Learning app Duolingo sets its sights on the language of numbers

Aims to take kids from Instagram to integration with gamified approach

The developers behind popular language education app Duolingo are setting their sights on maths education.

According to an interview with the BBC, founder and chief executive Luis von Ahn sees his company's approach to gamifying education as a way of getting children off distracting social media apps such as TikTok and Instagram.

"But the problem with smartphones is they are a double-edged sword – they also come with interruptive things, like TikTok,” he told the licence fee-funded broadcaster.

"We started with language learning because there was this humongous need around the world to learn English, which can immediately increase your income potential, but we've always wanted to teach other things," Von Ahn says.

Duolingo is a well-known tech brand, but it is not exactly a giant. According to SEC filings made prior to its July IPO, it generated $161m revenue in 2020 (and a $15.776m net loss) but claims 40 million monthly users and has been downloaded 500 million times around the world. It works on a freemium model – with "approximately 73 per cent" of its revenue coming from subscriptions to Duolingo Plus (the paid tier), 17 per cent from in-app advertising, and 10 per cent from its "English Test and other revenue" segment.

The company's language apps use extensive A/B testing to figure out how different user groups – by native language for example – respond to different structures in the presentation of lessons. At the same time, the difficulty level is maintained so students stand about an 80 per cent chance of getting a task right.

But the jury was out on whether the maths app would be as effective as its language counterpart.

Von Ahn told the Beeb: "The hope is this is how [the new maths app] stands out – but it remains to be seen if it works."

Others are more sceptical about the approach. Martin Hassler Hallstedt, an educational psychologist at Sweden's Uppsala University, said: "Duolingo is a popular platform with strong credentials, but it is not scientifically proven for maths."

Meanwhile, there's evidence that not all maths learning is about learning numbers. Swedish scientists have been able to show that tasks training spatial memory can influence maths skills.

The study of around 17,000 children between the ages of six and eight years old suggested maintaining a spatial representation was crucial when it comes to transfer to mathematics.

Whatever the approach, there is plenty of scope to improve education in maths in the UK.

While on average, pupils in the UK enjoy higher attainment in maths than students in many other countries, the attainment gap between the lowest and highest achievers is wider than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average, according to a study by schools inspector Ofsted.

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, said: "For too many children and young people, maths is mysterious and difficult, and this has implications not just for their future attainment, but also for their self-esteem."

In the US too, maths (sorry math) education could do better. In 2020, an international study of teenagers ranked the USA 31st in maths literacy out of 79 countries and economies. ®

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