The Most Powerful, and Mostly Ignored, Learning Technology


Is the rewind button one of the most underrated learning technologies of all time? Consider that question for a moment.

The concept of spaced repetition is a hot topic in learning communities. While the spacing part may be new the repetition part is not. Today’s technologies can support spaced repetition much better than ever before. However, was there a time when this was never possible? Today’s digital programming technologies can define the most effective time variation and deliver the content to any device. That’s a big deal. Automating all the aspects of successfully spaced content repetition is quite amazing. But this got me thinking about older technologies. Like the underwhelming brilliance of the rewind button.

If the content is needed, no matter how bad the production value is, the rewind button makes it effective learning content.

Life Before Rewind

Video is something we all take for granted. We’ve all had TV in our lives. And our kids have now grown up with digital video and Youtube for most, if not all, of theirs. Learning from TV was possible. But you only got the information one time, unless the program “aired” again. Audio had a separate history. I remember a time before rewind when repeating a certain guitar riff meant lifting the turntable needle and swinging it back a few grooves to replay that part of the song. 8 track tapes never had a rewind. Much like broadcast TV, you had one shot at it. If the riff passed, then you had to wait for the track to cycle around. However, 8-track tapes did give the user control of when the song would air next in it’s entirety.  So, in that respect, it was a big step forward.

During that time before rewind, however, we did have books. Books have always had rewind, or review, built into their structure. If you owned the book you could read it when, and where ever you wanted. You could read it how ever you wanted as well. In the order it was written. Or jumping around from chapter to chapter in your own particular order. If something in the content did not make sense you could read it again, and again, and again until something clicked and you understood. So the practical nature of printed content, and the ability to review it, still made print the preferred medium for content. Most other forms of entertainment were live events you need to attend, or broadcastings of live events across radio or television.

The Power to Record Gives Us the Ability to Rewind

Fast forward to the age of the cassette tape and we discover a simple, yet powerful, learning feature in the rewind button. That ability with books to go back in time was now available to both audio and video content. The rewind button is never quoted in books as a technological marvel. But why not?  That one simple button probably did more for learning in that time than most other technologies. Did we miss it?

The shift from live broadcasting to recorded content was a big shift. At least as big as the shift to live broadcasting from live events. But at the time few people cared. Maybe some did, but schools certainly didn’t. Well that’s probably not true. Schools cared enough to trade in their film projectors for tape machines. But I don’t remember pedagogy changing at all. I don’t ever remember a teacher saying, “hey students, let’s rewind that part and watch it again because it’s important”. And I definitely don’t remember them saying, “watch this video when you get home as often as you need too.” School didn’t change with the invention of rewind, but that doesn’t mean that learning had too.

I remember my early days of learning to play guitar. The rewind button was a critical part of the learning process. Listening to one section over and over and over again, while searching for the same notes and sounds on my guitar. I believe the rewind button is also responsible for countless hours of watching, and unknowingly memorizing, almost every Monty Python, Saturday Night Live, and SCTV skit we could get our hands on. The rewind button gave us choice and control. Something we never had much of until that point. Looking back on it now I feel like the rewind button just made our lives easier, and better. All because of the simple ability to learn something faster, with less effort, than previously possible. How we interacted with technology changed…but nothing else did.

(Something to think about: Are we experiencing the same thing with today’s new tech?)

Why Should We Care About the Rewind Button?

I’m not sure I can answer that as this thought only recently crossed my mind. Today we move through recorded digital content effortlessly all day long. We skip commercials on TV. We listen to radio shows when we want too not just when they air. We even listen to podcasts at 1.5x and 2x speeds just because real life goes too slow. We take all of this technology for granted and forget how young it all is.  And we act like much of this technology is brand new. That we had to wait until digital tech and internet became real. When in fact, we’ve had rewind for many decades.

You may not care about the rewinding of cassette tapes from 30-40 years ago. But you should be caring about video in general. And rewind is one of the biggest reasons why recorded video and audio has only just begun to take over the media landscape. And that includes taking over the learning content landscape.

Control is the main reason I think the rewind button never changed education. The rewind button is all about learning and nothing to do with training/teaching. Individuals with the drive to own their own learning found the rewind button quickly and used it effectively. Teaching practices didn’t change because teachers hated rewinding their lectures. “What do you mean you want me to repeat THAT? Weren’t you listening?”. 

The the rewind button changed nothing for teaching. It changed EVERYTHING for learning.