Duolingo in the Community
Duolingo's headquarters in Pittsburgh's East Liberty Neighborhood / Photo by Ben Filio
The Pittsburgh roots and local commitment of your favorite language learning app
Duolingo is a global ed-tech company headquartered in East Liberty. Their mission is to create high quality language education that’s accessible to all, effective, and fun. With 200 million users worldwide and research indicating the program is as effective as university-level language instruction, it would seem they are well on their way!
Brazilian-Swede Vivian Reidler joined Duolingo as a community manager after years working in design and teaching elementary school. She comes to the Remake Learning Network eager to learn what teachers need and ways Duolingo can be a resource.
Tell us about the mission of Duolingo:
It’s very important to our company to reduce educational inequality around the world. In Brazil, where I grew up, not knowing how to speak English is a huge barrier and it’s often cost-prohibitive to learn English. Our founder Luis von Ahn is from Guatemala, where the dynamic is similar, and he and our co-founder Severin Hacker wanted to do something to change this and started Duolingo. All of our materials are totally free to use, and our mission is to make language education free and accessible to everyone. Right now, we have wealthy people and celebrities around the world using Duolingo, just as we have poor kids in developing countries. That’s what quality education should be. Given the choice to pay, even wealthier people choose Duolingo.
Our mission is important to all of us. We all share it and in every decision we make, we ask how it will advance our mission.
How does that commitment look in practice?
It’s key to remember that we are not the end user. We want our product to work well for any learner anywhere in the world, whether that’s a tech-savvy world traveler, a child in rural India without a reliable internet connection or a grandfather who is not yet tech literate.
In our office, we keep old devices and simulate poor internet connections so we can see how limited access or outdated operating systems will affect Duolingo’s functionality.
What does it mean to be a community manager for Duolingo?
We work to ensure that the users of Duolingo have a great experience learning together and can take full advantage of all of our learning resources. Our community is unique and really into sharing their knowledge, and we do our best to facilitate that.
Duolingo hosts various communities of users, many moderated or led by volunteers. Part of my job is to manage and support those volunteers. We also host events, where we bring together teachers who want to take the lead in their area and train other teachers to use Duolingo or Tinycards (our one year old flashcard app that helps learners with any subject). My first language is Portuguese, and at Duolingo your other skills come in handy—I get to work with exciting features and online communities around that language. Many of our course content contributors are based in Europe, so the community team organized a meetup in Berlin to bring them together, but then we’ll also host coffee talks in the Pittsburgh area with educators to foster collaboration between local schools.
How else has Duolingo engaged the local community?
Duolingo made a conscious choice not to move to Silicon Valley. Our connection to Pittsburgh is very important to us, and this includes our connections with CMU and local schools. One part of my job is to bring engineers and designers into classrooms to observe teachers teaching in the real world. This helps us to understand what a real teacher’s job looks like, including the challenges. For instance, while running a study in a local school, we noticed how logging in to Duolingo could be complicated when students are sharing iPads or when they don’t have email addresses. We also learned that right here in Pittsburgh, while schools might technically have access to the Internet, they might not have a reliable connection or available IT personnel. This helped us to make changes, like offering teachers the ability to register their entire class on Duolingo for Schools before the lesson.
Can you offer some examples of how educators and learners are using Duolingo in unexpected ways?
One young woman from Pittsburgh, Gigi, wanted to go to Italy. Her parents told her if she could pass an Italian language test, she could take the trip. So she gave up social media for a year to make time, learned Italian with Duolingo, and got her trip.
I’m really inspired by the teachers in our community. Some are using Duolingo with very few resources. They make it work even though the only technology they have available is their personal mobile phone, using their creativity to make a game using the phone with the entire class.
What notable features are coming up for Duolingo?
People have been asking for Japanese for years, and we just launched that last month. This was a tricky project because the way script is used in Japanese didn’t match our existing exercises in Duolingo, but our team of native speakers and our engineers worked out clever solutions. We’ll be launching Korean for English speakers in August.
We’re also really excited about a brand new project we are testing called Stories. Native speakers of Spanish or Portuguese read stories, hold a mock dialogue, and text appears to ask users questions. We test these and other prototypes in Duolingo Labs, on our web platform.
What can people in Pittsburgh expect from Duolingo in terms of support, partnership, etc.?
We have something called the Student Tech Initiative, where we periodically invite students to learn more about Tinycards and Duolingo, how a startup works, what it’s like to develop an app.
We also regularly host different programs; as an example, we did one that focused on middle school girls. We brought them into our space to show them creative tech opportunities and inspire them to enter STEAM fields. We also often partner with CMU for some events, the latest being one focused on women enrolled in their school of computer science.
We want to keep learning from schools here. We want to collaborate with teachers of all subjects and students who are interested in Duolingo, Tinycards, and tech in Pittsburgh. Since we are evolving so quickly and we are used by many schools in this area, we want to push our mission forward here and expand what Duolingo can do for local learners, and keep extending that to students all over the world.