Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Blended Working... less offices, commuting, hierarchies, stress, office politics, spend, dressing up, classroom training, conferences…

Peter Honey once described how, when he was working as a consultant, he felt the need to look busy. "When my partner comes in I start typing... to make it look as though I was working..." But many people work at home with no drop in productivity. Indeed the early evidence suggests that productivity may increase. In certain types of company, mainly office or call-centre bound organisations and knowledge companies working from home most, but not all of the time seems to be working. The evidence suggests, however, that this will be Blended Working, with at least some of the time touching base with your fellow workers. Let's call this Blended Working.

Stanford study

Stanford Professor Nicholas Bloom, is one of the few who have conducted a research trial in this area, a 2 years study of a Travel company that took 1000 people, 500 who volunteered to work from home. The findings are fascinating:
   Productivity increased by 13.5%
   Staff turnover cut by half
   Sick days plummeted
   Savings of $1900 per employee over 9 months
   Flexibility good for recruitment
  Middle managers the problem

Bloom thinks the future is of parts of the workforce working from home for 1-4 days a week coming in where necessary. There is no fixed formula as it varies scoring to sector, types of work, distribution of employees and available infrastructure. But there are questions to be asked about social interaction, mental health and potential inequalities. What seems certain is that the needle has swung irreversibly to wards more home working, not wholly but partially. Importantly he recommends gathering data on your shift to home working on needs and productivity, working towards an optimal solution for Bothe employees and the organisation.

Technology

That needle will continue to swing as we learn to adapt to this new world of work, acceleracted by technologies such as collaborative software and 5G. We will see many professions adapt towards working with their colleagues and clients at a distance.
Zoom means rush and that’s exactly what most did when they had to work and teach from home, they rushed at it. Rather than thinking about the problem, planning and implementing an optimal use of technology, we went with the mob.
Sure Zoom is a good tool, easy to use, reasonable interface and reliable. But there was a rush to synchronous tools in realtime, when asynchronous communication may have been more sensible and efficient. This was partly the result of feeling that you have to behave as you did in the office, classroom or lecture theatre. You don’t.
Working at a distance requires tools that are sometimes the same but sometimes different from the office. This is an opportunity to look for increases in productivity through speed, collaboration and innovation through TECHNOLOGY. Bandwidth and reliability of an internet connection at home is your bedrock for optimised Blended Working. Giving people concrete advice and support when optimising their internet connection is a huge productivity issue. If you are not near your router, what are the ways this can be improved?
Many organisations use collaborative tools such as Teams or Slack. If you have an existing system, fine. If not, think about getting one. A standard collaborative platform will iron out all of those knotty problems around comms when people work in a distributed fashion.
Sharing things is different. You may use Google services which is built as a shared resources platform. Whatever system you use the sharing of documents, PowerPoints, spreadsheets and so on will be necessary.

Beyond this, those deceptively simple, but immensely powerful technologies are coming of age; AI, VR and 5G. These release further productivity increases while enabling optimal Blended Working to happen. At last the directions of travel both socially and technologically seem to be travelling in the same direction. 

Blended Working

To implement Blended Working you need some up front analysis of:
   Employees
   Jobs
   Resources
   Strategic consequences
It means literally ignoring what you have done in the past, going back to the drawing board and implementing a new system from scratch. Blended means blending an optimal mix of being at home and F2F. Note that this does not necessarily mean in the office. It may be more convenient to meet in a café, equidistant from both parties. The optimal blend has to take a number of variables as inputs, the output being your imal optBlended Working model.
A quick analysis of your employees in terms of time their taken to commute, need to drop kids off at school and their situation at home is essential. The evidence suggests that they need a room or at least a separate space to work. Their needs to be out of their homes will also be necessary.
A similar analysis of their jobs is also necessary, to see what, if any, components need F2F or physical access to things in the office. To what degree are their jobs solitary in the sense of needing just networked communications, which can also be face to face on Zoom, Teams and so on.
Resources are the things you have and need. What IT infrastructure and devices need to be bought. This may seem frightening but it can be written off over several years. Attention to furniture, such as chairs and tables may also need to be addressed.
Strategic business consequences for your customers and growth of the business allows you to do the fiscal forecasts, saving money on office space, even projected increases in productivity.

