Video Of The Week: How To Scale One On One Education

Here’s a short video where Luis von Ahn, co-founder and CEO of our portfolio company DuoLingo, talks about the vision behind DuoLingo, and also lays out the big market opportunity for education applications.

#hacking education

Comments (Archived):

  1. aminTorres

    This is awesome. I subscribe to this idea 100%.Wish he had gone more into how duolingo plans on becoming the 1on1 place he describes as his vision.

    1. fredwilson

      Oops. I guess the summer doldrums are making me forgetful

      1. LE

        Beach feast food coma can do that to you.

      2. Richard

        Summer vegetables !! Have a garden in the Hamptons?

  2. Levi

    The only question is really how? Because like himself said in the video the same approach won’t work for everyone. Maybe it is a market secret , but how duoling actually is trying to achieve this level of web learning process

  3. Matt Zagaja

    Interesting and cool. However recently I am starting to wonder if increasing education access is making workers (as a group) worse off. The reason being that as skills become less scarce and defensible as an economic advantage, the surplus that workers command goes down and more money ends up flowing to investors instead of workers. The natural trajectory of wages in a world where everyone can learn anything online for free (or cheap) tends to be down because employers become increasingly indifferent to who does the work. This is further compounded by the geographic mobility provided by the Internet.We already see this trend today with my generation (which is the most educated generation in the history of the world). Great article by Steve Rattner in the New York Times:….

    1. Richard

      No doubt we have reversion to the mean taking place. ( we come up with a measure for creative iq )

  4. LE

    Probably a good idea in general interest videos such as this to skip things like “2 standard deviations” and just go directly to 98%. Injecting “scientific” phrases like that tend to cause a slight brain pause effect whereby the listener focuses on those words and will miss what comes after that. [1] I am sure everyone has had this experience even when reading. That is after hitting a concept or word that you don’t know you still continue to read then forget what you have read.[1] In other communication situations of course that’s actually a great way to slip something in that you don’t want the person to hear.

    1. Matt Zagaja

      Yep, though to be honest Amazon did a great job with it’s Kindle platform of fixing this problem. Two taps on my iPad and it’ll pull up the Dictionary/Wikipedia about the thing I don’t know. Also has a cool feature where some books have lists of characters and you can get a quick blurb on who that person is. Reading something on paper I’m usually way too lazy to look things up.

  5. LE

    I was just thinking the other day how traditional colleges completely missed an opportunity to sell people more education. They could do this by creating additional degrees and levels of education that they could then charge for. Of course they can’t do that now since the cost of the primary education is so much and everybody is choking on that.Had education been kept as affordable as when I was in college [1] it is quite possible that since an undergrad degree is now almost like having a high school degree (even people who don’t need it or can’t use it tend to “go to college”) it could have become SOP to go for a graduate degree or some additional course work (which could have a new name attached to it) [2] simply to be able to differentiate yourself from the competition.This would be difficult in education simply because of the large amount of different market participants out there. But not impossible all it would have taken is a few colleges to begin to head in that path and the rest seeing the opportunity would follow.[1] An Ivy League education was about $16k in today’s dollars.[2] Similar to how teachers have “Masters plus 30” which I think is Masters degree plus 30 credits.

    1. Richard

      colleges should offer recertification degrees as well. This could reintroduce people to the great job placement that colleges offer as well as allow adults to “upgrade” to a more prestigious university.

      1. Matt Zagaja

        http://www.extension.harvar…Lots of great options through Udacity, Coursera, MITx, etc. too. Not really sure that colleges (except at the top of the curve) are that great a job placement though. My friends that have gone to the Harvard, Yale, etc. of the world talk about all the recruiters and recruiting events that were had for different companies. My school and many that were more mid-tier will have career fairs and such but my recollection is that from the stats most students got jobs outside the school pipeline.

    2. Rob Larson

      Some of the top business schools do that – you can earn various types of certificates and mini-degrees. It’s surprising (and yet not surprising at all) that other schools within the same elite universities haven’t picked up on that.

