Learn for free with Anki

Posted on Oct 21 2011

Ed Stephens Jr.

 By Ed Stephens Jr.
Special to the Saipan Tribune

I’ve got a new item to add to the free software I mentioned in my March 11 column, “Saving Saipan money with freeware.” This addition will be useful for many folks in the Commonwealth. The program is called “Anki” and it turns a computer, smart phone, or tablet into an electronic version of flashcards.

Flashcards aren’t just kid-stuff for learning the times tables. For example, medical students, nursing students, pilots and language students are enthusiastic users of flash cards, since they have to learn a lot of stuff by rote memorization.

As useful as physical flashcards are, they have drawbacks. For one thing, bulk. Once a collection gets to more than a few hundred cards it becomes ungainly, especially when traveling.

A sufficiently large set of flashcards is also easy to lose track of. For example, I’ll lose a stray card now and then, watching it flutter into the gutter on a rainy day. Then I’ll torment myself wondering what piece of critical information has slipped away from my learning materials.

And, finally, making a lot of flashcards is a chore of its own.

For all the foregoing reasons one of my tasks for next year was to buy a tablet computer. I wanted to make the leap to tablet-based electronic flashcards.

Well, next year came early. The notion became too seductive to resist. I bought a tablet.

My first task was to learn to use Anki.

First of all, I downloaded Anki onto my notebook computer (not my tablet) from Ankisrs.net. You can also find a link at my website. Cost? Free.

I’m a Windows guy so I didn’t dig deep, but I believe most Anki versions are free, with the exception of the iPad/iPhone version. That version is listed at $14.99 right now, though I think its usual price is around $25. Donations can also be made by PayPal and other means.

Once I had Anki installed on my notebook it was time to make flashcards. I had three choices here. I could make them one by one. Or I could download flashcards made by other Anki users generous enough to share their efforts with the public. Or I could import the data from my own vocabulary list which, incidentally, I built in OpenOffice writer, yet another freeware program on my list.

The last option was the most sensible. So that’s what I did.

The trick was to squeeze three pieces of information (called “fields”) onto each card. This is a common need for language students. On the card’s front, I have a Chinese character (field 1). On the back I have the pronunciation of that character (field 2) and also on the back I have the definition of that character (field 3). A two-field card was easy to make, but it took me an entire pot of coffee and half a pack of gummy bears to puzzle out how to format a three-field flavor.

But once I solved that riddle it was a slick operation. My entire vocabulary list was imported by Anki from OpenOffice. Then I got fancy with fonts, making them big to keep things easy on the eyes.

The next step was to get this working on my tablet.

My tablet uses the Android operating system. So, logically enough, I fired up the tablet and downloaded the Android version of Anki.

Anki ran fine. But I hit a bump with my data. I couldn’t get the tablet version to read the flashcard file (the one I made on my notebook) from a micro SD card. And, yes, I did follow the documented procedures. Still, it’s very possible that a more knowledgeable Android user could have easily solved this problem.

As for me, lacking knowledge, I applied resourcefulness. I went to Anki’s site and created a user account. This allowed me to upload the flashcard file from my notebook. Then I turned on my tablet and downloaded that same file.

Result? Success! I now have a tablet of electronic flashcards.

Anki uses a fancy means of card presentation called “spaced repetition” which is designed to optimize the memorization process.

I like using Anki in small chunks, maybe 10 or 15 minutes at a time. The program remembers where I quit, so it’s easy to resume things when I jump back in. Entering and leaving Anki is fast and easy. That’s in happy contrast to the many programs that insist on tackling you around the ankles when you want to leave, asking, like scorned lovers, if you really, really, really want to go. Well, Anki harbors no such annoyances. Friendly, yes. Clingy, no.

I have just scratched the surface here but that’s sufficient. Bottom line: Anki is well-designed and very useful.

Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at TropicalEd.com. Ed is a pilot, economist, and writer. He holds a degree in economics from UCLA and is a former U.S. naval officer. His column runs every Friday.

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