John. S. Knight Fellowship - Stanford 2016 to 2017

LEAP (Learn English with Any Podcast)

Can listening to podcasts help you master the English language?

Video production: Rebekah Fergusson


JSK Fellows are journalists and journalism entrepreneurs from around the world who spend a year at Stanford focusing on journalism innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership.


In 2016 I was privileged to receive a John. S. knight fellowship. At Stanford, my husband Eric and, I have been able to tap into the extensive resources of the university to further develop our research hypotheses and approach.

At the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Eric studied with Karin Forssell who helped us focus on learning from, and designing for, a specific set of extreme users first. She also helped to improve our approach to prototyping educational technology via Design Thinking methodologies and pedagogical science. I studied with Jessica M. Tsang and Kristen Pilner Blair to understand the core mechanics of learning.

At the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences, we studied with Phil Hubbard, the director of the Stanford English for Foreign Students program, and Connie Rylance. In their class we were introduced to the foundations and principles of second language learning and English language learning. In addition, we attended Phil's Computer Assisted Language Learning seminar and gained his valuable insights about how to improve our prototype.

At the Stanford I attended the class at the which challenged us to quickly move through a prototyping process that advanced our research considerably, helping us to ask questions by making a high-fidelity podcast player prototype.

We have also connected with many other researchers in the field of language and cognition, education and design.


Define the customer

From a strategy and innovation perspective, we must identify the customer so we can gain the insights we need to create products and services that will get the job done better and/or more cheaply. I started with listeners of journalistic podcasts to end up with english as a second language learners.

I will walk you through the decision making process.

1. Listeners of news podcasts.

I started my research by interviewing listeners of journalistic podcasts. I prepared a survey to recruit listeners and interview them on the phone to learn about pain points, content gaps and broken flows on their current experience.

Some findings:

  • Listening to a podcast is a great companion on a boring commute
  • Listening to a podcast is like having multiple conversation: with the host while you are listening, with yourself as you reflect on the content and with friends as you share and discuss your experience.
  • Some podcasts require different levels of commitment and concentration. The level of commitment defines certain activities that can be done in parallel. More commitment can be done while playing a solitary game on the phone or texting a friend but not while reading an article.
  • Using podcasts to improve a language is an experience that is better delivered to begin with when transcripts are available.

  • Image

    Photo credit: The Bello Collective

    I decided to investigate the idea of a conversation since it appeared quite frequently in the interviews:

    In an article written for Interactions magazine Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro define conversation as a progression of exchanges among participants. Each participant is a “learning system,” that is, a system that changes internally as a consequence of experience. This highly complex type of interaction is also quite powerful, for conversation is the means by which existing knowledge is conveyed and new knowledge is generated. A few question came across this notion of conversation:

  • how can we design a podcast experience for an effective conversation?
  • how can we design a podcast experience for a better learning experience?
  • Image

    Photo credit: Hugh Dubberly. Conversation to Learn: conversation is a means to convey concepts and to confirm agreement. When a conversation changes one of the participants, we say the participant has “learned.”

    2. Extreme listeners.

    A few facts led me to narrow the challenge a bit further. A conversation with Professor Karin Forsell and insights from the first set of interviews motivated me to recruit extreme users of news podcasts for a new round of interviews.

    A new survey was designed to recruit extreme users of news podcast.

    How did I define extreme users?

    I decided that anyone that actively take one or more actions such as note-taking, share episodes, follow links mention in the episode or use a podcast to learn a language was going to be included in my list of extreme users.

    Why it is important to interview extreme users?

    The suggests that extreme users help pull out meaningful needs that may not pop when engaging with the middle of the bell curve. However, the needs that are uncovered through extreme users are often also needs of a wider population.


    These are the questions I used to recruit.

  • Do you search via Google about what you are listening to? When?
  • Do you take notes while listening to podcasts? How?
  • Do you follow web links mentioned in the episode? When?
  • Do you share episodes? Which ones?
  • Do you save episodes? Fow what?
  • Do you go back to same episodes? For what?
  • Do you use podcasts to learn a language? How?
  • Have you taken any action suggested on an episode?
  • If yes, what did you do?