  6. LE

    Duolino is a nice concept but one thing that is missing from the learning model that they have is “sense of obligation” principle.What I mean by that is what we can call “the personal trainer” effect. Or maybe the “piano lessons” effect. Piano teacher shows up Tuesday at 5pm for your lesson. [1] Much different than you going to your computer whenever you want. The “default” state is totally changed.Now some people such as myself don’t need a personal trainer because they are disciplined and motivated enough to keep up with exercise without having someone keeping on top of them. (And yes I know that many who are disciplined might use personal trainers for other reasons I realize that ..)What does the “PT” do in addition to giving training advice? Well they also create the sense of obligation that keeps you showing up at the gym. If you don’t want to show up you then have to cancel your appointment and maybe they might even give you grief about it or chide you. And maybe you even pay for months in advance or longer so you have the dissonance of throwing out money. (But the human contact is the highest motivating factor not the money lost..) It’s much easier to stop doing something when nobody knows the tree in the forrest has fallen then when there is another person (even a workout buddy) involved. Action is harder than inaction. (I think this is somehow even why many people are “passive aggressive” which I have always thought to be “action (or effect) by inaction”.Consequently any online learning model needs to be able to add a human to the process and monetize that even by offering a higher level paid subscription product.[1] Before my first marriage I had started to take Piano lessons. I had always wanted to play the Piano. I wasn’t particularly enjoying the lessons or progressing that much (I am not good with things like that I am better at self taught analog things) so at my last lesson prior to taking off for my honeymoon the teacher didn’t create the next lesson appointment and in fact said something that let me off the hook from taking further lessons. “And if you want to continue then…” And I never returned to learning Piano (and I am sad that happened). Had the teacher just said “have a nice trip do you want to schedule Tuesday at 5pm after you return?” I would have said “sure” just out of a sense of not wanting to reject the suggestion. And not be a quitter. So the momentum required to return wasn’t great enough (in my case) and hence the teacher lost a student just by that one error.

    1. fredwilson

      That’s a great point. Mobile notifications can help but there’s nothing like the feeling that someone else is getting up at 6am because of you and you need to get up to join them.

  7. scottythebody

    Ads on this post are ridiculous.

    1. Matt Zagaja

      I don’t even try to pretend to understand how these (or similar ads I see on news websites) work or are effective. I’ve mentally blocked them out.

      1. scottythebody

        I have read this site nearly every day since it started, and this is probably the first time I noticed any ads 😉

  8. mikenolan99

    Whoa – this is one of yours? So cool – have been using it for the past couple of months to tone up my Spanish for a trade mission to Mexico next week.Awesome software…

  9. sigmaalgebra

    I understand that DuoLingo has had some successes, but I tried it and didn’t like it; net it was nowhere nearly as good as the foreign language instruction I had in college.The more modern keys to teaching a foreign language are to start with listening to a good native speaker reading text in the foreign language with native language translation along side. Do quite a lot of that. E.g., that’s much of how children learn. Then cover grammar and reading. Writing: Do that last.I’ve looked at a lot of on-line learning, and my conclusion is that nearly none of it is nearly as good as what I had in college and grad school and, really, not worthwhile.In simple terms, the on-line stuff is nearly all cheap, low quality, buyer beware.Better approach to learning: (1) From a good teacher, likely in a classroom, get a good start on the basics and on how to learn from books. (2) Get some of the best books and study. It’s not a spectator sport.

    1. LE

      I’ve looked at a lot of on-line learning, and my conclusion is that nearly none of it is nearly as good as what I had in college and grad school and, really, not worthwhile.Likewise I am not a fan of the way material is presented in the two web learning examples I have encountered (which Fred invested in). I prefer the book approach. That is either serial page by page or quick random access to various parts. But that is me. It’s obvious that the younger generation is able to consume info the other way or at least that is the way that it appears.One thing that has always been key for me is being able to access a “fun” part of what I am trying to learn which ends up spurring me on to continue learning. If you can’t hit on the fun part quickly then you risk losing interest and bailing out.Getting to the fun part does take learning foundation material. However there is a reason all programming books start with the “Hello World” as the first example. It provides a push in the most simple way that gets you going. And in my case any type of “programming” that I have ever done starts with me learning to do something really simple that has value to me. Then I build on that and learn more but find that I am also more motivated to do so.I think I have heard that when people try to learn to fly (if someone can verify this that would be nice) they take you up in a plane and actually hand you the controls carefully so you can “fly” prior to actually learning anything. That engagement to me is key. Imagine if you had to spend weeks in a classroom and take tests prior to getting up in an actual airplane.I just tried duolingo for the second time today. My “simple” brain is having problems with the way the info is being presented for learning. For me at least the interactive way is not working as presented. I wonder if they have done any research into how different types of people learn in order to tweak this model. Hard to believe that I am the only one that has this experience. If they haven’t done research, why not?

