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Learn While You Drive

By Frank Linton / June 2006

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Recently I switched jobs and often found myself sitting in traffic and bored. Neither talk radio offerings nor music CDs satisfied me; I wanted to be more productive with my time. While audio books from my public library and audio courses were interesting enough, they did not directly address my needs. Podcasts were also too general.

The things I really wanted to read, namely research papers pertaining to my professional expertise and technical reports pertaining to my job tasks, were piling up. What I really wanted to do was read those publications; reading them was my most important learning task.

Could I read those papers while I was driving? No way. Traffic was slow, but not that slow. Perhaps my computer could read them to me? I checked out the latest in text-to-speech programs and was pleasantly surprised.

We have all heard computer-synthesized speech. Frankly, it used to be incomprehensible, or nearly so. The wonder—like a dog walking on its hind legs—was that it could be done at all; it was not something anyone would want to listen to for long. Fortunately things have changed. Not only is decent quality text-to-speech available, it is convenient and cheap.

I found a low-priced, high-quality text-to-speech application—there are several on the market—that turns the research papers I want to read into audio files that I copy to CD and play in my car as I commute. As a result, I no longer see traffic jams as a waste of my time. My commutes have become something I look forward to because I can learn about things I am interested in, learning that I wouldn't have time to do otherwise.

I know that listening is only one part of learning (telling is not teaching), but it is a good start and much better than the alternative.

There are many products on the market that will get the job done. I use TextAloud with AT&T Natural Voices for the text-to-speech transcription. I then copy the resulting files to CDs with iTunes.

I have learned a few tricks that may save you some frustration. First, the free voices are not good enough: Pay for the better quality voices. Second, take a few minutes to preview the parts of the article that won't appear in the audio version: the illustrations, tables, and figures. Finally, I use TextAloud's utility to cut the document into four-minute tracks so I can repeat or restart segments easily.

The vast amount of high-quality online text-based information, coupled with low-cost, easy-to-use, text-to-speech software, and "empty" commuting time, have opened up a new learning opportunity for me. While I am just beginning to explore the possibility space, I expect to be learning this way for some time. Furthermore, as long as there are busy professional people who must keep up with a growing volume of knowledge, the value of text-to-speech audio in e-learning will continue to rise.


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