Does Duolingo Work?

children-593313_1920Duolingo is a really interesting language learning system because it’s game-based, consists of micro-lessons and caters for continuous learning. I’ve been interested in the system for a while and my visit to Barcelona provided me with an opportunity to use the app consistently to learn Spanish. I found it quite useful to compare this experience to my traditional classroom based language experiences. This is what I’ve learnt after a month of using the app consistently:

  • Learner motivation still contributes hugely to the effectiveness of a language learning system: The immediacy of needing to navigate a foreign country has been a far more effective form of motivation than learning a language which could perhaps be useful to me someday. This motivation means that I practiced consistently, which is half the battle  This huge motivation differential means that it’s not really fair to compare the gamified Spanish experience to the more traditional Portuguese classroom experience.
  • If you do want learners to practice, it’s important to be really specific about what you want them to do: When I was learning other languages, I’d spend valuable practice time trying to define what I needed to learn. This wastes time and is a further barrier to practicing. What I really like about Duolingo is that the entire course of study is decided for the learner when you open the app.
  • Continuous reinforcement is powerful in learning: I probably spend as much time per week learning Spanish as I did when I was going to weekly Portuguese classes. The only difference between two were the length and the frequency of practice. The small daily doses provided by Duolingo are really powerful.
  • Gamefication elements really work: My big problem with learning a language is that you get it wrong almost 25% of the time. In a classroom setting, this can be really daunting. The gamification elements of the app (for instance, the strong positive reinforcement you receive) really helped me to embrace getting it wrong.  I also like the instant feedback that the app provides.
  • It’s really weird not having the rules of the language explained to you: I like learning things that make logical sense. I feel a bit disconcerted not having the logic of tenses explained to me. However Duolingo means that you rely on your intuitive understanding of the language rather than overthinking it.

What was the result of my consistent use of Duolingo? Overall, Duolingo was an effective tool. I managed to do everything I needed to do in Barcelona. I was pleasantly surprised that I could understand complicated directions quite easily. However my spoken Spanish lagged my understanding of written and verbal Spanish considerably. I feel like this lag would have been less significant in traditional language classes. Overall, I suspect that the best way to learn a language is to combine traditional classes with something like Duolingo.


NEXUS Planning MOOC: A Versal Review



I’ve recently been lucky enough to collaborate with Barbara Schreiner of the Pegasys Institute in creating a course entitled Integrated Water Energy Food Nexus Planning in the Context of Climate Change. Barbara and her team delivered a series of planning workshops in Kenya on Nexus Planning and, as capacity development is central to the institute’s mission, it seemed ideal to put this content in a MOOC  .

We had a number of criteria when choosing a LMS:

  • Accessibility: The purpose of the course is to disseminate courses as widely as possible. It was important to us that the format would be easy for participants to use.
  • Ongoing maintenance requirements: We didn’t want to commit the Institute to ongoing maintenance requirements. We also didn’t want to commit, in perpetuity, to hosting and LMS costs.
  • Ability to collaborate: Barbara wanted to be able to go into the LMS and edit content herself
  • Whitebranded: We didn’t want tonnes of distracting branding all over the place

Versal met all of these requirements well. It’s accessible, has a free option and promotes collaborating. Overall I think that it is an intuitive system that works well. It’s especially easy to structure the course using Versal.

However there are three major drawbacks to using this LMS

  • Limited formatting options: You can’t centre pictures. This is infuriating, and distracts from the overall look
  • It seems a bit clunky
  • Limited learner analytics: And I mean extremely limited. We are going to have to migrate the content to another LMS after testing our BETA version for this very reason.

Overall I’d recommend using Versal to an organisation, like the Institute, which is exploring the possibility of hosting MOOCs. Check out the course here and give me some feedback!



Distance Learning

computer-1185626_1280Distance learning is cheaper than contact-based learning, has the potential to reach more students and can “slot” into working adult’s lives and so it is potentially part of the answer to our growing skills crisis.  In addition, it provides students with flexibility of subject choices which are not always offered in traditional learning structures Distance and online learning is currently under-utilized for adult skills development in South Africa.   Which strategies we use to improve a distance or online learning offering for adults in South Africa?

  • Improving the offering of UNISA: UNISA is the largest university in South Africa, but the learner experience at the institution is not always ideal. UNISA should scrap courses which are not useful, take advantage of modern e-learning methodologies and offer more short-term, skills based courses. A degree obtained through a distance learning institution may never be as through as a traditional degree, but there is far less prejudice around skills-based further education.
  • Use flipped classroom methodology to decrease the amount of class-room time to teach technical skills. Some things (like plumbing) require practical experience. Nevertheless, a flipped classroom technique can decrease the amount of (expensive) classroom time required.
  • Teach some skills online: Ensure that there is broad access to online skills development opportunities. Skills such as coding and web development are easy to learn online. Quantitative skills and language skills could both be taught online.

The popularity of forums such as Code Academy or the Open University in the United Kingdom show us that there is a scope for mass, web-based learning. We need to find a way to leverage these kinds of opportunities for South Africa.