It’s Manhattan, or somewhere similar, and the James Bond style music plays loudly as we cut from a cityscape to a young woman, dressed in black, walking up an outdoor staircase and into a rooftop apartment. We see that her hands are bloody as she opens the metal flight case she’s carrying. We watch as her pleasure turns to anger on discovering that she’s been had… the money is fake. She throws the case across the room. The phone rings. She answers and is offered a new ‘job’. Does she accept? You decide.
Welcome to scene one of the new English course created by SuperMemo World, a Polish company creating apps to aid long-term memory through spaced repetition. Each scene of the film is interactive; the learner is involved in the story and can affect the path that the characters take. The woman in black is introduced to us as Olive Green and seems to be involved in the murky world of art theft. Each scene ends on a little cliff-hanger, with an option to ‘learn’ or go to the ‘next scene’. The learning section is made up of activities involving words and phrases from the scene, presumably repeated in a way that maximises long term memory (although we’re told to ‘wait and see’ for ourselves, how the product actually helps you learn).
The course claims to take learners from ‘basics up to proficiency level’ through the combination of film, gaming and language learning tools, with the scenes progressing from A1 at the beginning to C1 at the end of the film. The film has optional subtitles in eight different languages, including Russian and Chinese. Access to the course for 14 days costs just €9.90 and there’s an option of ongoing access for an additional €4.90 per month.
The content and the control for the user are the strongest features of this product. The video quality is high and the scenes are genuinely compelling and engaging. A lot of effort has been put into the scripting of the story and how the film has been put together, with impressive attention to detail. The fact that the user has to interact with the scenes is an excellent way of keeping learners engaged, with various different task types ensuring that it’s kept fresh.
It’s hard to see, from a few days’ use, exactly how the spaced repetition algorithms are used in this product, and the methodology page doesn’t make things much clearer. But there is a calendar view which allows you to see the words that you’ve been introduced to on different days, and an option to review words from previous days. You can also rate how well you feel you know the different words, which presumably feeds into how often you are asked to review them.
All this is likely to be hugely motivating for learners and keep them coming back for more scenes. And at that price, it’s amazing value.
Unfortunately the product loses out in terms of quality of educational content. The words introduced at the different levels don’t seem to be informed by frequency (i.e. ‘She’s broke and in prison’ at A1). The exercise types are confusing from both an educational and user experience perspective and there is a real lack of variety. There are no exercises that focus on writing, reading comprehension, pronunciation, speaking or grammar. There are some comprehension checks along the way, but I didn’t seem to get them for every scene, and the exercise types are limited. The dialogue in the film is fairly authentic and at a near natural speed, but as it’s not very well graded it would be too challenging for low level learners.
The second main weakness of the product is the user experience. The instructions are not clear and I was often confused about what was expected of me in a task or why I was doing something. There were inconsistencies in terms of expected behaviour and no onboarding process to tell me what to expect from different sections of the dashboard. After seven scenes I am none the wiser as to how the spaced repetition element fits in or what the impact is of the rating that I attach to the words and phrases that I am shown.
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This is an exciting and unique proposition in the world of language teaching, and the quality of the video and the concept is genuinely impressive. It’s a shame though that seemingly so little effort was put into the educational content and the user experience. Maybe they bargained, probably rightly, that learners won’t notice the lack of methodological underpinning and be impressed by the films, but the confusing UI means that even the least pedagogically discerning will find the product lacking. The price tag is great though, and to be honest, leaving aside the language learning element, I’d probably pay the €9.90 just to be able to find out what happens in the rest of the story, and in terms of engaging learners, that’s a pretty strong offering.