Learning from a teacher or a computer: My Doulingo experience

For reasons, I have been learning Spanish over the last few weeks. Well 25 days really, and I know it’s 25 days because I’m on a 25-day streak on Duolingo. But in addition to using Duolingo, which informs me I am now 20% fluent in Spanish, I have also been doing face-to-face lessons – which, on top of making clear I’m not any useful percentage fluent in Spanish, have led to me thinking about the difference between learning on a computer and with a human teacher.

First, let me say I think Duolingo is fabulous. It’s a great way to get daily practice, to build up and reinforce vocabulary and so on. It has cleverly gamified the process of learning a language and has the wonderful reinforcement of goal-achievement. It is a brilliant way to help learn a language: But I don’t think it’s a good way to learn a language.

First of all there’s a lack of context. You learn individual words without learning their variants, or why you might use them in specific circumstances. So you learn one form of a verb but, so far at least, there’s no explanation of standard verb endings. There are a couple of ways to say ‘drink’ in Spanish; I know that, but I have no explanation for why you might use one or the other.

You also learn stuff which seems to make little overall sense. So for, example, I can say ‘My turtles are blue’ or “I am a bear, I eat birds’ – but I can’t order a meal in a restaurant or tell you how old I am. And that’s a key issue – I might be ‘20% fluent’ because I now know a grab-bag of vocabulary and grammar that can get me through a Duolingo test – but in that does not translate into real-world fluency.

Out in the real world with a face-to-face teacher we start with the useful stuff like saying ‘hello’ and ‘can you repeat that more slowly please”. Several lessons in and I can count to 100, tell people where I’m from and what I do for a living. We haven’t gone near colours or turtles.

When I make a mistake out in the real world, particularly in pronunciation, I don’t just get told I’m wrong I get a targeted correction that helps me improve. And out in the real world I have to do that thing you do in the real world – be prepared to embarrass yourself with a real person by mangling their language.

But flipping back there’s no question I’m learning more in the real world because I’m backing it up with Duolingo. Doing Duolingo is far more fun and approachable than scribbling my homework in the textbook we’re using for real-World classes. I can take as long as i like, I can repeat lessons, and I can stuff-up in private.

By the way, from a pure technical viewpoint, Duolingo is clever stuff. Not many years ago an app like this would have been little more than flip-cards. Now there are translations both written and verbal, there is listening, and there is checking your actual pronunciation online. The technology is a clear indication of how having access to the cloud and an Internet connection is changing what apps like this can do – the future gets brighter.

All of this reinforces for me that the flipped classroom is the way of the future. Quality delivery of information online whether through videos or interactive apps like Duolingo, but backed up by real-World teaching to explain, elaborate, and to correct individual issues. As far as I can see the approaches reinforce each other and the student benefits from doing both. It’s for that reason that teachers ought not to see the flipped model as a threat, but as an opportunity to get rid of some of the grunt, repetitive work and allow them to concentrate of the fulfilling stuff that makes the greatest difference.

Leave a Reply