Learner Experiences with MOOCs and Open Online Learning

How I Learned to Stop Struggling and Translate the Web

Anne Valauri

I would only caution that in the midst of constant evolution, DuoLingo be clear about its identity and function, otherwise, users will struggle, as I did, more with trying to learn the tools than with trying to learn the language.


For the past two months, I have been learning and practicing Spanish online using DuoLingo, a language learning program created to “translate the web.” DuoLingo is a program that provides language lessons (currently in six languages) for free and asks the users to translate articles posted online. DuoLingo has been a unique learning experience, unlike any other language education that I have participated in. No formal teacher can be found in the DuoLingo experience and all learning is essentially self-guided and self-paced. Through discussion features, DuoLingo allows users to fill the role of the teacher, answering questions and making clarifications for confused or less competent users. This community continually ebbs and flows as people leave and join and the DuoLingo platform evolves in response to user feedback, creating a learning experience that is highly dynamic. DuoLingo’s shifting nature might be explained by its origin, as an adaptive learning environment to help users translate the web, rather than as a static teaching tool for those seeking to learn a new language. Unlike the majority of authors in this book, who chose to participate in Massive Open Online Courses, I chose an adaptive learning program like DuoLingo because I wanted to experience a course without a human teacher but that still had human elements of learning support.

Pacing, Points, and Structure

DuoLingo has no formal or timed lesson. Rather, it provides a series of learning levels for the user to complete. To complete a level, users must go through a set number of lessons without losing three “lives,” much like Super Mario Brothers or other video games. Like Mario, DuoLingo awards points for the completion of lessons, with more points awarded the more lives a student has left. Each lesson contains about twenty sentence translations which include translating from Spanish to English, translating from English to Spanish, choosing the correct gender pronoun, and answering multiple-choice fill-in-the-blank type questions. Lessons are usually themed around a part of speech or an area of commonality (e.g., questions, pronouns, occupations). Points can also be earned for the successful translation of real world documents posted by DuoLingo users. If a learner loses all of his/her lives, s/he has to complete the entire lesson all over again. If one does not use the program for several days, DuoLingo sends a reminder email to encourage the user to practice. While this gamified experience may be motivating to some, questions regarding its success still remain. For example, I found the point gathering system inconsequential. I could understand that I was awarded more points for translating a more difficult sentence or completing a lesson without losing a life, but this was not motivating to me.

According to the DuoLingo blog, the platform uses a student’s learning history to adapt lessons to the user’s skill set or learning pattern. However, I was only able to practice about three times a week because of my class schedule, so I often forgot words or rules in between use, causing the system to overestimate my skills. DuoLingo states that they have created a learning environment that was specifically tailored to each user. Perhaps if one uses the program every day, then the tailored learning will help them, but I did not experience this benefit in my own learning. While DuoLingo focuses on adaptive and individualized learning, I hope they do not neglect the value of community learning and sharing that has come from their commenting feature.

Community experience

When I first started using the website, DuoLingo had a discussion feature on the main page of each instructional level. Most of the discussions were old and I rarely used the feature to help me learn. However during the time that I was using DuoLingo, a discussion feature was added through which users could comment specifically on each question on every lesson. The new system helped me immensely. It allowed the community to partially step into the role of the teacher and created an environment that fostered questioning and discussion. Up until that point, I wanted more in-depth explanations of the errors I made when I got a question incorrect. However, DuoLingo could only provide minimal detail. Once the aforementioned feature was added, I was able to receive feedback on my work. For example, this feature helped me the most in understanding the nuances of the Spanish language. The commenting feature also faced challenges. Though it was useful, not every single comment I received was educationally helpful. Somehow, the commenting feature has managed to maintain the difficult balance of casual helpfulness and scholarly code of honor. While the commenting feature might use the familiar language of social networks, users might often get into polite debates or questions over translations. Though informal, the debates would ultimately focus on meaning or intent, maintaining a rather scholarly pursuit of truth and respect for other users. The commenting section exemplifies the mixed identity of DuoLingo as a bridge between formal education and a social networking site.


Perhaps DuoLingo’s mixed identity is in part due to its ever-evolving nature. Since DuoLingo is still nebulous, features like the commenting system, will frequently appear, disappear, or change. DuoLingo programmers often respond to comments and seem to make changes based on user feedback. The translation section for example (an area where a user attempts to translate an article posted online sentence by sentence), has undergone some of the most radical changes. The translation section has always been the most confusing and difficult part of DuoLingo. The programmers have added features to help students tell how correct a sentence is and added a comment feature to each article. Even though I still struggled with translation after these new features were added, I appreciate that DuoLingo programmers are working to make the section easier to use. The evolving nature of the application has made me feel listened to as a user. Yet, while I appreciate the responsiveness, the application’s evolving nature makes it difficult to navigate. Sometimes I struggled more with trying to understand how the platform worked and how I should be using it, rather than learning Spanish.

The Future

I started using DuoLingo based on a friend’s recommendation and a desire to learn Spanish. While I believe that “translating the web” is a worthwhile endeavor, I have struggled with the translation section of DuoLingo. I now understand that the translation is essentially a “payment” for free language lessons and not necessarily a part of the adaptive educational process. While in a class, a “real world” translation would be scaffolded to the vocabulary and skill level of the learners, DuoLingo has to match the articles that users post to the available translators as best they can. The platform’s responsiveness and commitment to making improvements based on community feedback will probably help them address these issues. I am hopeful that DuoLingo realizes what an excellent support system they have created through the commenting feature and with their continuous evolution, will further develop and support the learning community. I would only caution that in the midst of constant evolution, DuoLingo be clear about its identity and function, otherwise, users will struggle, as I did, more with trying to learn the tools than with trying to learn the language.