Duolingo and Teaching – Part 2

12791947485_5ee1562a3dIn Part 1, I looked back at my own history of language learning and then my current experience using Duolingo.

In this post, I’ll be looking at how, based on these experiences, I see language teaching and great free tech like Duolingo as intersecting and what questions I have about it.

Possible Roles of Duolingo-like Tech in Classrooms

none – teachers pretend that tech like Duolingo doesn’t exist and just do what they’ve always done how they’ve always done it.

unofficial supplement – students use the tech on the side, even as their teachers ignore it.

supplement – teachers intentionally use Duolingo as a separate supplement for traditional class. Some class time might be devoted to using it, or it might be homework.

guide – teachers change their instruction based on Duolingo (or whatever tech). The class becomes a supplement to the tech.

replacement – teachers are replaced by educational technology because the tech is cheaper, more time efficient for each student, easier to collect data on, and is possibly more effective.

Thoughts on the Guide Role

I’m all about data-driven decision making, including decisions about instruction. Duolingo certainly has a lot of data and it might become reasonable for it to influence our instruction, or even place our instruction in a more supplemental role.

That said, I see two clashes between formal education and Duolingo (or similar tech) that I think will hamper the app from taking on this leadership role.

First, Duolingo is set up to reach individuals. By contrast, formal education is set up to reach groups of students separated by “level.” Grouping students is always problematic, but we educate huge numbers of people this way for convenience. In my opinion, it’s going to be hard for the hyper-individualized instruction of Duolingo to carry over into formal education without a major structural shift in education. I’m not opposed to such a shift – I just know that education is slow to change.

Second, Duolingo’s pedagogy relies on grammar translation (so lots of L1 use) and the audiolingual method to teach through repetition what “sounds right.” By contrast, most classes for adults I’ve been involved with emphasize direct instruction – learning the language and learning about the language. I don’t think either philosophy is perfect. I do think that a change away from direct instruction would be a major shift and would be an uphill battle for Duolingo to face, even armed with a lot of data.

These two clashes are both pretty major. I don’t think it would be smooth sailing for the two different systems to play nicely together in this way.

Agaist the Replacement Role

I’m an ESL teacher, so obviously I have a vested interest in not being replaced by a free app.

That said, I also had eight semesters of very pricey Russian lessons in college that really didn’t reach me effectively. Yes, I’m largely to blame – I could have tried harder. But as a teacher, I try to meet students where they’re at, and I think my instructors also could have tried harder.

The point is, I hope that my own disappointment in traditional language lessons helps me be open to teaching language better, even if that means stepping aside entirely.

Before I’m willing to cede my role to Duolingo (or whatever other free app crops up next), I think it ought to address some of its shortcomings:

  1. Its audio is really limited. I love the way it’s integrated into just about every question, but the computer voice is always the same, sometimes not clear, always disembodied, and only as good as my speakers.
  2. Its error correction is quite good but not as reliable as a knowledgeable teacher’s. It also doesn’t seem to take into account what is an error of understanding and what is an error of accidentally clicking the wrong button. And its error correction does not seem to immediately cause similar questions to pop up to practice the shaky skill.
  3. It cannot help me with my pronunciation. This is one area where human teachers are still far, far superior.
  4. The impersonal nature of it is great at the beginning to avoid embarrassment. But the lack of interpersonal communication quickly becomes a liability. I see that they’re piloting automated “chats” in French, and that’s a good step. But no computer is going to glare at me when I accidentally use the informal “you” instead of the formal “you.” That was a mistake I only made once in Russia.
  5. Sometimes an explanation is needed, and Duolingo does not provide.
  6. Duolingo excels at providing a sentence’s worth of context for grammar and vocabulary. So far Duolingo has not done more than this, but connected text and thoughts are a crucial part of any language. Perhaps I’m just not far enough along, though?


img_2778Some Questions

Lastly, I wanted to pose a few questions I’ve been thinking about as I continue to teach in a traditional system and continue to use Duolingo for myself.

  • How and why is Duolingo free? It’s a good program with a nice, well-designed interface. It seems to be working for me, at least in the beginner/intermediate levels, so I bet it’s working well for many other people. The quality is good. Perhaps even great. So I don’t understand why it’s free.I truly don’t know the answer. Three thoughts though:

    1) Crowdsourcing. I looked at the Duolingo incubator and it looks like there’s a process of crowd-sourcing new language modules and then reviewing them. Is that where all of the levels and languages come from? Does this drastically cut costs and allow it to be free?

    2) In-app purchases. I broke my streak (sad!) and it offered to un-break it for me for a mere $5. “This helps us keep education free.” Really?

    3) Data. I assume that it uses algorithms to look at my answers and other taps and use that info to determine which questions should come next, which units I should review next, etc. It is collecting similar data about an incredible number of other language learners. If I were this company, I would aggregate and examine and use this data. Is it financially free because it wants our data? If so, for what purpose?

  • Who is Duolingo? And why should we (or shouldn’t we) let it influence our learning and our pedagogy? What are their motives, and what is their long-term game?
  • Why does it teach the way it does? It is essentially collecting data that I assume supports the use of grammar translation and audiolingual methods of teaching. Why did it choose those two? Does/did it run other versions that use (and thus measure the effectiveness of) different methods? This also ties back to wondering what purpose they will put their collected data to, and who they are to begin with.
  • Is it reasonable for formal education to rely on free apps? Duolingo is a relatively new app that is currently free but has a short track record. Will Duolingo still exist in two years? Will it be much the same? Will it still be free? If we were relying on it and then it disappeared or abruptly transformed, what would we do?

I think that’s a pretty complete summary of what I’ve been pondering when it comes to Duolingo and teaching, at least for now.

I’m really interested to see what they do next, and how educators embrace or ignore them over the coming months and years.

And I’m really excited to continue with my Russian exercises and see how I do.


Photo CreditBem photography: 0983194978 on Flickr

You’re reading Duolingo and Teaching – Part 2, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

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