Can Duolingo Teach Foreign Students English?

News and views from academia.
July 31 2014 7:42 AM

Does Duolingo Pass the Test?

Carnegie Mellon partners with the language-learning app to make it good enough to prep students for the TOEFL.

(Continued from Page 1)

Duolingo hopes Carnegie Mellon’s clout can spark widespread adoption. During the upcoming admission cycle, the university will encourage its international applicants to take Duolingo’s test in addition to other standardized tests. By 2016, Duolingo’s test may qualify as an admission requirement on its own.

Duolingo already has some preliminary data to suggest the test holds up to scrutiny. A study released this May by University of Pittsburgh assistant professor Feifei Ye—and sponsored by Duolingo—found a statistically significant connection between strong Duolingo and TOEFL test scores.

Carnegie Mellon enrolls more than 12,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Last fall, about one-third of them, or 4,121, came from countries other than the United States, according to a university report.

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While institutions generally require international students to achieve a certain IELTS or TOEFL score, not all of those who do can use English at a university level.

Educational Testing Service, the nonprofit that offers the TOEFL, was this summer rocked by scandal after the BBC uncovered widespread fraud at test centers. The British government responded by removing ETS from the list of approved test providers and stripping 60 institutions of their ability to host international students.

Thomas A. Ewing, a spokesman for ETS, declined to comment on Duolingo's plans, instead stressing the company's dedication to security. The TOEFL, he pointed out, is accepted by more than 9,000 institutions and agencies worldwide, and the test itself uses security measures such as biometric voice recognition. “Providing standardized testing on a global basis requires such efforts especially when universities, businesses and governments are depending upon those scores as part of making important decisions,” Ewing said in an email. “Without such safeguards and standards for quality, global acceptance is difficult, if not impossible.”

Duolingo sees real vulnerability in the market leader, and they’re not the only ones. The investigation “definitely added” to the company’s decision to capture a slice of the standardized test market, Gotthilf said. Earlier this summer, Pearson also introduced its Global Scale of English, calling it the first “globally recognized standard in English.”

Universities often use their own safeguards to ensure international students don't misrepresent their language skills—particularly in graduate admissions. John Lehoczky, Carnegie Mellon's interim executive vice president, sits on the steering committee for the university’s master’s degree program in computational finance. The department videoconferences with its applicants, which he said can serve to validate test scores. “I would say we certainly find some students whose TOEFL scores are surprising,” Lehoczky said. “One wonders how they might have done so well on the exam—but I’m certainly not willing to connect that to fraud.”

Still, the app is not yet ready to replace the other tests, Lehoczky said. The TOEFL generates its final score by adding up how students performed in the listening, reading, speaking, and writing sections, and prospective students need to do well in all four. Duolingo also quizzes test takers in those areas but scores them on a 1-to-10 scale. “At this point it’s not a fit vehicle for undergraduate admissions at Carnegie Mellon,” Lehoczky said, adding that he hoped Duolingo will update the app to include a score breakdown.

The university’s partnership with its spinoff runs deeper than just the language proficiency test. The university is in the early stages of examining whether it can use the data gathered by Duolingo’s language learning tool in the Simon Initiative, Carnegie Mellon’s open-access database on student learning.

Carnegie Mellon would have to resolve “significant privacy issues” before the data could be put to use, Lehoczky said, “but this is part of a broader vision that the university is trying to promote.”

Carl Straumsheim is a technology reporter at Inside Higher Ed.

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