A Free Learning App that Actually Works

meStudying_app_iconFor a few years now, I’ve been skeptical of the ever-growing wave of learning apps that use iPads and smartphones to teach math, language, art, and music.

As in, really skeptical.

While fantastically entertaining and beautifully designed, most of these apps fail what I’d call the Reality Test: they are inferior to learning the old-fashioned way, with your brain, body and the good old physical world. (Besides, as South Park wisely pointed out, there’s a slight but crucial difference between being skilled at Guitar Hero and being skilled at guitar.)

Then came last night.

Let me set the scene for you: it’s 10 p.m. and the temperature here in northeastern Ohio is approximately minus-478 degrees. School for tomorrow has been officially canceled. Jen and I are hanging out downstairs; the three girls are upstairs in full snow-day celebration mode, reveling in the unexpected late bedtime, the joy of no classes, pure freedom.

But something’s wrong. It’s too quiet. Then I hear a faint trumpet call, followed by yells of delight.

“What’s going on up there?” I ask. That’s when Jen tells me.

“They’re learning Spanish,” she says. “On an app.”

The truth tumbles out: the app (which is free) is called DuoLingo, and Jen has been secretly addicted for a few days, playing every spare moment. She’s already past 400 points, she tells me, and she can’t wait to get back to it, having just selected INSANE as her new daily level of practice time. And now it seems her new obsession has traveled, like a rogue virus, to the kids.

At first glance, DuoLingo doesn’t seem like much. You pick a level, and the a friendly voice poses a series of translation puzzles. Sometimes you are asked to speak a sentence. Sometimes you type what you hear, or pick the right translation from a series of options.

The secret to its appeal is the way it combines this sense of fun with smart individualized coaching. It nudges you to the edges of your ability and keeps you there, looping over material in various ways until you have it dialed in. Instead of tediously memorizing lists of words, you spend time solving tiny, engaging puzzles. Add in the razzle dazzle of medals, points, social competition and happy trumpets, and you’ve basically got a nutritional version of Candy Crush.

The other secret has less to do with the app and more to do with the nature of the skill itself. Language, unlike many other skills, is basically a massive interconnected ocean of information. DuoLingo works because it gives us space to splash around in that ocean, see what works, and repeat. It does exactly what a skilled coach does: creates a gamelike environment that keeps us reaching, over and over again, toward mastery. (Or, if you’re Jen, reaching for a reason to propose a family vacation to Spain.)

So does it work? Users (like this Slate writer) seem fairly ecstatic. I found this study (financed by DuoLingo’s parent company but conducted independently) showing that DuoLingo users learned the equivalent of a college semester in 34 hours. Around our house, the trash-talking has already started: Katie has promised to defeat her mother in the levels race.

So here’s the next question: What else am I missing? What other learning apps are useful? (Has anybody tried Coach’s Eye, for instance?) I’d love to start building a list of learning apps that actually work. Please feel free to add any of your recommendations in the comments section below.

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