An Invisible Problem and Unrealized Opportunity

This post was written by Andre Paul ’19

The “Pains” of a Sustainable Innovation MBA Student

Capacities of time and energy fill up rather quickly for Sustainable Innovation MBA (SI-MBA) students, especially during finals week (and there are roughly eight finals weeks, or two per module, by my count). During the busiest weeks of SI-MBA, workload quickly outpaces recovery, mental health declines, and so does learning, in my estimation.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Such are the challenges of an accelerated program. If you want to earn a Master’s degree in a year, then you ought to make the requisite sacrifices. You have to “pay your dues” so to speak. Most nights call for hours of reading, most of which a student cannot complete because he or she simply lacks the reserves of either time, energy, or attention span (or all three).

Might we be able to reduce a SI-MBA student’s sacrifices while improving his or her learning outcomes?

A Possible Solution

Hypothetically, let’s replace three hours of reading per week (across all classes) by three hours of listening to some form of audio media (primarily podcasts) that covers the same (or similar) material.

SI-MBA students undergo 33 weeks of full-time course work. This simple intervention could therefore save roughly one hundred hours over the course of the program, doing the quick math. SI-MBA students could then apply those hundred hours toward networking, proactive planning, and restorative activities (sleep, perhaps!).

A few professors of the 2019 cohort assigned podcasts for homework, though only as supplemental materials. Multiple professors assigned occasional TED Talks as mandatory material, but while videos may require less mental effort for students to digest, I argue that they involve most of the same trade-offs as reading.

To explore this possible “solution”, I’ll walk through three of the main advantages of audio media over reading and video:

Why Podcasts are More Effective Media than Books or E-Readings

  1. Podcasts Allow You to Multi-Task

People have busy lives, which is why very few will read this blog post and even fewer will actually read every word.

Hundreds of pages of reading (assigned on most nights in the SI-MBA program) become quickly exhausting. This is probably why I did not hear a single student claim that he or she read every assigned reading – not even for a single class. Students therefore head into class discussions having absorbed varying breadths and depths of the pre-assigned material, which leads to disparities in discussion.

Podcasts, by allowing students to multi-task (thereby preserving time and energy), could ameliorate such challenges. To illustrate without belaboring this obvious point, here is just a short list of activities that one might perform while listening to a podcast:

  • Driving
  • Walking
  • Cleaning
  • Exercising
  • [Literally anything that consumes time, but leaves mental capacity idle]

In short, by listening to a podcast instead of reading, a student could complete homework while completing housework, commuting to school, or doing a favorite activity.

  • Reading Late at Night Harms Learning and Mental Health

In particular, digital e-readings, especially when read late at night (as is inevitable for SI-MBA students) can disrupt sleep – a fundamental prerequisite for learning. If you’re unconvinced, Matthew Walker proves this point in his book Why We Sleep (and more clearly than I possibly could).

Exposure to LED lighting at nighttime has been shown to decrease melatonin production by up to 85%[1]. LED lighting increases sleep latency (the time it takes one to fall asleep). The lighting of the modern world – one of its major marvels – harms both quantity and quality of sleep, thereby increasing risk factors in every area of one’s health.

By preventing quantity of REM sleep, exposure to LED lighting at night (even the light from a laptop, phone, or Kindle device) can reduce learning outcomes. REM sleep plays a primary role in both learning and maintenance of psychological stability[2]. A reduction of REM sleep in particular reduce one’s ability to acquire, consolidate, and retain information.

To make matters worse, other consequences include higher risks of diabetes, obesity, cancer, and neurodegeneration[3].

For a SI-MBA student, the alternative to late night e-reading may be hundreds of pages of printing, which hardly serves the philosophy of the program. If a student’s goal is to be healthy, happy, and informed, then the latter option may actually prove better. Neither is ideal.

  • Verbal Communication is Older than Civilization

The Gutenberg Revolution of the printing press occurred in the 15th Century – merely 600 years ago. Quick math indicates that this is roughly 0.3% of human history.

The point is that the Gutenberg Revolution made writing widely available just six centuries ago. Podcasts and audiobooks have made speaking widely available for less than two decades. We have read for a much smaller portion of our evolutionary history than we have listened.

Which proves better for learning and communicating? Text or audio?

The debate continues as to whether reading or listening proves better for comprehension, and the answer probably depends on context. If you’re listening to a podcast, for example, then you’re probably doing something else at the same time, and that something else may prove distracting.

However, activities like walking and light exercise may even boost acquisition and retention of material[4].

