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Interview: Duolingo shifts language learning online, bullish on Indian edtech

India’s edtech industry is experiencing boom fuelled by Covid pandemic and the conditions brought about by digital transformation. Many companies are releasing cutting-edge products in an attempt to dominate the sizable market. “Offline learning mode, more often than not, has traditional barriers such as teacher to student ratio,” says Duolingo top official hoping that the platform can shift language learning from offline to online.

In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Duolingo’s chief business officer Bob Meese, head of Duolingo English test & regional business lead Duolingo, Asia Carrie Wang, and VP of business and GM Duolingo English test Rogelio Alvarez answer questions ranging from app infrastructure to the impact of technology on children, the outlook for the edtech sector, and more.

Language learning has been through very conventional mode in India. How hopeful you are about people flocking to the digital medium for this? Please provide Indian statistics regarding Duolingo reach, audience base and usage pattern.

Wang: The entire premise of Duolingo is to shift language learning from offline to online in the hopes that we can serve more people. Offline learning mode, more often than not, has traditional barriers such as teacher to student ratio. In a similar vein, even English language proficiency testing does not enough physical testing centres especially for people in the underserved markets as Tier -II & III. Therefore, while conventionally, the learning and testing has been offline, there are gaps to be covered and that’s where Duolingo and Duolingo English Test (DET) role becomes even more pronounced.

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To put some context, our flagship app has organically become the world’s most popular way to learn languages and the top-grossing app in the Education category on both Google Play and the Apple App Store. India is our 5th largest market by daily active users (DAUs) and the 2nd fastest growing among our top 10 markets in 2022. India is also the largest market behind China by education app downloads — and Duolingo is committed to maintaining its leadership position in this market. English, Hindi, and French topped the list of most popular languages that Indians studied in 2022.

Duolingo ABC, the latest offering targets children between 3-8. However, don’t you think exposing children to electronic gadgets at such a tender age will do more harm?

Alvarez: While I am not an expert in the harmful effects of exposing kids to gadgets, but I can share those kids today, like everyone else, are accessing technology and it is and will be the way of life. To provide a framework for better understanding, let me quote a recent McKinsey Report— India is the second-fastest digital adopter among 17 major digital economies. The internet penetration in India is now nearing 50% with over 650 million users. Hence, the idea is that within a limited screen time for kids, what kind of content are you exposing them to— if its educational/ value adding, it’s a win! Hence, to me it’s not a matter of exposure but exposure to what!

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Edtech is a very competitive segment in India and more particularly those platforms targeting segments below teenage have not gained much success (excluding competitive exam-based platforms). What’s your outlook for the sector?

Rogelio Alvarez: It’s also about the offering. Learning English is such a basic yet critical requirement for students to access education-employment opportunities at a global level. Over 50% of Indian applicants still prefer English-speaking countries as their first choice for study abroad, and for most English-speaking countries, an English test is often mandatory for international students to get admission into university programs. Hence, I believe our product offerings from helping students to learn English to assess has a great market fit and solves for a large need gap.

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How strong is your app on technology infrastructure front? What unique model you have developed in the app which differentiates from competitor providing rich user experience?

Rogelio: For DET, we use technology in many ways that differentiates us from other high stakes language proficiency assessing test. The Duolingo English Test leverages AI to personalize itself in real-time to every test taker, homing in on their true proficiency more quickly, precisely, and securely than traditional fixed form tests. Our test developers leverage the latest GPT-3 technology in what’s known as a ‘human in the loop’ process, allowing them to work in more efficient and creative ways that were not previously possible. Our technology also automatically grade test-taker answers, which can be complex and are not simple multiple-choice items. Our Responsible AI Standards strengthen the test’s ability to carefully build a validity argument for digital-first assessment and strengthen claims for the DET with regard to validity, reliability and fairness. In essence, Duolingo English Test is the first and only high-stakes test to use AI and machine learning end-to-end at every step of the process. What differentiates us from other traditional high stakes language tests is that we are digital-first exam unlike others where a digital version was added as an extension to the offline mode.

Carrie: We have also worked with other AI technologies as computer vision and biometrics to help ensure test security and integrity is equal if not more than tests taken in physical centres. Plus, item theft is such a rampant and common occurrence at physical test centres, but with DET’s ‘item factory’ model built using AI, we create thousands of test items automatically and hence the chances are of item theft is next to zero. At DET, making an accessible, reliable, and secure test is our priority.

Is there any plan of expanding the learning to include more Indian regional languages?

Meese: Duolingo allows users to learn English from Bengali. This follows the success we have witnessed after enabling Hindi speakers to learn English, making it the most popular course in India today. India is one of the fastest growing markets for Duolingo and we foresee great potential to introduce even more regional languages such as Tamil, Telugu and Punjabi in the future.

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