Duolingo teaches language – and perhaps a bit more

In January 2013 I started my first language course on Duolingo. Little did I know just how many hours I would spend over the next eight years! Right up to this morning, in fact, during my walk with Gilligan, our koiru … chien … Hund … cachorro … perro …

Along the way I’ve used Duolingo with high school students in language classes, with graduate students in courses about language classes, and as support for forays into language, by using Klingon, High Valyrian, and Esperanto as examples of constructed languages. It’s a fantastic hobby.

Every now and then it strikes me that something or other that Duolingo is doing with its app leads to a good thought about how education works. And why not? Duolingo has a huge database of user experience, coupled with their inspiring mission statement: to develop the best education in the world and make it universally available. Here’s a few examples of some recent insights.

Motivation. Duolingo uses gamification to keep me doing Duolingo. This morning I was reviewing Italian with the standard short quizzes on the platform. I kept failing to complete the lesson I was working on, but I kept trying to redo it. Why? Because I failed to finish (by making four mistakes) only after I had done enough of the lesson to earn 20 points. Silly? Maybe. But the fact that my fail – as low as just over 50% correct – still earned me positive feedback (20 more points added to my total XP) was enough to get me to try again.

How often is 50% right rewarded in our classrooms? How often does 50% right get communicated as 50% wrong? What does that do to motivation?

There are many other clever tricks to motivate Duolingo learners. I’ll mention one. The podcasts Duolingo has produced in Spanish and French are on a par with shows from National Public Radio in the US. They are really well done. I’ve listened to them all. With a recent platform update you can now earn points for listening to a podcast. So, yes, I listened to them all again. I’m essentially putty in their gamified hands. But I’m getting a whole lot of language practice.

Does this mean that education should be based more on points? No. The lesson for me is that education should be more about value-add and less about how far students are from getting 100% on their work. The podcasts don’t grade me for misunderstanding 30% of what was said (oh, a C!). My work does not become a result on a rubric (Student understood 70% of the information; oh, a 3!) The podcasts simply reward me for listening to them.

Short and often … and choice. The language learning on Duolingo is broken into very short segments. The podcasts are arguably the longest single learning exercises, running around 20 minutes. The other exercises are generally very short. Learn a little, get some feedback, learn a little, get some feedback. Tight iterations of learning, with feedback, under my control. 

You can choose to do a successful lesson again, which is arguably a bit harder because the next level will use harder skills, e.g. asking you to produce more language instead of reacting to language the lesson produces. But it’s your choice. You can also move ahead to a new set of exercises at the easier level. Or you can review lessons you’ve already completed at all levels. Or you can switch the activity type … or even the language. Or you can quit because you’ve used up your energy for language learning. What are the parallels here we could explore with the way students all over the world are doing school right now? Even more interesting, what about the way we do school is not parallel with Duolingo’s user experience and what can we learn from that?

I’d share more, but that’s enough for now. I’m feeling the need for a little time with the silly green owl … and all those wonderful words and interesting grammatical moves I discover along the way. And of course some pretty darn good insights for my personal philosophy of teaching as well.

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