Case Study: Duolingo - Making Education Addictive and Accessible

Dec 7, 2023

Luis von Ahn TED talk cover
Luis von Ahn TED talk cover

In the ever-evolving landscape of digital education, it's crucial to spotlight innovations that are not just successful but also socially impactful. In this article, we present a well-known and highly successful example of gamification, based on Luis von Ahn's TED Talk. This case study delves into the story of Duolingo, a prime example of how technology can be harnessed to democratize learning. Through this article, we aim to not only spread the word about Duolingo's achievements but also to inspire and inform our readers about the transformative power of gamified education.

We also provide a link to the TED talk at the end of this blog.

The beginnings

In a playful and humorous presentation, Luis von Ahn, co-founder of Duolingo, shares how his mission to provide equal access to education led to the creation of this language-learning app. With a focus on making education addictive and accessible to all, Duolingo has revolutionized the way people learn foreign languages.

Growing up in a poor country like Guatemala, Luis witnessed firsthand the inequality that education perpetuates. Those who come from wealthier backgrounds can afford a quality education, while those with fewer resources are left with limited opportunities for success. Recognizing this disparity, Luis was motivated to level the playing field and make education accessible to everyone.

He and his team began their journey by selecting the best subject to teach. Though math and computer science were considered, the team ultimately decided to focus on foreign languages. With a massive global audience of approximately two billion people learning languages, the potential impact of teaching languages was undeniable.

The team also recognized the power of language in transforming lives. Unlike subjects such as math, where proficiency alone does not guarantee higher earning potential, learning a foreign language like English can lead to better job opportunities across various industries.

(Editor’s note: While mathematics may not directly guarantee higher earning potential like language skills, its role as a foundational pillar of education is irrefutable. By making math education more accessible and engaging, we can unlock the potential in students, paving the way for a more equitable and informed society. Just as Duolingo has revolutionized language learning, there's a compelling need to innovate in math education, ensuring it serves as a bridge, rather than a barrier, to opportunities.)


The Mobile Phone Advantage

To reach a wide audience, the team realized they needed to leverage the ubiquity of smartphones. Building schools all over the world was financially impractical, whereas most people already had access to a mobile phone. Thus, the idea of creating a mobile language-learning app accessible to all was born and Duolingo was chosen to embody this vision.

To ensure accessibility for both the rich and the poor, Duolingo operates under a freemium model. Users can access the app and learn as much as they want without paying anything. However, if they choose not to pay, they may encounter advertisements during their learning experience. The majority of Duolingo's revenue is generated through subscriptions that allow users to opt out of ads. This model effectively redistributes wealth as wealthier users from countries like the United States and Canada finance the education of users from poorer countries like Brazil, Vietnam, and Guatemala. 


Making Education Addictive

One of the biggest challenges of delivering education through smartphones is the presence of addictive distractions like social media and mobile games. So education needs to be enticing and engaging to be able to compete. To achieve this, Duolingo employs psychological techniques borrowed from popular apps like Instagram and TikTok to keep users motivated and committed to their language-learning journey.

The streak feature, which measures the number of consecutive days a user practices, is one of the most powerful motivators. By displaying this streak prominently, users are incentivized to return each day to maintain their progress. Duolingo's sophisticated AI system also sends personalized notifications, strategically timed based on the user's previous engagement patterns. Reminders are designed to maximize the likelihood of users returning to the app. (He makes a great joke here, it is worth watching the full presentation.)

As Duolingo gained popularity, its distinctive features and mascot became meme-worthy. The green owl mascot became synonymous with persistence and even sparked internet humor surrounding the lengths it would go to get users back on track with their language lessons. These memes further amplified the app's popularity and contributed to its cultural relevance.

Leveraging the success of Duolingo, he hopes other apps can replicate the app's addictive and accessible approach to teaching other subjects like math and physics. By harnessing the power of smartphones and gamification, high-quality education can be delivered to everyone, regardless of their economic background.

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