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Show HN: Primer – A conversational learning medium designed for self-learners (primerlabs.io)
98 points by ai_ia on July 20, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 26 comments

Greetings HN,

I am Siddharth, the founder of Primerlabs. I have been working to create a new learning medium called Primer explicitly designed for self-learners or auto-didacts. You can think of Primer as a book that talks.

The problem that Primer solves is: How can one learn difficult things on their own without the aid of a human tutor?[1]

Learning independently is a complex problem because of the time and effort it takes to truly understand something. Without any external pressure or deadlines, self-taught learning journeys often get abruptly stopped in the face of the first sign of an obstacle. Anyone who has attempted to learn something independently will quickly realize that learning isn't simply reading a book on a subject or watching a playlist. You have to memorize information, review things from time to time, work on a project trying to utilize the newly acquired knowledge so on and so forth.

I faced this exact problem in 2015 when I was in the last year of my college and decided to learn computer science on my own. I watched video lectures, read recommended books, made flashcards using Anki, did the assignment/quizzes, etc. I found the process of learning online quite cumbersome. Note that this was in college, where I had lots of free time. When I started my first job, it became more difficult as I had lesser time.

I realized that the process of learning on your own is not as straightforward as it seems. Therefore, I decided to put my thoughts into how we can design a better learning interface. There are only three main problems that a learning medium must solve for effective learning for learners. The Problem of Attention The Problem of Reflection The Problem of Retention

Primer is designed to solve these three problems. Primer is not an AI Chatbot. I wrote a whitepaper[2] describing how we can create a dialog-based tutor without AI back in 2018, and Primer follows mostly the same way described. Primer is a better book than a better MOOC.

The way Primer work is the following: First, you have a conversation with Primer. You can respond using a button or sometimes text inputs. There are also quizzes such as MCQ, Reorders in the middle of the conversation, which you have to complete to proceed. You can add notes and questions right into the platform.

You will soon notice that Primer doesn't understand your text-based responses. It might feel useless to reply, but your responses make an essential part of the platform. When you revisit a completed topic, you will find that your responses help you recover and recall what you have learned. Also, your responses and notes, questions are added to your personalized notebook. You can check a sample personalized notebook here.[3]

Your responses and notes form what I call the memory breadcrumbs which help you retain and recover information better. Check out this comic-based post [4] I have written to understand the idea better. Thoughtful responses make better memory breadcrumbs.

Another thing I would like to point out is courses on Primer can never be completed. Well, you can finish them, but I would like you to think about them as unfinished projects that you will have to revisit multiple times to truly understand.

Those familiar with Neal Stephenson's work The Diamond Age will find the name and nature of the project quite apt. The second biggest inspiration for working on Primer comes from a short story written by Scott Alexander. Ars Longa, Vita Brevis.[5] Primerlabs intends to be a group of people who continually strive to simplify ever-increasing complex human knowledge and make it accessible to those who desire to learn.

The first course released is on Python, which is completely free. It's a 440-page book that you can complete in around 12-15 hours on Primer. Had it been a video-based course, it would have easily crossed 60 hours. Primer accelerates knowledge acquisition.

The purpose of today's post is to demonstrate Primer medium rather than the Python Programming course. You can even say that the medium is the message.

My hope for Primer is that it has a similar effect to Personal Knowledge Management as Bootstrap did for CSS designing. Rather than starting from scratch and typing out each equation and code, you start with a basic set of information and build upon it.

Please feel free to give feedback on Primer and let me know how to make it more useful for you.

Tl;dr? Here is a Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/_Wzard/status/1416500216832806912

[1]: Similar to Bloom's Two Sigma Problem.

[2]: https://github.com/PrimerLabs/Whitepaper/blob/master/article...

[3]: Sample Personalized Notebook: https://assets.primerlabs.io/Python-1/Personalized+Python+-+...

[4]: Memory Breadcrumbs Comics: https://primerlabs.io/comics/memory-breadcrumbs-comics/

[5]: Ars Longa, Vita Brevis: https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/11/09/ars-longa-vita-brevis/

Great idea IMO.

Hopefully you know about scrimba (https://scrimba.com/) which is probably similar in goals but has a different approach, you watch a coding tutorial then you can pause the video and edit the code (the instructor will ask you to do this).

An interesting choice they made for the main exercises is every time you do one you start with a blank editor and type the same import statements etc. to build memory.

I think your methods here are interesting and generalise beyond programming.

I love to see innovation in this area so hoping you do well!

Thank you for your response. I do know scrimba and love their product as well.

Primer is doing a lot of things so it might be difficult to process. To understand the project faster, I highly recommend reading these two comics, I have written.

[1]: Introducing Primer: https://primerlabs.io/comics/introducing-primer-comics/

[2]: Memory Breadcrumbs:https://primerlabs.io/comics/memory-breadcrumbs-comics/

Thank you.

