Duolingo is a well rounded app that teaches its users multiple languages. The company is looking at expanding through the introduction of a new version of the app, aimed at primary-school level mathematics.
Founder and chief executive of the app said “Duolingo is known for language learning but our mission has always been more general – it’s about all of education”. “To build physical schools around the world would cost billions, with smartphones we can reach two-thirds of the human population. But the problem with smartphones is they are a double-edged sword – they also come with interruptive things.” He expressed his concerns with social media platforms being a distraction.
The new maths version of the app is said to be due to launch next year.
“Parents tell us they think of Duolingo as productive screen time.” “We could add things that don’t have educational value, just to keep people engaged, but we choose not to do that,” He added.
Launched in 2012, Duolingo has 40 million monthly users and has been downloaded 500 million times around the world, including 20 million downloads in the UK alone.
“We started with language learning because there was this humongous need around the world to learn English, which can immediately increase your income potential, but we’ve always wanted to teach other things,” Mr von Ahn says. He devised the app’s first Spanish course himself, as a native speaker from Guatemala.
During an interview with BBC News, Mr von Ahn said that “Many people don’t realise with Duolingo that when you start a lesson, it’s personalised to you.” Some of this personalisation comes from tracking a user’s previous performance but the app is also continually experimenting on its millions of users, improving its model through crowd-sourcing data – Mr von Ahn’s speciality as an academic researcher at Carnegie Mellon University.
For example, the general rule is to teach people learning Spanish plurals before the subjunctive tense, Mr von Ahn said. However, when teaching Italian Portuguese, is it better to teach adjectives before plurals? To answer questions such as these, the app gives one batch of 50,000 new users the course in a different order, to compare their performance with that of those who used the previous method.
“Another part of the secret sauce,” Mr von Ahn says, “is we don’t just give you things you are not very good at, as this would be frustrating, we keep you as engaged as possible, with exercises that we think you have about an 80% chance of getting right.“The hope is this is how [the new maths app] stands out – but it remains to be seen if it works.”
The translation from language to maths, however, may not be a straightforward equation – especially as the new target users will be mainly children. Mathematics has a very different learning journey to languages, says Martin Hassler Hallstedt, a psychologist who studies children’s education, at Uppsala University, in Sweden, and has developed his own maths games for children, including one called ‘Count on me’.
“Duolingo is a popular platform with strong credentials,” he says, “but it is not scientifically proven for maths. “It will be interesting to see how it captivates younger children. “Our research shows that for children, online maths learning has the best outcomes if it is fun, short and embedded in game design. “It is not enough to simply be a digital version of maths homework.”
Duolingo is highly recognised by its artsy, colourful design. So the style of the app in its current state would be a great design platform for a new maths-oriented version. It is bright, it has interesting characters that take the ‘teacher’ role and overall, is very interactive and fun to use. However, this is coming from an adult. The question remains, will this translate into an app that teaches maths to children? Positive screen time is the future, Duolingo is progressing with the times and this new expansion is exciting not just for the brand, but for grateful parents around the world.