Understanding Understudy

I feel time spent learning something, anything, new is never wasted. Creating new connections in our brains, regardless of the subject, allows us to arrive at ideas and solutions that we weren't able to before. In fact, I'd wager the diversity of topics we pursue is directly related to our ability to produce novel solutions to the problems we encounter in our daily lives.

"I really liked a friend's perspective on confusion: it means something doesn't fit your worldview, i.e. you're learning"

— From a conversation about Understudy on Twitter

There's an App for That

Learning is a lot like exercising; it has to become a habit, it's easier with a buddy and you know you're making progress when it hurts. Understudy is a new app for iPad that pairs people up to study and discuss a subject of mutual interest. It's like a gym membership for your brain. Scheduled sessions with a partner add structure and a tangible sense of progress while the one-on-one interaction helps keep you engaged and motivated to continue.

Remember Who Your Buddy Is...

There are two core concepts that form the foundation of Understudy. The first is that learning is easier with a mentor-like partner. Not necessarily someone who has all the answers, just someone who shares your interest and who can help keep you motivated. The second is that we learn as much (or more) by teaching as we do by studying. This 'learn by teaching' concept is key to both roles each person plays in an Understudy program.

When you first join a program in Understudy you'll be paired with someone who's a bit (or a lot) further ahead in that program. As the "less experienced" student it will be your role to study the material before each session and then "explain" the concepts you just covered to your partner. It's more of a conversation than a book report but it's still your responsibility to prepare and present the topics to discuss. The App itself provides a video chat connection and a "whiteboard" where you and your partner can collaboratively write, sketch, diagram and doodle as you talk.

After you've progressed a ways through the program (but typically before you've completed it) you'll be paired with another user as the "more experienced" student. During these sessions you'll have a chance to get a fresh perspective on the topic from your new Padawan. You can also choose to assist more than one person through the subject to help gain an even better grasp of the material. For people who like unlocking "achievements"; each time you complete a program again you gain a level, or "belt", culminating with the equivalent of a "black belt" in that subject.

Try It for Yourself

The Understudy team has chosen two programs to launch with but more are planned. As I write this you can choose between the Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (aka SICP) and Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Both programs are free to start, and if you find it valuable, unlimited access is only $5 a month. It's also important to note that this isn't anything like Chatroulette and you don't have to worry about being randomly paired up with someone you're uncomfortable with. After joining a program one of the Understudy team members will contact you by email and work with you one-on-one to find a good partner.

For a couple of months now I've been working through the SICP program in Understudy and I'd recommend it to anyone who writes software regardless of their background or education. I've learned new things, had some great conversations and met interesting new people in the process. If that sounds like something you'd be interested in just download the app and sign up for the program that sounds best to you.

"Understanding Understudy" was originally published on 03 May 2014.