Carnegie Mellon to Test Duolingo Inc.'s Latest App
Duolingo Inc. is taking English certification mobile, and Carnegie Mellon University is putting the app maker’s test to the test.
Pittsburgh-based Duolingo, founded by Carnegie Mellon professor Luis von Ahn (SCS ’05) and graduate Severin Hacker (SCS ‘14), launched a beta version of a new Android app yesterday, Duolingo Test Center, with Carnegie Mellon as its first academic partner.
Duolingo, known for its language-teaching app of the same name, describes Test Center as an English certification tool, whereby users take a computer-adaptive test to prove they are proficient in English. Von Ahn, Duolingo’s chief executive officer, and Hacker, chief technology officer, created Test Center to allow users to certify their English abilities at a cheaper cost than traditional certification tests, which they say cost about $250. Test Center and its certification tests are available for free in beta, but tests will eventually cost $20.
Carnegie Mellon will perform research on Test Center to measure its effectiveness compared to traditional English certification tests, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or Toefl, according to the university’s interim executive vice president John Lehoczky.
To determine the certification test’s reliability, Carnegie Mellon will give applicants and admitted students the option to take the test, and will use the scores for research purposes. The university will not accept the scores as replacements to traditional certification scores currently.
“We’re not making this a requirement for either admissions of CMU or ultimate enrollment in CMU,” Lehoczky said, noting that it would be a student’s choice to take the test and would not affect their standing with the university.
When asked to estimate when Test Center scores could be officially accepted, Lehoczky said, “Given the admissions cycle at Carnegie Mellon it’s a bit hard to see that the fall of 2015 class could have presented the credentials,” but Carnegie Mellon could accept scores “perhaps as early as the fall of 2016” depending upon whether or not studies reveal the test to be reliable.
In addition to its potential for admissions, Lehoczky said the university sees value in storing the information that Duolingo collects in the Simon DataLab, a concept that the university introduced with the Simon Initiative late last year. The university envisions the DataLab as an extensive collection of datasets that researchers can use to improve learning, according to the Simon Initiative's website. Lehoczky said the university would first have to ensure that the privacy of Test Center users is protected before collecting the app's data for the DataLab.
Joining Carnegie Mellon as a Test Center partner is contracting job finder oDesk Corp. The company, based in Redwood City, Calif., will be Test Center’s first institutional partner and is now accepting the app’s certification scores, von Ahn said via email.
Google Inc. is also supporting the app, according to a news release. Von Ahn declined to comment on the relationship between Duolingo and Google. In 2009, Google bought reCaptcha Inc., a company that offers a web protection tool developed by von Ahn and others at Carnegie Mellon.
Von Ahn, who is currently on leave as a professor at Carnegie Mellon to focus on Duolingo Inc., grew up in Guatemala. "[I] always thought about how limited access to education for those people was one of the key drivers of socio-economic differences,” he said about his reasons for developing language-learning apps. “Learning a language is very expensive and requires attending a very good school, paying for private lessons, or buying expensive software.”
The company’s first app, Duolingo, was developed partly in Carnegie Mellon’s Gates Hillman Complex, upon the premise of providing accessible language education for free. Duolingo was released as a Beta app in 2011 and officially launched in June 2012. In 2013, Duolingo was selected as Apple’s iPhone App of the Year.
In addition to its availability on Google's Android operating system, the Test Center app is available on web browsers. An iOS app will be available in a few months, according to von Ahn.