      1. sigmaalgebra

        It looks to me, sorry, Fred, that DuoLingo mostly just wrote the code.I’m no expert in foreign languages and their teaching and learning, but I can mention two striking examples: Foreign Language Learning I — Bad In high school, from our one and only French teacher, I tried to learn French and never could. Somehow my father did, and my older brother did from that same teacher, but not me.Essentially she tried to teach in the order vocabulary, grammar, writing, reading, and, maybe not at all, speaking.A lesson is: We learn a language first from hearing and speaking. Foreign Language Learning II — Good So, in college, knowing I was still supposed to have a foreign language, especially for science, I tried German.Just from accident, I got the best teacher of anything I ever had: In half time in one semester he taught me two years of college German.Half time? That year he had too many students that period so divide the students into two rooms and spent half time in each room. Only had him for the first semester.But a biggie was that he had us use a language lab with tape recorders and a native German speaker — a local housewife but from Germany and with a good, clear voice. She worked great.Second semester? Had a different teacher and didn’t learn a thing but still knew enough. Same for second year German. Read some Goethe, etc. Memorized the short German poem Weltlauf by Heinrich Heine; right, the poem about the rich getting richer as at…Okay.The teaching worked: For my Ph.D., with essentially everything done, for my foreign language requirement, my advisor told me to go to the library, find a paper in math in German, and translate it.I got such a paper, got out my old college German textbook, quickly read enough of it again (it all came right back), got out my Cassell’s German-English dictionary, and before the weekend was over, had a good translation. My advisor handed my work to a fellow student of mine who in college had been a double major in math and German and had studied a year or so in Germany, and that student said my translation was fine except for one word. I passed.Another time where was some really tough German I had to translate — I struggled but made it. I asked a German student, and he said that the style was ancient, academic, and pretentious and that he would have had trouble, too.Another time a German student said that my speaking accent was good enough to fool a native German into thinking I was a native German; the reason was just that one semester of language lab work.So, how’d that first teacher do it?(1) He got a nicely done, short, simple, but, really, with enough, textbook on German grammar.In class, he went over enough of the grammar to get us started and then more as we advanced.(2) He had us hear a lot of German, orally, in class and in language lab. So, our first step was just to hear the language.(3) He had us read, out loud, 20 times each, some little stories in German. The 20 times meant that we really just memorized the stories. I still remember some lines from those stories. We also read the stories in the language lab and got our accent corrected by the native speaker.So, with those little stories, we were learning good examples of grammar — word order; singular, plural; case; modals; the most important verbs; some simple vocabulary; etc.Some European immigrants might have said, “We go always to a Chinese restaurant on Sunday.” What is strange is the position of always, but that is part of the German word order.IIRC that teacher knew from US Army foreign language learning research how many times we had to hear, see, use in speaking or writing a word to retain knowledge of it, and what he said in class had him repeat the words he wanted us to learn the number of times he had in mind. Careful teaching.Of course, we also translated the little stories, but they were so simple that the translations were easy.Better still, by just memorizing the stories, we were starting to think in German at the level of the stories, that is, were starting to get the meaning without translating to English.In addition, from the memorization, we were picking up little phrases of German.For learning the German words, that is, vocabulary, we were getting that nearly only via the phrases we were memorizing.Memorizing a phrase of 10 words is one heck of a lot easier and in several ways better than just memorizing 10 words individually out of any context.Eventually much the same for grammar: As the first pass, learn grammar via examples via memorizing little phrases and stories. Sure, later, have an actual, clear explanation of grammar and check the grammar in the phrases and stories with the details.I suspect that now I know enough about how to learn a foreign language that I could do fine in that old high school French class or, maybe, just with the textbook.Just as an experiment, I tried to use DuoLingo to refresh my knowledge of German. Well, I could make progress through their lessons only as long as my existing knowledge of German worked. For