Careers at Duolingo
Duolingo is a technology and education company that aims to provide equal, universal access to language resources via an online learning platform. Duolingo also aims to translate portions of the internet using crowdsourced translations.
Duolingo was developed and co-founded by former Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis Von Ahn (“Von Ahn”) and his graduate student Severin Hacker (“Hacker”). Coverage of the Company’s development suggests that Von Ahn, having seen how expensive it is to enrol in formal language learning courses – particularly English classes, wanted to create a platform that is open to all. He was also interested in developing a platform that served a dual purpose; in the case of Duolingo this being language teaching and translation services.
The Duolingo project was funded initially by Von Ahn’s MacArthur Fellowship and National Science Foundation grant but went on to receive more than $83 million in four rounds of funding. The Company has received funds from notable investors including Google Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, as well as from actor Ashton Kutcher – via his company A-Grade Investments – and businessman Tim Ferriss.
Von Ahn and Hacker were assisted in the platform’s development by a team of Carnegie Mellon students and teaching assistants, namely Antonio Navas, Vicki Cheung, Marcel Uekermann, Brendan Meeder, Hector Villafuerte, and Jose Fuentes, many of whom remain part of Duolingo’s design and engineering teams. The private beta of Duolingo was launched in 2011, reportedly attracting a waiting list of more than 300,000 registrants, before opening to the public in 2012.
Benefits at Duolingo
Business model of Duolingo
Duolingo’s services are targeted at the mass market, notably those who are interested in learning a second language but do not have the funds or time to commit to a formal language course.
The platform’s courses also appeal to users who do not enjoy traditional teaching methods, and instead prefer a more casual learning experience. Users are located primarily across the Americas, Europe and Asia. Reports in 2015 stated that the platform has around 20 million active users.
The key value proposition for Duolingo users is that the service remains available at no cost, providing high quality language learning resources completely free of charge with no advertising. That the platform is available to anyone with an internet connection through both web browsers and mobile apps is also a significant factor. Another key draw is that Duolingo’s courses are presented in a non-conventional way, with gamified challenges and achievements. Some limited customisable options are also available, as well as the support of the broader user community via discussion boards, all of which aim to ensure users maintain their interest.
To online publications the key value is in the Company’s crowdsourced translation services, which can be provided at a relatively low cost. Users are provided articles and sentences to translate, the complexity of which is matched against their respective skill levels. Users are then able to vote on the quality of translations, with final translations ultimately being the result of input from multiple users.
The Duolingo platform can be accessed by its users in-browser at its website www.duolingo.com or via its Apple iOS and Google Play mobile apps.
Duolingo is a self-service platform. Once users have registered, all resources are made available to them through the Duolingo website and apps.
The Company however fosters a community experience through its forums and discussion boards, where it is able to interact with users directly. Duolingo also connects with its users directly through social media accounts, notably Twitter.
The Company enables users to report issues with lesson material and translations during lessons. The community itself contributes to the platforms content and services through crowdsourced translations and course contributions.
Duolingo’s principal activity concerns the development and maintenance of a free-to-access online language-learning platform. The Company applies computer science techniques to its courses, using algorithms and analytics to accurately assess the most efficient and beneficial method of content delivery for its users. Each language course comprises a tree of skills, with users having to complete challenges in order to progress to the next section.
Currently Duolingo offers 54 language courses across 23 languages. A further 28 courses remain in the development phase. The platform also offers a service for schools that enables teachers to track the progress of their individual students.
Duolingo is also responsible for managing its community of more than 100 million registered users. The platform offers users the chance to interact via some basic social media tools and discuss course material in its forums. The Company also provides opportunities for users to assess their learning through translating articles and taking online tests.
Duolingo’s key partners are its investors, its course contributors and its translation partners. It has also partnered with education and corporate organisations in relation to its testing services. Content for Duolingo courses is contributed primarily by a team of volunteer translators who are fluent in more than one language. The Company also partners with online publications that wish to utilise Duolingo’s crowdsourced translation services. CNN and BuzzFeed are both reported to be translation partners.
In 2014 global research institution Carnegie Mellon University became Duolingo’s first academic partner. It was brought onboard to evaluate the platform’s English language certification exam, with a specific focus on assessing the online exam’s stability, reliability and its correlation with the standardised TOEFL test.
More recently Duolingo partnered with ride-sharing application Uber, which announced that the English skills of its drivers in Colombia would be verified using Duolingo’s paid certification test as part of its new UberEnglish service. A similar partnership was recently announced to support the UberEnglish service in Brazil.
Duolingo’s key resources are its technology data centres, its personnel – particularly those involved in developing and maintaining its online platform – and its investors. The Company also depends largely on the contributions of volunteer translators for its course content.
As an online platform, Duolingo’s main costs are in developing and maintaining its technology infrastructure, including its servers, as well as fixed costs like personnel salaries, renting office space and utilities. The Company currently employs a workforce of 60 and operates out of an office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania close to the Carnegie Mellon campus.
Duolingo appears still to be exploring options for generating revenue. The Platform does not charge its users to register for its courses, nor does it allow advertising on its platform. Initially the Company’s principal revenue stream came via its translation services, with more advanced users encouraged to translate full articles, effectively serving as unpaid workers. These crowdsourced translation services were sold to CNN and BuzzFeed. The Company however has put plans to expand this service on hold, and has not reportedly taken on new clients.
Duolingo has instead chosen to focus on generating revenue through its certification service. The Company offers a free basic language assessment but has more recently introduced a $20 certification test that is designed to compete with more established, formal language assessments. The Company is also reported to have additional plans to extract value from its services; however, these are currently unclear.
info: Luis was born and raised in Guatemala City and has had a successful career in academia. He joined the faculty at Carnegie Mellon University in 2006 as a Computer Science professor, having completed his PhD at the same institution a year earlier. In his PhD thesis Von Ahn began discussing ideas relating to games with a purpose – games played by humans that result in a useful side-effect. He developed this concept further with the ESP game which paired human users who were asked to describe an image independently, with each individual receiving points for every match. These words and phrases were then used in image search technology. The ESP game has since been licensed by Google. In 2007 Von Ahn also invented reCAPTCHA, which uses the CAPTCHA verification method to digitise books. This technology was also acquired by Google in 2009.
info: Severin was born and raised in Zug, Switzerland. He became involved in the Duolingo project while studying towards his PhD in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. Prior to assuming his current role as Duolingo’s Chief Technology Officer, he undertook several internships, including at software companies Microsoft and Actant.
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