The hypothesis remains to be proven or disproven, but it may be the case that consuming audio media during some form of light activity boosts learning outcomes relative to reading. Somehow, we have to account for the recent growth of podcasts and audio books. The underlying causes of a growth in audio media may not only be technological or economic, but also anthropological and psychological.

The Explosion of Audio Media

For the first time in human history, to paraphrase Jordan Peterson, the reach of the spoken word far exceeds the reach of the written word, and exceeds it at an accelerating pace. To illustrate this point, Joe Rogan, who runs a popular and top-rated podcast called The Joe Rogan Experience, claims to get nearly 100 million views per month across all platforms.

According to FastCompany, there are at least 500,000 active podcasts (and growing).

One-third of people in the U.S. currently listen to at least one podcast per month[5]. More striking, they listen to whole episodes. Over 80% of respondents to one poll claimed to listen to most or all of an episode[6].

Perhaps most astonishing, annual podcast advertising revenues are projected to grow 10x from 2015-2020 (to nearly $700 million per year) [7].

Podcasts continue to grow for many possible reasons, but perhaps mainly because the barriers to entry are so few. They are extremely cheap to produce, costing anywhere from zero to a few thousand dollars to begin (that is, for the highest possible production quality). The toughest hurdle of starting a podcast today is likely for its host to earn credibility through earning quality guests (and vice versa).

I suspect that the future of education will transition from text to audio media, and I’d like to see SI-MBA take a lead in that transition. One possible step toward doing so could actually be the launch of a SI-MBA podcast. A SI-MBA podcast would encounter none of the key challenges outlined above. This program even meets such challenges with its biggest strengths.

Ideas for a SI-MBA Podcast

In the 2019 First Inaugural Appreciative Inquiry Summit, students brainstormed about what SI-MBA “could be” by exploring and articulating the program’s core strengths. As two of SI-MBA’s main strengths are network connections and the facilitation of high-level discussion, one of the more interesting seeds to sprout from the AI Summit was the idea for a SI-MBA podcast. Others have raised this obvious possibility before, but the potential for such an idea remains dormant.

Once again, the biggest challenge of starting a podcast today is not financial cost, but the challenge of finding valuable guests to legitimize a platform. A SI-MBA podcast would see no such difficulty. Any combination of its professors and students alone could produce interesting and enlightening discussions. Furthermore, SI-MBA’s connection to the most fascinating and productive leaders in Sustainable Business compares with no other program in the world.

Personally, one of my favorite parts of SI-MBA has been the opportunity to hear from “Leaders in Residence” such as Hunter Lovins and Mary Powell, in addition to other guest speakers like Jeffrey Hollender and Ed Freeman. Their lessons were not only captivating to attend, but also practical and useful to apply. Through the platform of a SI-MBA podcast, the fascinating lives of such leaders could become instantly available to anyone in the world with a smart phone.

Furthermore, the discussions happening in and around the program’s courses could become widely available. SI-MBA could effectively democratize its content to as many as possible, which remains the vision of its founders.

One objection to this point may be that students will no longer feel incentivized to pay tuition and join the program (which would harm the financial “sustainability” of the MBA). On the contrary, I argue that the content of SI-MBA is hardly what adds the most value for students. SI-MBA students pay for its network, and for opportunities to solve problems in a hands-on environment with a community of likeminded friends.

A podcast platform could actually enhance the credibility of SI-MBA, while engaging alumni, prospective students, and the general business world in the most important topics of sustainable business.

Imagine a SI-MBA podcast hosting insightful discussions on the key topics in sustainable business strategy, perhaps even connecting opponents in various debate formats.

Imagine this platform as a way to share the career successes and challenges of SI-MBA alumni.

Lastly, imagine the best episodes of a SI-MBA podcast being assigned as future homework, which students could complete during downtime.

In Conclusion

The transition to audio media from text as a primary means of acquiring information appears ongoing and inevitable.

How much time might we save future SI-MBA students by allowing them to complete homework while completing housework or staying active? Could incrementally replacing readings with audio media improve the SI-MBA experience, the mental health of its students, and ultimately, their learning outcomes?

Offering a caveat, listening cannot replace reading entirely, as reading is a prerequisite to writing, and writing is a prerequisite to clear and critical thinking. I hope that the thoughts above prove clear and critical enough to suggest the potential of a SI-MBA podcast. Such a platform for SI-MBA appears an unrealized opportunity that flows naturally from the core strengths of the program. Several podcasts in sustainability have recently emerged, such as The Impact Report spawned from the Bard MBA. More immediately, if future courses could replace some audio media in lieu of reading materials, then the learning and mental health outcomes of SI-MBA students might improve.


[2] Matthew Walker on The Joe Rogan Experience (Podcast)




[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.