The Most Popular e-Learning in the World, But Is It Effective?

Mar 07, 2017

The Most Popular e-Learning in the World, But Is It Effective

Like most people who do creative work, e-learning developers can have a hard time enjoying an experience in their field of expertise. When I retired from my 30-year music career, it took 10 years for me to learn to enjoy a concert without analyzing it. The analytical mind is always at work.

Working with tech experts and e-learning pros, I am always evaluating what I see to learn why it does or doesn’t work. But now and then I come across a learning experience that comes very close to turning off my inner critic.

The language learning app Duolingo meets that standard. This language learning environment appears to be an example of how to keep learners engaged. After four months of (almost) daily Spanish micro-learning, I am just as involved as on the first day.

Duolingo Design

Gamification elements in the app are nothing out of the ordinary, but they are designed well and integrated into the experience. Combining that with the personalized daily reminders (You’re on a 39-day Spanish streak!), it has a healthy mix of endorphin-inducing elements.

When Duolingo introduces a word, the user sees a photo or simple cartoon graphic of the object or action. As the learner progresses, those hints gradually disappear. Graphics are in context, and there are no gratuitous distractions.

In most cases, using audio and redundant text can hurt learning.[1] Language learning appears to be an exception. It helps to see a sentence and hear it pronounced. Later in the lesson, the user must pronounce the sentence with audio cues only or type what the audio says without the assistance of text. Sometimes the male speaker is hard to understand.

Even when we are conversing with a computer voice, we unconsciously respond to social conventions. After some time listening to same speakers, I found myself responding to the visual image of personas I had created in my mind. That is not a mystery. Such social connections with computers have been shown to improve learning.[2]

That’s my Level 1 evaluation. The app gets a nice smiley sheet. The question is whether it makes users proficient in the language. Am I wasting my time?

Is Duolingo Effective?

According to the company’s own effectiveness study, learners need 29 to 46 hours of study to achieve the proficiency level of a novice who has completed one semester of college study.[3] The short answer for me is that it requires about the same amount of time as a college course but none of the cost. One the other hand, have you ever met anyone who is fluent after four semesters of college work?

My conclusion is that Duolingo can improve your language skills, but to become fluent in your language of choice, it will take much more than the app can deliver. The company’s study shows that students who study language for travel or business do better than casual learners. Perhaps it can be a good starting point.


1. Clark, Ruth. "Six Principles of Effective e-Learning: What Works and Why by Ruth Clark." Learning Solutions Magazine. September 10, 2002

2. Vesselinov, Roumen, PhD and John Grego, Duolingo Effectiveness Study Final Report. December 2012.

Pixentia is a full-service technology company dedicated to helping clients solve business problems, improve the capability of their people, and achieve better results. 

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