Testimony For Duolingo

It feels strange to have another blogpost named "Testimony For Duolingo" after having "Testimony Against Duolingo", but education is always a difficult matter and there's more to it than simply "duolingo bad".

I may have told this story elsewhere but when MOOC comes around in 2013 I thought about a possible reform of China's education system based on this technology scene; I came to the conclusion that it was impossible because there's two things that would be lacking: recognition both by the government and by the public, and internet infrastructure good enough to support remote learning from the faraway, rural area (i.e. the issue of digital divide). The latter had been proved real in 2020 when the COVID-19 outbreak forced everyone to take online lessons and there were news about poor rural families committing suicide because they could afford neither the internet nor any modern-enough digital device for their kids; but digital divide is nortoriously hard to solve and can be ignored if we're only going to roll our plan out in big cities. The recognition part is relatively much easier: if you grow as a private company then sooner or later you'll have to deal with the government and you can just lick their boots and work your way out from there. No, what I haven't thought about when I was 13 is that sometimes people simply don't want to pay the effort if you don't force them to.

I still remembered very clearly of the day I interviewed for the edutech company I worked for in Cantonia for an internship. I remembered when the CTO (it was a startup having a very flat hierarchy) introduced me to their computer system for teaching people Python and their ultimate goal of revolutionizing online education I asked, what about MOOC? They've been around for ages, why aren't you guys doing that? And he said, MOOC solved the problem of distributing materials, but it's ultimately a media less capable of having classes with a teacher, and it also didn't solve the problem of people having less-than-desirable motivation for going through whole courses. I forgot the actual number he told me about how many people actually finishing the MOOC course they've chosen according to their investigation, but it's way lower than I've had in mind - it was something like about 0.3%. It was a genuine shock to me - I used to thought, just like many others, it should at least be about 10%~20%.

You have to reconsider the actual effects of gamification in Duolingo and a million other "games where you learn programming through playing" games when that's the number you would have with MOOC, especially when you have a relatively smaller company size (if I remembered correctly we have had 800+ employees before we start to lay off people, while Duolingo, at the time of writing, is said to have about 600) but are dealing with a much wider audience. The effect of gamification is two-fold: the benefit is sandwiched between the fact that people learning less (because it's a game) and the fact that people keep coming back for more (because it's a game), and the balance between the two is hard to find. Did Duolingo do a good job on that? They might not be; but then again, what choices do we currently really have?


Last update: 2023.12.14