Less office space

In one company I’m involved in 80% want to continue working at home, many of the others wanted this blended model of work. Necessity has been the mother of innovation and the great pause has forced many organisations to do this experiment and find, to their surprise, that no matter how many coloured beanbags you provide, many would rather be at home.
HR and LD folk should be looking at the changing nature of work, but they’re curiously absent from this debate. The shift to working at home is, to a degree yet to be determined, permanent. Yet one wonders whether traditional HR and LD has caught on? 
Many companies now see that these grandiose offices are mostly an affectation and not needed. The cost savings can be significant, allowing business recovery and growth to happen faster. In some sectors many will continue to work at home, some entirely, some with smaller office hubs where people can meet and hot-desk.

Less commuting

It may result in permanent patterns of change. Big cities may be a lot emptier as workers can operate from ever more remote and rural locations. This may rebalance the economy away from London to the rest of the country. Let’s shift those headquarters of charities, organisations and companies out of cities. That would be wonderful. The inhumane spectacle of the mass commute into and out of cities may be reduced to a trickle and have an incalculable, positive impact on their physical and psychological health. This would reduce traffic and transport, a positive contribution to climate change.

Less hierarchy

Offices are full of hierarchical structures and behaviours – like parking spaces and who gets what office. There’s less room for negative management behaviour, as online is a sort of leveller. Managers really do need to manage and less of the over the shoulder management will be necessary or possible. It needs different management skills, as mentoring and encouragement has to be from a distance. Goal setting, encouragement, praise, data-driven management are all possible. All sorts of bad management behaviours are simply more difficult. 

Less stress

You’re not arriving at work after a stressful commute, can sleep longer, feel more autonomous, more in command of your own time. If you like a little music on, you can. You’re not in a noisy, distracted environment, picking up colds and flus. You will see your kids more as you’re not leaving early and coming back late. This is likely to make organisations much more productive. 

Less office politics

You’re not being soaked in gossip and office politics. Communications with your colleagues are online and can still be frequent online. However, social interaction can be more controlled and there will be far less physicality, so less potential for harassment. It’s not that social interaction disappears, just that much of the bad stuff will be filtered and there will be less of it.

Less spend

You may find yourself not only saving money on commuting, in some cases thousands of pounds. The average UK employee spends £146 a month commuting, totalling £135,871 over a lifetime. Workers travelling into London spend on average £305 a month, adding up to £197,377 over a lifetime. Then there’s the savings on expensive food and drink as you’re not splashing out on grabbing expensive coffees, cakes, sweets and expensive lunches. 

Less dressing up

There’s less need for office clothes; suits, ties, formal wear, heels, whatever. If you do less synchronous stuff, you will be ‘seen’ less. Even in synchronous media, no one cares what you look like below head height. You will feel more comfortable.

Less classroom training

A bonus is the acceleration of online training and the abandonment of awful classroom experiences – you know the game... where you sit at round tables, get a bad question, choose a chair, write BS on a flipchart page and that chair feeds back their views to the group. A lot of bad synchronous activity can be dumped.

Less conferences

Conferences literally stopped but the world kept going. Does it really make sense to spend £2000 plus to travel and exhibit at such events. Many have successfully swung online. I’ve spoken and attended a few – they’re often free, can cope with bigger numbers, save expensive travel and accommodation and you can fit the recorded asynchronous sessions into your working day. Many have reconsidered their future spend here. And it’s good for climate change. So get that into your social responsibility statement!

Conclusion

I’m a fan of Occam’s Razor “The minimum number of entities to reach your given goal.” It is not that offices and workplaces will disappear, only that there will be a LOT LESS. That’s fine. The future of work is the future of Blended Work, a blend of on and off-site, enabled by technology. 5G, Starlink and better devices and software will accelerate this shift, making it easier, cheaper and faster.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Learning is a process, not an event... events mainly give the illusion of learning...

"Part of the problem with all this talk about 'learning experience' is it's questionable whether learning is actually experienced at all."

