Duolingo Teaches Me About Online Learning

This is the Duolingo owl. He helps you learn languages for free online, and teaches me all about how to use the Web for teaching and learning.

This is the Duolingo owl. He helps you learn languages for free online, and teaches me all about how to use the Web for teaching and learning.

I recently discovered Duolingo, a free website that delivers language lessons. If you’re an English speaker, you can take lessons in Spanish, German, French, Italian, or Portuguese. What’s really cool about it, though, is the way that it teaches you the language of your choice using online instruction. I think that Duolingo is a website that really gets online learning right, and it taught me a lot more about how to use the Web to teach something than it taught me Spanish (though I re-learned quite a bit of that, too!).

Using Gamification for Learning

Here is an example of the language skill tree for Spanish. This is a familiar view for anyone who's played a video game with a skill tree.

Here is an example of the language skill tree for Spanish. This is a familiar image for anyone who’s played a video game with a skill tree.

Duolingo uses what’s called gamification to teach languages. Gamification is a hot topic right now for education, and it works through changing an activity into a more game-like interaction so that learning, or whatever you’re doing, is more fun. Duolingo does this through giving you points for finishing lessons and passing tests, which increases your level. You also have three hearts during each lesson, and you lose one heart each time you give a wrong answer — if you run out of hearts, you have to start the lesson over. It also has lesson topics arranged in a skill tree, like in a video game. You can also play and compete with friends via linking up your Facebook account, but I haven’t tested that out yet.

The gamification of Duolingo is pretty effective.  I thought at first that it was a little silly, and that applying a set of rules to learning like this would be annoying, but I was wrong. Somehow, it does make the learning process more enjoyable. I don’t know how this would work in other subjects other than language learning, or in subjects that require more than memorizing and lots of practice with the memorized words and grammar.

Instant Feedback on Your Answers

Here an example of the instant feedback you get when answering a question. Here, I did a listening exercise where I listened to a phrase in Spanish, then typed it in Spanish. When I entered my response, it was correct, and it also showed me the English translation.

Here an example of the instant feedback you get when answering a question. Here, I did an exercise where I listened to a phrase in Spanish, then typed it in Spanish. When I submitted my response, Duolingo told me it was correct, and it also showed me the English translation.

One of the benefits of online learning via something like a MOOCs is the ability to include Web applications that give instant feedback. Instant feedback helps reinforce correct answers quickly, and let you know when you get something wrong, so that learners are less likely to remember wrong answers as correct. Learners that get immediate feedback also can more easily judge for themselves how much and how well they’ve learned, giving them more control over their own learning.

With Duolingo, when you either take a test or go through a lesson, you immediately find out whether you’ve answered a question correctly. The Web application responds to your answer, and tells you exactly what you got wrong, for example, that you got the gender of a noun wrong, or you translated a word incorrectly.

Duolingo also lets you hover your cursor over any word and it will give you a translation (although not while taking a test, of course). This lets you try to figure out an answer yourself, but then look at the translation if you’re having trouble.  This doesn’t let you completely off the hook, though, since it doesn’t help you with verb conjugations or word order when trying to answer a question. It is really helpful that you can do this, however, because it lets you look right away at a word and its translation, helping form that connection between the two. This helps you build a sense of control over your learning that other methods might not give you.

Customized Lessons

Another handy trick of the Web application is the ability to customize your lesson. Rather than working out of, say, a workbook, where all students have the same questions, Duolingo can quiz you more on words that you’ve gotten wrong in the past. When you take a lesson, it also lets you know when you are encountering a new word by highlighting it in yellow. The new words often appear with “easier” exercises: seeing the English translation, hearing the word in Spanish, and having to identify the correct image and Spanish word.  As the site learns that you’ve learned the word, it gives you more difficult exercises, like translating a sentence containing word from English to Spanish.

The folks over at Duolingo have a blog where they’ve written about their “data-driven approach” to language instruction. They say:

Every time you finish a Duolingo lesson, translation, test, or practice session, you provide valuable data about what you know and what you’re struggling with. Our system uses this info to plan future lessons and select translation tasks specifically for your skills and needs.

All I know is that when I got the word for turtle wrong, I had to translate all kinds of sentences about turtles after that, so that I’ll never forget that the Spanish word for turtle is tortuga.

Crowd-Sourced Answers and Translations

Here's a discussion thread for one Spanish question. Users discuss an alternate translation, and it becomes a correct answer.

Here’s a discussion thread for one Spanish question. Users discuss an alternate translation, and it becomes a correct answer.

One of the coolest aspects of Duolingo is the way that the system allows you to interact with the exercises themselves. If you think one of your answers should have been correct, but it was marked wrong, you can flag it so that someone will take a look at it. And for each question, there is a discussion thread attached, so if you’re confused about why an answer is right or wrong, you can go in and read the thread, or ask about it yourself.

Helpful users and Duolingo moderators can help answer your questions about why your answer was right, or, if there was a mistake or ambiguity in the question, it will get fixed. Crowd-sourcing answers and translations like this means that there’s a community of learners who, ideally, all contribute to improving Duolingo as a resource.

I’m Looking Forward to More Applications of This Technology

How useful is what you’ve learned this way?  There’s some criticism of Duolingo that learning a language this way doesn’t teach practical skills that one could use to actually communicate with someone who speaks the language you’ve learned. I think that as far as learning this way for other things, perhaps the rote memorization and the highly structured nature of the application would teach you also how to “learn” the structure of learning rather than let you use it in a more flexible way. But I think being too critical of how it doesn’t measure up to in-class learning experiences with an excellent teacher is missing the boat.  Like any other teaching and learning environment, it has its strengths and weaknesses.

What would be really fantastic is if this type of interactive online educational technology could be combined with face-to-face learning. One could have students do exercises at home, then come to class and use the skills they’ve learned in the classroom in different exercises that would challenge their creativity with what they’ve learned. This would let you use a resource like Duolingo to “flip” your classroom, letting the memorization more easily happen outside of class, and letting students use what they’ve learned in in-class exercises.

I can also imagine the ways that one could use this kind of interactive environment along with computerized essay grading. One could devise writing exercises, like developing thesis statements, or using textual evidence, that could be “graded” immediately in order to give feedback.  Then, this may help to improve student writing for the essays that they would eventually turn in to an instructor.

All of this said, Web applications like Duolingo can be very effective learning tools and resources for educators. The most important thing, as with any learning tool, is to keep student learning at the forefront and have effective ways to assess student learning.

About Kim Mann

Kim Mann is the editor and a writer for the Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and her PhD in American Studies at the College in 2014. Her research is on technology, the interface, and the body in mid-twentieth century science fiction.