more, their site did me no good; I wasn’t learning anything from their site. Of course, YMMV.Learning Computer ProgrammingFor learning computer programming, it continues to appear that nearly all the learning is from people teaching themselves on their own with the main materials some books, paper or PDF, and a lot of on-line documentation. And that’s how I’ve learned about programming.Learning Computer ScienceFor learning computer science, Knuth is a good writer, and his The Art of Computer Programming (TACP) is good. For me the high points were the combinatorial identities, linear congruential random number generation, heaps (as in heap sort, also good for priority queues), and AVL trees.There’s more since Knuth, but his TACP, likely with his more recent volumes, likely remain a good start.Learning MathematicsFor learning pure and applied math, from the ninth grade to the present, it’s nearly all been from just me and a good book in a quiet room. For teaching, my ninth grade teacher got me aimed in the right direction so that I knew what to do with the book. After that I basically just taught myself from the books — e.g., never took freshman calculus, taught it to myself; then, in a class, started with sophomore calculus but, still, mostly just learned from the book.In college a course in abstract algebra, I had a good teacher and, just by grading a few of my homework papers, taught me how to write proofs (apparently tough for people to learn on their own). Since then, I’ve almost entirely just taught myself from books, some papers, etc. The main exception is, in grad school, there was one really good course.Filter CoursesIn grad school, there was a course intended as a filter, i.e., to flunk out the unwanted students. I’d never really had the material in a course, but I’d long since worked hard on my own to learn it, from a stack of books, some general, some specialized, some advanced, lots of applications, writing some corresponding software, etc.So, in the filter course, I blew away all the other students and impressed, maybe even irritated, the prof.It’d be a total shame for a student to pay tuition, or just expend the time and effort, just to be attacked in a filter course. Independent study and on-line courses don’t attack students — good.The course had a long weekly homework assignment, graded, due on Friday. So, Thursday night, doing the homework, I got nearly no sleep and was pooped until Monday. Bummer.On an early assignment, the grader made a mistake on my paper; I corrected him; and he made no more mistakes!The homework was a lot of work and took a significant chunk out of each week, but there was very little in the course I didn’t already know so didn’t learn much.The course was not a very good learning situation and would have been tough had I not already long since taught myself the material.The time for the homework hurt what I wanted to do in other material actually to learn. Bummer.Again, the time, effort, etc. students devoted to that course were a shame, whether the students already knew the material like I did or not.Lesson: Just learn by good study from good books, and to heck with filter courses.On-Line LearningCould on-line learning be a lot better than just a lot of mostly just independent study or traditional, now expensive, classroom learning? IMHO maybe, but just how to do that would have to carefully worked out, evaluated, refined, etc. — so we’re talking thinking, understanding, time, money, and effort.IMHO, the best books and PDF files stand to win out.Would I be interested in making on-line education better? Nope: I already know how to learn. For others, they can do what I’ve done, e.g., as I’ve outlined here, and there are a lot of good books and some good PDF files.ConclusionReally, given some good books, we’re supposed to be able to learn the material. Then for everyone, the money is in what comes after the learning, say, solving problems or research for new material to solve problems and then solving problems.

  10. Dave Berry

    Love DuoLingo. I’m glad he brought up the point that one-on-one is perhaps the most effective. I do believe DuoLingo can achieve that same effect at scale. But I also think that the best result will come from an integration of technology and one-on-one interactions. There are so many claims that teaching jobs will be taken away by tech. I have a hard time believing that. It feels like Luddism to me. I think it will enhance education beyond any level we have yet seen. We are just in a transition period now.

  11. Pankaj Garg

    Good thing about language learning is that every body wants to learn one.. like every body wants to visit abroad once…

  12. Sierra Choi

    I used Duolingo for a time, but I found it boring after awhile because it was all multiple choice tests without context which goes against the CEO’s one-to-one learning that he is advocating. Also that video was ridiculously hard to watch because (with all due respect to the CEO) he repeats himself 6 times and appears to have asperger’s syndrome.