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Can an App Really Teach You to Sing?

Apps try to teach everything from Spanish to guitar, but not everyone benefits.
September 28, 2017
Roman Muradov

Four years after quitting choir, Mansi Sidana, 19, wanted to brush up on her singing. Instead of rejoining her group, Sidana chose to use a free app called Vanido that bills itself as a “personal singing coach.” Five months in, Sidana is still using it.

Vanido, which detects Sidana’s pitch and gives feedback in real time, creates daily personalized exercises to help users like her improve their voices and recognize music notes. Since its launch in January, Vanido has gained over 40,000 users who have collectively completed over two million exercises on the app, according to co-creator Himanshu Singh; more importantly, from Sidana’s perspective, it has also helped her improve her voice.

Vanido is just one of many apps promising to help smartphone users refine a skill or learn an entirely new one. Many of these apps have now been on the market for several years, like the popular language learning service Duolingo, while Vanido and others like guitar-teaching Fender Play are just entering the fray.

Yet while they can be fun, can these apps really teach you how to sing, learn a new language, or play guitar? The answer, according to Victor Lee, a professor of instructional technology and learning sciences at Utah State University, is that it depends on how well the content is presented, and how much the user interacts with the app.

And when they are successful, learning experts say, this is because they are designed for a specific audience: self-motivated or novice learners.

Learning via app has worked for Brandon Elam, 38, a self-described “do-it-yourself type” who wanted to be able to listen to songs on the radio and then pick up the guitar and play songs by ear. Elam first tried learning from a book but that didn’t work for him. Since July, he has been using the apps Justin Guitar and Ultimate Guitar’s Tab Pro every day, and he says that he can see he can see himself “improve over the months.”

While highly motivated people tend to gain the most, as Lee points out, most of us are not all that motivated. An ongoing issue these apps face is figuring out how to keep people compelled to continue using them—something that massive open online courses, often referred to as MOOCs, have struggled with as well.

Learning apps, however, may be more promising. Apps like Duolingo and Vanido use gaming tactics—one example being so-called “streaks” that track users’ daily log of the app—to keep users engaged.

Another problem many apps face is that they lack a social component. While Vanido is designed to help users improve their singing skills, how do users actually know that they are improving without personal feedback and encouragement from a teacher, coach, or mentor?

Jan Plass, a professor at NYU Steinhardt whose work focuses on designing simulations and games for learning, also mentions that apps are still not very adept at accepting speech from users, especially when they give a creative response while speaking to the app. But, as Vanido demonstrates, that could change with AI creating more personalized lessons.

Mobile learning still has a long way to go, but experts say that the nature of apps has taken learning out of the traditional context—and they see that as a good thing.

“They empower learners to get what they need to learn wherever they are,” says Plass.

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