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Got a second? This app from MIT helps you learn a language in your spare time

Why it matters to you

Our days are full of short moments spent waiting. With these new apps you can turn that spare time into knowledge.

Even in an age of connectivity, our lives are full of relatively empty moments. We may be waiting for an elevator to arrive, for a text message to come through, or for our device to reconnect to Wi-Fi. Through a new series of apps called WaitSuite, a team of researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory want to turn these moments into learning opportunities.

WaitSuite was inspired by apps like Duolingo, a “micro-learning” platform that challenges users to learn new languages in what little spare time they have. The idea is that even short sessions of engagement can accumulate into significant learning over time. However, where Duolingo requires users to open its own app, WaitSuite is integrated into the apps at hand.

“With stand-alone apps, it can be inconvenient to have to separately open them up to do a learning task,” Carrie Cai, an MIT PhD student who leads the project, said in a press release. “WaitSuite is embedded directly into your existing tasks, so that you can easily learn without leaving what you were already doing.”

WaitSuite covers old school tasks like waiting for an elevator (WaitSuite’s ElevatorLearner application activates when it detects Bluetooth iBeacons near elevators) and more modern-day ones like waiting for your device to reconnect to Wi-Fi. When the platform senses that its users are in a state of waiting, it prompts them to answer language vocabulary questions.

“The vast majority of people made use of multiple kinds of waiting within WaitSuite,” Cai said. “By enabling wait-learning during diverse waiting scenarios, WaitSuite gave people more opportunities to learn and practice vocabulary words.”

Although brief, the researchers say these “wait-learning” sessions enabled users to learn some four words per day just while waiting for text messages. And since WaitSuite engaged users through the waiting time, it even kept them more focused on the task at hand since they weren’t tempted by some other time-consuming distraction. Moving forward they hope to include audio capabilities — or even refine the apps to encourage digital downtime.