  • Image

    I interviewed 6 extreme users via the phone.

    Some insights from the interviews:

  • Note-taking occurs while listening to an episode without pausing it.
  • Some of the methodologies for note-taking are writing on the notes app in the phone, sending an email to themselves or tweeting it so it is saved.
  • Notes in general are about books, authors, other shows, some quotes to share with friends.
  • Some people use Evernote to outsource the memory and would go back to those notes when looking for related content to read.
  • People do appreciate and read show notes. One group read them to decide if they are going to listen to the episode and another group after the episode is done to look for links and more information to continue the learning process.
  • People listen to voices with whom they share a point of view.
  • Podcasts help people create an opinion about a topic and expand their view about the world.
  • People would search something in google and leave a tab open to read later.
  • While driving people will create memory notes and most of the time they will forget about it and will have to go back to the minute they think it is the correct to find out. Complete show notes with links help in this sense.
  • Links do not work on the phone apps.
  • Improving a language through podcasts at the minimum requires transcripts.
  • Podcasts are a great way to digest news, they provide analysis.
  • Podcasts are a convenient way to get information.

  • 3. Teachers using podcasts in the classroom.

    After I performed interviews to extreme users I decided to interview teachers using podcasts in the classroom to understand the teaching perspective. I designed a page that had more information about my project and promoted it in social media.


    These are a few findings after interviewing 8 teachers:

  • There is a perception that podcasts address adult content, therefore, teenagers do not seem to engage with existing podcast content.
  • People want to listen to someone who sound just like them.
  • Storycorps is one of the few good examples for teenagers.
  • Radiolab is well used at the College level.
  • Podcasts are a great way for students to take over their own personal education.
  • Even though teachers agree Listening comprehension is a key skill for English as a second language learners, teachers don't pay much attention to this skill when designing the course.
  • Target audience: English as a second language listeners

    This audience have a clear interest in improving listening comprehension in English but currently feel frustrated with available tools and resources to get that job done.

    Research shows that in order to improve a language you need to change your media habits to include English content as often as possible.

    There are over one billion people currently learning English worldwide, and thousands of English language news podcast episodes are published every day but combined, these two facts present a clear opportunity to enable learners to engage with news podcast content, and at the same time, master the English language. However, the methods and designs to take advantage of this opportunity are not clear.

    The gap in the amount of English words an international student carries versus a domestic undergraduate create miscommunication, misunderstanding and frustration.


    The following is an empathy map of our target audience: English as a second language learners.


    Once I defined the target audience, I was able to start designing towards their desired outcomes.

    Desired outcomes:

  • Maximize the ability to repeat any part of the audio as I am listening.
  • Maximize the ability to listen at my own pace.
  • Maximize the ability to choose accent, gender or speed that I want to listen to.
  • Maximize the ability to listen and read at the same time.
  • Maximize the ability to choose and listen to topics of my own choice.
  • Maximize engagement when listening to a podcast.
  • Given this opportunity I decided to create a tool to help English language learners improve English and acquire new vocabulary by listening to any podcast of their choice. I named the tool LEAP (Learn English with Any Podcast).

    How can LEAP have an impact in Journalism?

    LEAP can help attract a hidden audience for News podcasts. How?

    1.1. Podcasts are great way to provide context to existing issues in the news cycle.

    1.2. English as a second language listeners will learn a language as they learn about the culture and news of the country.

    1.3. Podcasts will help news outlets speak as a genuine proxy for the community.

    1.4. Podcasts as a way to inform beyond the mainstream.


    Presenting LEAP to journalists and innovators at the JSK Newsfest event. Photo credit: Alina Fichter



    LEAP (Learn English with Any podcast)

    LEAP Prototype



    Leap is a tool designed to help English language learners listen to podcasts designed by and for native English speakers.

    LEAP Presentation


    What happens when English language learners meet English content podcasts?

    Medium post

    Other Projects