Education is quickly moving online, but we haven’t seen all that many studies that actually look into the effectiveness of these new forms of online learning. To see how its program performed, the language learning service Duolingo, founded by CAPTCHA inventor Luis von Ahn, commissioned a study (PDF) into the effectiveness of its program. The result, which even surprised von Ahn: it only takes a Duolingo user 34 hours to learn the equivalent of a first college semester’s worth of Spanish.
A similar study by the same researchers who conducted Duolingo’s study, by the way, found that it took Rosetta Stone users between 55 and 60 hours to learn the same amount of material.
These studies were conducted by Roumen Vesselinov, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Queens College, City University of New York, and John Grego, Professor and Chair of the Statistics Department and the University of South Carolina. While the study was obviously funded by Duolingo, the data collection and analysis was done independently by the researchers.
Using the WebCAPE test for Spanish, a placement test many universities also use for their students, the study found that the average student gained around 91 points over the course of eight weeks and the average participant gained about 8 points per hour of study with Duolingo, though its worth noting that the researchers also found that Duolingo was a little bit more effective for students who started with a very basic knowledge of Spanish than for those who were already more advanced.
The study also found that those learners who said they wanted to brush up on their Spanish for travel registered the largest average gains (17.6 points per hour) and while the majority of participants said they studied for personal interests and school, that group only registered an average gain of 5.7 points per hour.
Being self-motivated enough to learn a language by yourself is obviously hard and it’s no surprise that many participants dropped out or only studied for two hours over the course of the study. A student in a college class, by contrast, may not learn as effectively as the Duolingo users who made it through the program, but chances are most students will make it through the semester with more than 2 hours of instruction and without dropping out. Still, almost 94% of the participants in the study said they would continue to use the product after the end of the eight weeks.
Duolingo is clearly doing something right. Overall, von Ahn tells us, Duolingo now has over 1 million active users and 100,000 daily users. The team’s iPhone app, which launched last December, has been in the top 15 education apps in the App Store since its launch.