This brilliant quote, by Leonard Houx, skewers the recent hubris around ‘learning experiences’. Everything is an ‘experience’ and what is needed is some awareness of good and bad learning experiences. Unfortunately, all too often what we see are single event, over-engineered, media heavy, video, animation and single courses that research shows, result, not in significant learning, but… 

1) Clickthrough (click on this cartoon head, click on this to see X; click on option on MCQ) that allows the learner to skate across the surface of the content, 
2) Cognitive overload (overuse of media) 
3) Diversionary activity (infantile gamification). 

What is missing is relevant effort and cognitive effort, that makes one think, rather than click. There is rarely open input, rarely any personalised learning and rarely enough practice.
The single classroom experience, lecture or online course is seen as sufficient, when it is just the start of a process that will almost certainly fail without further effort, whether it through reinforcement, application and practice.

Media rich is not mind rich
The purveyors of ‘experience’ tend to think that we need richer single experiences but research shows that media rich is not mind rich. Mayer shows, in study after study, that redundant material is not just redundant but dangerous in that it can hinder learning. Sweller and others warn us of the danger of cognitive overload. Bjork and others shows us that learners are delusional about what is best for them in learning strategies and just pandering to what users think they want is a mistake. Less is usually more in that we need to focus on what the learner needs to ‘know’ not just  'experience'.
What is needed is a series of experiences. Video is rarely enough on its own, as your working memory lasts for around 20 seconds and can hold ¾ things in mind at a time. This means, that like a shooting star, your memories burn up behind you as you watch. The solution is to keep these videos short, and make sure there’s opportunities for effortful learning through note taking, active learning experiences, application and practice. We do this with WildFire, which grabs the narration from the video and uses AI to automatically produce active, effortful learning after you have watched the video.

Research shows process works
There are those who think that Learning and Development does not have to pay attention to this research or learning research at all. It is still all too common to sit in a room where no one has read much learning theory at all, and whose sole criterion for judgement on what makes good online learning is the ‘user experience’, without actually defining it as anything other than ‘what the user likes’. Lawyers know the law, engineers know physics and it is not really acceptable to buy into the anti-intellectual idea that knowing how people learn is irrelevant to Learning and Development. It is, in fact, the bedrock of learning design.
And research shows that it is extremely rare to learn much in a single event, what used to be called sheep-dip experiences. Effortful learning, active learning, desirable difficulties, retrieval practice, feedback, spaced-practice. The research is strong in evidence for effortful learning. Make It Stick is a good start but there’s a century and more of research that backs this up. It all points towards learning being a process not a single event.

Habits are process
Increasingly, online learning is diverging from what most people actually do and experience online. Look at the web’s most popular, habitually used services or experiences – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Whatsapp, Messenger, Amazon, Netflix. It is all either mediated by AI to give you a personalised experience that doesn’t waste your time or dialogue. Their interfaces are pared down, simple, and they make sure there’s not an ounce of fat to distract from what the user actually needs. Occam was right with his razor – design with the minimal number of entities to reach your goal. More than this, these services make it easy for you to use and continue using. It becomes habitual. 
Duolingo uses AI and notifications to do the same – to turn the learning experience into a habit. It knows who you are what you’ve done, importantly what you’ve not done. Notifications push you forward, remind and cajole you. Learning experiences on their own are failures, habitual learning experiences leads to retention and success.

Blended learning
Blended learning is so often just Blended Teaching, some classroom/lectures, supplemented by online. In truth there is unlikely to be blended ‘learning’ unless the blend is seen as a process, where retrieval, application and practice are part of the blend. You can’t just hold a Blended Learning ‘event’. Blended Teaching is an event, Blended Learning is a process.

Conclusion

Sure, events can act as a catalyst, motivate people, get them started but it is process that changes people. An experience can be a learning experience but all experiences are not learning experiences. Many are, inadvertently, designed to be the very opposite – experiences designed to impress or dazzle but end up as eye-candy, edu-tainment or enter-train-ment. Get this - media rich is not mind rich, clicking is not thinking, less in learning is often more. Single events, like lectures, conference talks, classroom and single online courses give the illusion of learning. Learning is a process not an event.

Starlink, 5G and AI – science fiction becomes fact – how this leap will transform global online learning...

I was out in my garden last month watching a stream of satellites pass in a line overhead. It was beautiful. