What Can Duolingo Teach You about Creating an Addictive Course?
Duolingo has created an elearning experience that is rewarding and effective. Here’s how to apply its best features to your course.
433 days ago, I created an account on Duolingo for the first time. I know the exact number, because that’s how long my streak is. Since that time, I’ve primarily spent my time on their mobile app, and have tried out their courses in Spanish, Russian, German, and Korean.
While I’ve enjoyed my time on the app, I’ve also spent a lot of that time thinking about how they create a learning experience. Duolingo is the most downloaded education app in the world, with over 500 million total users, and 40 million regular monthly users. With that level of popularity, it makes sense that they’d be doing a lot of things right.
And indeed they are! Duolingo isn’t without its flaws, but it does deliver a learning experience that offers a far easier on-ramp to trying out a new language than any of its competitors (that I’ve tested). Most importantly, the experience it provides has lessons for educators in other specialties as well. If you’re interested in delivering a more engaging elearning experience, Duolingo provides a compelling model.
Here are five observations I’ve made that can apply to almost any elearning course.
1. Use many kinds of gamification, as much as possible.
Gamification is when learning objectives are tied to certain functions or triggers in ways that reward learners or inspire competition. Duolingo is notable not just for using gamification well, but for deploying gamification in a variety of ways. The ones I’ve identified include:
- Streaks. Not wanting to lose my streak is the #1 reason I’m still on the app. No joke.
- Points. Duolingo lets learners set a daily point goal, and also ties points to other gamification elements.
- Leaderboards. I don’t compete for a top spot every week, but when I do, you can bet I find the challenge exciting.
- Leagues. Early on, my desire to reach the top league helped me maintain my streak. It kept me coming back until I’d reached the Diamond league, and now, every time I slip out of the diamond league, the desire to get back on top gets me to compete again.
- Badges. I had to get to the diamond league to earn the diamond league badge. Then I had to win the diamond league to get that badge. Now I need to earn a crown in every skill in a course so that I can earn the Conqueror badge. See how it never ends?
- Crowns. Earning crowns provides a satisfying sense of achievement. I like checking off boxes.
- Timed challenges. Timed challenges add a new level of difficulty, but the also improve recall speed. In spoken language, you need to be able to produce words in the correct grammar structure under time pressure. This is a great example of how gamification can also serve real life learning goals.
LearnDash supports many of these gamification options natively, and others can be achieved through modifications or other add-ons. For instance, learners can earn points from quizzes, points can be tied to a leaderboard, you can set a time limit on quizzes, and badges can be awarded when a learner completes a certain action.
2. Be forgiving of mistakes.
I would have lost my 433-day streak somewhere around Day 100 if it weren’t for Duolingo’s streak freezes. At first this felt a little like cheating, but the reality is: sometimes life happens. And if I’d lost a streak 100 days in because I had a crisis come up at work, or because of a personal tragedy, the loss of that streak would be pretty demoralizing—so much so that I might actually quit the app.
Duolingo also keeps track of your mistakes so that you can practice those sentences again for extra XP. In other words, there’s always a way to recover in Duolingo. Mistakes aren’t permanent, they’re just an area that needs a little more practice. And if life gets in the way of your learning for a little bit, there’s no need to punish you for it.
In your own course, you think about offering practice quizzes, or let your learners retake tests to try to achieve a higher score. Set up an email automation to message learners who haven’t signed in for a few days with a support message. Make learning less stressful by offering more support.
3. Prioritize mobility—and flexibility.
Lessons in Duoliongo rarely take more than five minutes. This means there’s almost always time to accomplish a lesson, and when the content itself is engaging, almost always a reason to do more than one.
However, because the content is so short and so mobile, there are also times when I’ve found myself trying to complete a lesson in a public space where it might not be appropriate to be repeating words of phrases out loud. Duolingo fixes this by offering options that say “I can’t listen right now,” or “I can’t speak right now.” This lets learners continue with their learning, even if they’re in a busy or crowded space.
For your course, you might want to think about how learners will engage with content in a busy setting. A forty-minute video may not be possible, whereas a video that’s only a few minutes long would be easier to consume. If learners can’t watch a video, providing transcripts can help them move ahead.
4. Engage with a range of skills with a variety of learning formats.
When I first started with Duolingo, their lessons mostly involved translating sentences back and forth, with or without a word bank. Sometimes I would be asked to listen to a sentence and then write what I heard, or I would be asked to read a sentence out loud so the app could test my pronunciation. Mostly, the questions followed a few basic formats.
Since then, Duolingo has expanded question formats and provided new kinds of learning exercises. Their most popular courses include a “stories” section, which includes builds reading comprehension skills. They also have audio lessons to build listening comprehension. Even the regular lessons now include longer audio quests where learners have to listen carefully for several sentences and then answer a question about what they heard.
Together, these various question types cover three of the four main parts of language learning: reading, writing, listening and speaking. Only speaking, which would probably require a one-on-one conversation tutor, is lacking.
Most importantly, the range of content types makes for a more interesting and engaging experience. A year ago, I quickly grew tired of translating sentences back and forth. Now, when I grow tired of the normal lessons, I can switch it up with other kinds of content.
You can do the same by offering different content types—or by using a range of problem types when building your quizzes. LearnDash includes a number of different question types, including multiple choice, single choice (true false), fill-in-the-blank, sorting, matching, and essay.
5. Always be innovating.
Finally, if there’s one thing I’ve been continually impressed by with the Duolingo app, it’s that in the time I’ve been using it, it’s only improved. It seems like each month they update their features to create a better learning experience. They’ve added new challenges, introduced a cast of characters to enrich their stories, expanded their badges, developed additional question formats, and launched monthly and daily point challenges, each with their own gamification reward.
As a user, I get the impression that the way I’m using the app is creating a positive feedback loop that only increases my enjoyment of the app as time goes on. That’s a pretty heady experience.
Of course, most educators don’t have the resources to pour into a polished app like Duolingo. But at a smaller scale, you can pay close attention to your learners when they offer feedback, and always think about ways to improve the learner experience of your course. If you’re always staying fresh, you won’t be taken off guard by your competitors.
It takes time and care to create an engaging elearning experience, but the payoff is huge.
Duolingo has its fans and its detractors. For my part, I find it frustrating that the Spanish course keeps getting longer, while the Russian course remains underdeveloped. Some languages, such as Korean, don’t have nearly enough support for learning and writing with the alphabet, and I worry that other languages have been added sloppily—more for show than a real learning experience.
However, it can’t be denied that Duolingo has invested more in creating a great learning experience for its users than any other learning course I’ve experienced, and has done so through an obsessive focus on UX, UI, and user data. This focus hasn’t just lead to a more addictive app—but one which actually helps learners achieve their learning objectives.
After a year of Duo’s Spanish course, where I’ve obsessively tried to reach the top level in each skill, I’ve barely reached Checkpoint 2. But the other day, I had a short conversation in Spanish with a couple friends—one of whom had completed Duo’s Spanish course, and the other of whom is a ESL teacher of primarily Spanish-speaking students. My teacher friend asked about our plans for the morning, and I talked about the ingredients I had in my refrigerator and offered to make breakfast.
It’s a small victory, but there’s nothing like a win to make you want to keep going.