Learning is an admirable goal. We all strive to better ourselves, and gaining new knowledge is one of the best ways to do so. Traditionally, learning meant hitting the books — sitting down for an extended period of time with a few authoritative resources, gradually working your way through a curriculum and (hopefully) ending up with a new skill or a clearer understanding of whatever it is you’re trying to figure out. That was the past, though — today, this traditional view of learning feels almost quaint.
In today’s brave new world, when you need to know something, you just Google it! There’s even a website dedicated to making that point — let me Google that for you. Gone are the days of carefully reading a single text — today’s learning is all about collecting resources from all over the place and going through them, rapid-fire, finding what we need. Or at least, that’s the message sent by Learnist for Android, the free, mobile companion for online learning startup Learnist: Learn stuff by swimming the sea of content.
Getting Started and Following Topics
Regardless of content, Learnist is a fairly complex app in itself: There are topics, and boards, and a feed, and whatnot. Just mastering the app may take a bit of time, which helps explain the lengthy onboarding process. It begins with a sequence of three colorful slides:
Interestingly, you can start using the app (“Get Started”) without having to sign up or log in — quite handy, especially if you’re just trying to get a sense of what the app offers. Once you tap Get Started, it’s time to specify your interests:
The interface above is trickier than it seems as first. Each master topic has a number of sub-topics (so “Business” has “social media,” for example), but also has its own larger Follow button, which isn’t clearly explained (do you follow the whole topic? Or just the sub-topics marked?). The list of sub-topics can be scrolled horizontally, too, adding to the screen’s complexity. Still, most people would likely mark a few sub-topics they care about and hit Done (top-right corner, right where you’d expect it). So, that’s just what I did.
Finally, we find ourselves in the heart of the app, with just one last onboarding sequence showing the swipe gestures:
Whew. Okay, let’s start learning stuff!
The Activity Feeds and Individual Posts
The first thing you’ll find yourself looking at is your Activity Feed. There are no two ways to say this, so let’s just get it out of the way: It’s an RSS reader, not unlike Pulse or Google Currents. Only instead of showing the news for what it is, Learnist dresses things up and tells you a new “learning” was added to a tag you follow:
When you click through to that aforementioned “learning,” you basically get the mobile view of whatever blog the item was pulled from. So, it’s an RSS reader, only you don’t get to explicitly choose your sources (only general topics), you don’t get to view the text-only RSS version of the article, and you’re supposed to feel like you’re gaining knowledge.
Browsing Topics and Boards
The feed is not the only way to learn new stuff, though: Slide the side pane open, and you’ll see a list of topics. Click through to a topic, and you’ll find a list of human-curated “boards”:
A given board shows the name and image of its curator, followed by a numbered list of resources. This is somewhat closer to traditional learning, in that it doesn’t necessarily emphasize the newest content around, and may be better structured. The curator can comment about each resource they’re offering, and explain what you can expect to find there. Clicking through takes you to a Web view of the item (or into the YouTube app, if the item happens to be a video):
This way of curating resources is closer to traditional learning, and therefore carries some of the traditional caveats: The quality of the content you’ll find depends on the quality of whoever curates it. Since the curator cannot actually edit the resources but only comment on them, connecting the dots and figuring out how different pieces of content relate to the subject you’re trying to learn remains up to you.
With its onboarding process, large list of topics, activity feed, and boards, Learnist can feel pretty complex. To help you get around, the side-menu has a Help item which uses the app’s own teaching mechanics:
We come to this submenu near the end of the review, but it is actually a good place to start your Learnist experience, for two reasons: First, you’ll get to decide whether or not this mode of learning works for you. Are you gaining any useful knowledge?
Second, any knowledge you gain will help you use Learnist (both the site and the app) better, and navigate the ocean of content hopefully getting to where you’re trying to go.
Is This Learning?
Having looked through Learnist’s features, I can’t say I feel I’ve seen the future of learning. It’s fun to use, and there’s lots of content. But will it actually teach you anything, or just help you skim the surface of more topics, faster? To me, Learnist feels like an excuse to browse through RSS feeds while feeling like you’re getting smarter by the minute. Then again, this may be a personal thing, so you tell me: Will you be using Learnist to learn? Did it make you smarter? Share your thoughts in the comments.