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Popular Language-Instruction App Duolingo Targets Schools

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Seventy million users in less than three years is nothing to sneeze at.

But now Duolingo—the award-winning, gamified language-instruction app and software created by computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University—is seeking to make its way into schools.

"Our main goal is to become the most dominant way to teach languages in the world," said Luis von Ahn, the Pittsburgh-based company's co-founder, in an interview.

Such ambition will surely raise questions, both about the potential limitations of learning a language digitally, and about the company's business model, which is predicated on teachers adopting the free tool outside of formal school district procurement processes. 

But Duolingo's educational push is off to a strong start, with 10,000 teacher accounts and 25,000 affiliated student users signed up in less than a week, according to von Ahn, winner of a "genius" fellowship award from the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2006.

Much of Duolingo's new focus is international, targeting students in developing countries who are seeking to learn English.The newly launched Duolingo for Schools is already being piloted in Costa Rica and Guatemala, von Ahn said, and the company's plan is to generate revenue by competing with language-proficiency certification exams such as the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language.)

But American K-12 classrooms are also a large audience, von Ahn said. 

Currently, about 25 percent of Duolingo's general users are based in the U.S.

A good way to teach?

Some experts are skeptical at claims that language instruction can be revolutionized by an app.

"I can see value for apps used for practice and gamifying grammar instruction and translation," said Marlene Johnshoy, the online education program director at the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis.

"But that's a small part of language learning," she said. "You have to get beyond that, to conversation, to negotiation of meaning with live people, and to content production."

Johnshoy stressed that she was not familiar enough with Duolingo to specifically comment on its merits.

Here's how Duolingo for Schools works, per von Ahn:

The content a user can access on his or her computer or mobile device is split into units: food words, for example, or a grammar skill, such as pluralization.

Students must successfully complete one unit to unlock the next. Video game-style incentives are built in for motivation.

And there are no multiple-choice questions, von Ahn said. Instead, Duolingo features opportunities to listen, speak, read, and write in the language that is being learned.

But none of that happens via interaction with other people. Speech recognition software tells users if they are pronouncing words correctly, for example, and scoring of written work is done by machine.

In addition, everything that users do—whether they get an answer right or wrong, hesitate before trying to respond, ask for help, or struggle with particular conjugations—is digitally tracked. That information is then used to tailor the next questions and content the user receives to the areas where they are weakest.

A dashboard that allows teachers to track each student's progress has been added to the educational version. More nuanced learning analytics tools, as well as options for teachers to customize their own content, will come soon, von Ahn said.

Duolingo's oft-touted line is that 34 hours with its app is equivalent to one full semester of university instruction—findings from an independent study by professors from the City University of New York. 

But von Ahn said instruction with a classroom teacher and the app together is far preferable to use of the app alone, and he acknowledged that there are limits to how deeply Duolingo can help users learn a new language.

"Our goal is to get you ramped up to the point where you feel OK having a conversation with someone else," he said. "We've actually tried putting in conversation with other people, and [users] don't like it. They feel ashamed."

Growth plan

Although he recognized concerns about the lack of human interaction with Duolingo, von Ahn said it's not like most K-12 students in, say, French 1, are getting regular opportunities to interact conversationally with native French speakers.

It's a familiar tension in ed tech: Developers say they've come up with a new way to make teaching a given concept or set of skills more efficient. Education experts worry that such tools represent a limited slice of what good teaching looks like. The developers counter that such teaching happens too rarely in the real world, in part because teachers are too busy trying to help 30 students of varying skill levels learn the basics.

Johnshoy from the University of Minnesota said it would be a mistake to think technology can't help with language instruction—or to think technology is going to replace classroom language teachers altogether.

Ideally, Johnshoy said, she'd like to see more "connective" uses of technology, such as using Skype to encourage conversations.

But in the meantime, it won't be a surprise if Duolingo for Schools takes off.

The company's plan is to encourage teachers to adopt the tool on their own for classroom use. Given the volume of information that Duolingo collects on its users, that's sure to prompt privacy concerns from some. But the company does not serve ads, von Ahn said, and it analyzes user information only "to make a better decision about what to teach you." 

The educational version of Duolingo will also not sell crowd-sourced translations of web-based content back to the content producers, a key function of the commercial version, according to von Ahn. 

Photo: Luis von Ahn, photographed in Pittsburgh in 2007. Prior to founding Duolingo, von Ahn started reCAPTCHA, a digital authentication tool that was sold to Google. 


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