I like the idea of scaling the high engagement/accountability needed to really take in challenging material

You got it absolutely right. That's the goal. The challenge is to scale engagement distributed over a long period of time. And I believe Primer does this pretty well.

Primer reminds me of Clippy

My reaction https://youtu.be/4Ru8DMW-grY

I identify with this issue extensively. Having faced it for years, being hugely in love with technology but being of a mostly creative, verbal personality so many of the concepts would never get past the first stages or "stick" when tackling things like OOP or even relatively basic programming fundamentals like polymorphism and recursion. I'm very much of the opinion some things are worth learning, even if you arent naturally talented and probably wont do it professionally. I look forward to trying this out.

Thank you so much. Your comment captures the essence of what I am trying to build. A learning environment for self-learners.

As you have put it "...things are worth learning, even if you arent naturally talented and probably wont do it professionally"

Couldn't have said it better myself.

It looks interesting, I tried out the Python primer for a bit and decided to pre-order the CS course.

I do have to say (as explained in the comment here) that the chatbot doesn't understand your reply is a bit jarring but I think that'll work out.

The idea of generating a review notebook is pretty cool. Looking forward to try it out in the future more.

> It looks interesting, I tried out the Python primer for a bit and decided to pre-order the CS course.

Thank you so much.

(This is a criticism of the literature on education, not of the Show HN project)

> Three Learning Problems

> Attention, Retention, Reflection

This sort of stuff is such nonsense. Notice anything missing there? How about “Understanding”?

I believe this mistake might be a result of the desire to tell people that “you can do anything”. But for whatever reason the end result seems to be pretending that intrinsically hard topics don’t exist. An example is the QuantumCountry essay on quantum computing which covers intrinsically hard topics but has these silly and trivial multiple choice questions thrown in (“spaced repetition” I think it’s called). Retention is not the problem. The problem is understanding. Sure, you do need attention and reflection for that, but they are not sufficient.

Congratulations, this looks great. Will you open it up to course creators too eventually?

Yes absolutely. The plan is to create a conversational marketplace. Will be releasing "PrimerMaker" the tool to create Primer in the upcoming months as well. So, that anyone can create Primers.

Thank you for checking out.

At least with a book, you can skim over topics you already know. It seems like Primer requires you to spend hours clicking past content you're not interested in just to get the learning relavant to your needs.

You can always check out relevant section using the online book or the pdf. Each course on Primer has a corresponding online book and a pdf that you can access for free. For instance, Python-I online book[1]

Primer is an opinionated learning medium that enforces certain constraints on the learner. For self-learning, imho, constraints are good.

[1]: https://primerlabs.io/books/python-i/

> You can always check out relevant section using the online book or the pdf.

This answer entirely defeats the point of the Primer system. There are already many books and pdfs for leaning Python.

> For self-learning, imho, constraints are good.

I would argue that for a self-learner, self-imposed constraints are a good thing.

The externally imposed constraints of the Primer system defeat the greatest advantage of self-learning; that the student can control, prioritize and take ownership of his learning program.

> You can always check out relevant section using the online book or the pdf.

You are right. I misinterpreted your original comment. This is certainly a drawback. In the future, I plan to reduce redundancy, by offering skippable sections. However, in some cases, it is entirely unavoidable and that certainly sucks.

> The externally imposed constraints of the Primer system defeat the greatest advantage of self-learning; that the student can control, prioritize and take ownership of his learning program

Though I understand your POV, I disagree with your premise. I believe more options, leads to worse effectiveness. The lesser decisions you have to make for yourself, the faster you can complete/perform a task.

Primer makes a lot of decisions for you. There are no ten courses for machine learning, just one course. No ten courses on Python teaching the same thing, just one. There is less course content overlapping when you go from Python - I (which covers basics of Python) to Python-II (Object-Oriented Programming)

Thank you for your feedback.

Edit: I misunderstood the problem again. Sorry for that. Talking with users, made me realise that they want to directly go to learn Python rather than learning "Fundamentals of Computing". I will be dividing up the course into three smaller courses and will be moving "Fundamentals of Computing" into its own course.

Thank you for pointing this out, I really appreciate it.

I love this idea. Is there some way I can be notified when there’s a JavaScript / Typescript / NodeJS course added?

Very cool, I really like your innovative approach!

How are you creating the courses - by yourself, or do you have instructors?

I will be writing some 7-8 courses and will be hiring additional instructors for other courses.

Do note that we have other subjects such as Mathematics, Physics etc that we wish to cover using Primer. We will be hiring instructors accordingly.

I’m working on my own learning platform, and am amazed by your ambition! Best of luck, creating good coursework is just plain hard. I never had that appreciation until I tried to make good learning materials.

is the name a reference to The Diamond Age?

Edit: commented before reading the submitter's comment.

Yes, I loved the book and the idea of Primer.

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