The DuoLingo experience

At the end of last year, I met up with the Jisc Futurist again for what’s becoming our seasonal meal out. This one was ‘winter’, spent indoors in a pleasant Mediterranean restaurant. Once I’d gotten used to DMs and RTs illuminating on his watch, we were served some excellent vegetarian and burnt animal foods.

Med food

And in our meals one thing we regularly do is, inevitably, discuss DuoLingo at some point. Martin has young children who do this, without parental support or prodding, so he sees how they use it. I keep coming across DuoLingo (and am using it, albeit haphazardly) as it keeps being mentioned as the flagship for gamification-enhanced education, though the gamification and game elements are arguably the least interesting (neat though they are).

DuoLingo is a persistently interesting example. As TJF points out, there are a lot of people using it; the kind of numbers that the education sector need to keep an eye on. It’s free, easy to use, quick to get started, and there’s the nice intrinsic hooks of achieving through earning gamified things and learning a language at the same time. In fact it’s so easy to get going (old tech is fine; seconds, not minutes, to start) that there’s little excuse for EdTech commentators to not try it before commenting.

And, and this may be the attribute that makes it so usable, it is ferociously quick to move through a lesson – even though you have to achieve more right answers than wrong. Got a few minutes? You can do a new lesson or repeat a previously completed one.


It’s not perfect. Languages come out of an incubator somewhat rough around the edges, and not of academically rigorous quality. Volunteers, rather than certified experts, develop this initial content. Speech and sound, vital to speaking a new language correctly, is of variable quality. And the translations that players are given (which are part of the business model) are sometimes random, irrelevant or things you will never say.

But it’s been around for a few years and the numbers do add up. And by that I mean the large number of users/players/learners, and the proportion reaching advanced stages and completing (as opposed to MOOC drop-out rates). Not everyone benefits; there’s always losers. While taxi drivers complain about Uber taking away their business, there’s less in the press about the language teaching and translation sectors taking substantial damage with individuals fearing for their futures. But it’s happening.


So, yes. Worth a “play”, at the very least.

A digital games in learning infokit

May in this year included the lunch-launch (or launch-lunch?) of the Jisc Digital Media infokit on Digital Games in Learning. You can find From Flappy Bird to furthering learning on their website.

Why? Because lunch.

Infokit and cheesecake

Why the infokit? Because it’s needed. Digital (and analogue) games in learning have been around for decades. Like skateboarding and the Internet, they are not a new concept, and whether people like them or not, they aren’t going to go away.

Which presents two related problems:

  1. How do people use games to “help” with teaching and learning?
  2. And, based on increasing experience, how do people avoid using games that don’t help with teaching and learning?

The second problem is as interesting as the first, and is becoming more pressing as a new wave of Gamification consultants and companies work their way around UK academia, looking for opportunities in some cases to do good work, but in others to tarmac a layer of league tables and points over learning systems in exchange for large bags of cash.

Mobile tech

With the demands of learners to, well, learn quicker, faster, better, the effectiveness of salespeople and vendors, the buzz around Games in Learning often obscuring the more nuanced research, the popularity of gaming, and the pressures on teachers and facilitators of all ages of students, it’s easy to be seduced by the allure of digital games. Unfortunately, though there isn’t (yet) a large hole in the ground filled with copies of a disastrous edutainment game, there is a long history of academia throwing a lot of money at digital games and not getting back what they wanted, needed, or thought they were getting in return.


But … there are also been success stories. Digital games and environments which have been, or are, used either accidentally or deliberately as education facilitators. Over delicious sourdough pizza, the Jisc Futurist and I conversed on the uses of Minecraft in particular, and how it compared to Second Life from an ease-of-use-in-academia perspective.

And we discussed – and persistently came back to – DuoLingo, the free online language learning system which is addictive compelling to use, without the need for external motivations. Why does it work? How does it work? What are the makers of it getting out of it (that one’s interesting)? How can DuoLingo be used within formal teaching, or even UK FE or HE? How can elements of DuoLingo – either concepts, systems or the more “feel good” attributes – be put into other game-based learning systems?

Dessert described

Anyway; have a look at the infokit. It’s tilted towards academics who have little or no experience of games – those perhaps more easily seduced by their apparent and actual uses – so experts may not glean so much of use from the texts.

The dessert, by the way, was an orange cheesecake (chosen because of the logo color of the infokit funders). It was delicious. Thanks to Martin for an enjoyable lunch, and to Karla, National services director of Jisc Digital Media, for her considerable help and professionalism throughout the development of this infokit. By the way, you might want to check out the other guides they have funded and host; there’s quite a few.