Using Multi-speed Playback to Improve Learning

I’m really surprised that high-speed playback of educational content hasn’t gained more traction in education. High-speed playback (sometimes referred to as variable speed playback) allows students to speed up or slow down video and/or audio without changing the pitch of the audio so the narrative doesn’t sound like chipmunks. It can be used in any educational setting where audio or video has been recorded be it lecture, conference presentation, speech, podcast or other event.

The human brain is a marvelous thing. Studies have shown that we can comprehend speech much faster than the normal rate of conversation. When I was first introduced to this years ago I was fairly skeptical about this claim but after trying it myself, I’ve found it does in fact work well for me. I use it almost every day listening to audiobooks, podcasts, lectures and other educational content. High-speed playback can be a great solution for students who want to save time listening to recorded educational content.

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to help with, and create a number of projects that use high-speed playback. I’ve consulted briefly with the Accounting 200 project on campus that is a collection of CDs that’s been widely popular in our Marriott School of Management and is available commercial around the globe. Students learn the content by watching interactive lectures that use high-speed playback controls. Classroom time is spent on more meaningful activities that allow the student to apply what was learned from the lectures. Many of the accounting students rave about the high-speed playback feature because it saves them time in learning the content. Students can usually comprehend an hour-long lecture in 30 to 45 minutes. When viewing many hours of lecture material this can add up significantly over time. Another benefit I’ve found with using an increased speed in playback is that it forces you to focus on the content. Often at slower speeds the mind often wanders and it can be more difficult to concentrate.

The StatTutor tutorials was a similar product I pioneered for a Statistics class on campus. It used QuickTime and wired sprites to to put together a single QuickTime movie that incorporated an interactive table of contents, video of the instructor, synchronized slides, and buttons to listen to the presentation at 1x, 1.5x and 2x speeds. I also built a similar product using SMIL (an open-source language for synchronizing media) using QuickTime Player. It was a pretty slick solution that could be dynamically generated. Unfortunately, Apple soon thereafter removed many of the interactive features inside QuickTime and was clearly going in another direction so the projects were scrapped. Fortunately there are quite a few applications available today that support high-speed playback:

The VLC Media Player
VideoLAN makes an open source (free!) cross-platform media player that supports a wide number of video and audio formats. When you open a media file in one of the later versions of VLC you can increase the speed of the audio by choosing Faster under the Playback menu. This will effectively speed up the audio without changing the pitch. If you’d like to make the audio play even faster, you can choose Faster under the Playback menu again to make the audio play even faster. If you continue to do this you’ll reach a point where the audio begins to jumble the words together so it makes it difficult to understand.

If the content you’re viewing is on YouTube, you can use their HTML5 player on Chrome or Safari to change the speed of the movie you’re viewing. Safari uses the QuickTime engine to play audio and video. Unfortunately, the later versions of QuickTime introduce what sounds like an echo when you enable faster playback.

The company Enounce has a number of apps that allow multi-speed playback of Flash content. They have a product called MySpeed that allows you to playback embedded Flash content on a webpage. I’ve downloaded and installed their 7-day trial and it seems to work well for embedded content.

QuickTime Player
QuickTime Player 7 for Windows and MacOS has variable speed control. If you choose “Show A/V Controls” found under the Window menu there’s a Playback Speed slider that will allow you to adjust the playback speed of your content. QuickTime X stripped out all kinds of useful features including this window. You can still speed up a clip in QuickTime X by Option-clicking the fast forward button multiple times while a clip is playing. I’ve found that QuickTime doesn’t work as well as VLC, as mentioned previously it can produce some kind of echo when you speed up the clip.

The Android market place has a number of apps for mobile devices that can speed up audio. I haven’t had a chance to try them all, but there seems to be a few options available.

iOS4 has 2x playback built in to the iPod app. When you play an audiobook or podcast there’s a small 2x button in the top right area of the screen that will play the audio at a faster speed. Unfortunately, in iOS5 this feature disappeared. This is a must-have feature for me and I’ve put off upgrading my iPhone to iOS5 and the iCloud for this single feature.

Third-party iOS apps that do multi-speed playback include:

High-speed playback can be a usefull tool in your personal learning toolbox. I enjoy listening to more podcasts, audiobooks, lectures, and other educational content in less time. I have found that sometimes high-speed playback doesn’t work so well with some content. It tends to work better with articulate speakers. Of course it won’t actually improve the content of a boring lecture but it can sure shorten the pain of listening to it!

I’m sure this is not an exhaustive list of apps that will do multi-speed playback. If you have a favorite app that’s not on the list please share! I’d also welcome comments on your experiences with multi-speed playback in learning.