Most people want to learn new things. It could be a new skill, a new hobby or simply to broaden your general knowledge horizons. We have this desire to learn and grow, but yet we struggle to find the discipline to achieve our learning goals. I’m sure all of us can attest to learning intentions – be it from a new year’s resolution or some other source of inspiration – that died a silent death along the road side.

So, why can’t we achieve our learning goals? A complex question indeed, but a part of the problem is that we have to actively do something in order to get where we want to be. For example, if you want to learn a new language, then you have to open a book and read; or log onto a website and complete the lessons and tests; or go to evening classes at your local school or college. And there are more than enough challenges in our lives that prevent us from doing this diligently! But what if we could still learn without actually doing something actively, just by engaging in our normal daily routine?

Active vs. Passive Learning

As already mentioned, Active Learning means that you have to initiate an action by yourself to achieve a desired learning objective. It is a decision and a discipline that you have to set into motion by yourself.

Passive learning, on the other hand, means that you learn without initiating something by yourself. To explain this in more detail, let’s continue with the example of learning a new language. Learning a new language actively means that you have to read a book or go to a class. Now, let’s try to find an example of how you could learn a new language passively.

Let’s say that it takes you an hour to drive to work every day. In this time, you could listen to audio tapes or CDs that help you to learn a new language. You are going to drive to work in any ways, so why not use this time to learn something new? This is a good initial example to dive into the idea of passive learning, but it still has some shortcomings: you have to make the decision to switch the language CD on instead of listening to your favorite music or the radio (even though you are not doing anything actively once it is switched on); audio alone is not necessarily enough to learn a new language, since you might also want to look at grammar structures and alphabet of the new language. But at least we have made some progress. We don’t have to open a book or go to a class anymore. In the next section, we look at how we can use technology to further expand the idea of passive learning.

Technology and Passive Learning

The digital era is upon us. Technology is pervasive throughout society. As a result, we also consume large amounts of information electronically. We surf the web to inform ourselves about topics that interest us; we read the news online; and we use a variety messaging systems and social media – to name just a few! These are things that we are going to do every day as part of our routine. So, can we build in a Passive Learning experience while going about our daily routine? The answer is yes, and in the next section we illustrate how this can be achieved by means of a practical example.

Technology and Passive Learning: A Practical Example

In this section we will look at a practical example, again in the context of learning a language. Vocabulary is an important building block in the language learning process. Within a learning context, it is important for us to map words from one language to another so that we can learn the vocabulary of the new language. Flash cards often get used to achieve this goal. The idea is simple: you have a word on one side of a card and you flip the card to see the meaning of this word in another language.

Flash card software (flipping the card with a mouse click) has also been around for a long time. The problem is that this still requires the Learner to be motivated and do something actively. So, we need to find a way in which the Learner can get exposed to the new vocabulary in a passive way.

As mentioned in the previous section, we consume large amounts of information electronically these days. Let’s say that we consume online information in English and we want to learn German. Our proposal is to now develop a web browser plugin that will replace some of the English words on websites with German words. Selecting the correct amount of words to replace is important, since it should still be easy for the reader to understand the text without too much effort. As a starting point, our suggestion is to replace only 10% of the nouns. The image below has some sample text that shows the difference between the original website and the transformed website. You should still be able to understand the content of the transformed website without too much additional effort. Try it out for yourself!

From a programmatic point of view, it is not difficult to tokenize and extract the nouns in a piece of text. Most programming languages have either built-in capability or 3rd party Libraries that does just that. Below is a JavaScript code-snippet (using the pos-tag lib) illustrating this concept.

fs.readFile('input.html', 'utf8', (err, data) => {  
    if (err) throw err; 
    const result = pos(data);
    //extract all the nouns – pos stands for ‘part of speech’
    const nouns = result.filter(item => item.pos === 'NN');        
    nouns.forEach((item) => {
        //get the translation of the extracted nouns    
        var trResult = getTranslation(item.word, 'en', 'de');
        data = data.replace(item.word, '<strong>' + trResult.translation + '</strong>');


Completing the circle: Reintroducing Active Learning into the Passive Learning Experience

So far, we have been making good progress in creating a passive language learning experience. But we can go even further!

The idea is to reintroduce a form of active learning back into our current model. The words that we replaced in our original source text will be created as hyperlinks; when the Learner clicks on one of these words, we will provide more information about the word.
In our case, we will link to a WordNet browser. Wordnet is kind of like an intelligent electronic dictionary that, amongst others, provides synonyms and word-meanings in context. The image below is an example of a popup WordNet browser that would display once the Learner clicks on one of the hyperlinked words in the source text.

The active learning that takes place here is different from the active learning as described earlier. In this case, the Learner would click on the hyperlink out of curiosity and consequently also learn something. It differs from the scenario described earlier, in the sense that the Learner does not have to find some kind of internal motivation to set the learning process into motion. The learning happens as a result of curiosity that was generated by the embedded Passive Learning experience.


Passive Learning ideas can be embedded into technology that we are using on a daily basis. We illustrated how passive learning can be used in the context of language learning as part of our daily web browsing experience. We also showed how Active Learning could be reintroduced into the learning process as a result of the Passive Learning context in which the Learner is operating. This example only scratches the surface of what is really possible when combing passive learning and technology. Some questions – to name but a few – that come to mind for possible future work in this area, are the following:

  • Can the idea be introduced into messaging platforms such as Skype, Slack and WhatsApp? These messaging technologies are pervasive and get used by millions of people on a daily basis.
  • We should also be able to expand the idea so that it applies to a variety of language pairs. Also, we only looked at replacing a certain percentage of nouns in the text, but we can also include adjectives, adverbs and verbs, and make it configurable to suit the Learner’s needs. The image below illustrates how such a configurable setup could look like.
  • And finally, what about other learning domains? Can we make adjustments so that the Passive Learning experience is also possible in other domains such as Math, Engineering, Biology and Social Sciences?
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