflix and Spotify as two examples of companies whose success can be explained by their understanding of the importance of access and choice. And while I dislike the Netflix UX, using the subscription streaming service’s ‘guided discovery’ approach to content is approximately 1000x more helpful and efficient than typing ‘what should I watch?’ into Google on a rainy Saturday afternoon. I pay for Netflix because it evaluates and presents the content for me. But why do I subscribe to Netflix over Amazon Prime? Hint: it begins with a ‘c’…

One of the key ways in which Netflix and Amazon Prime compete for subscriptions is by creating new content. I loved Transparent, but did I love it as much as Orange is the New Black? Did it entertain me as much as I wanted it to? No. So – apologies to Jeffrey Tambor – the Netflix subscription stayed.

I’m not denying that access and cost are important. They are. But as it becomes easier to find a service that works smoothly and does what we need, we are inevitably going to become more critical of what’s inside. What do we really want from the product or service we’re using? In the world of online streaming, that means maximum entertainment. How many people do you know who have said they love x programme on Netflix so much, it would be worth paying the subscription just for that?

Language learners want effective content that helps them to achieve their language goals – be it writing an email to an international colleague, giving a presentation at university or scoring a 7 on their IELTS exam.

At first glance, we might not think too much about the content. But there’s a reason why I chose Memrise over Busuu, and why I initially abandoned the PONS vocabulary trainer in favour of a less user-friendly German language app.* As we become more discerning digital customers, the emphasis on high-quality and effective content will return.

*In case you’re wondering: the PONS app is a thing of a beauty, with the nicest UX of any language app I’ve seen, but earlier versions didn’t include the articles of the nouns being taught (vital information for German language learners!).


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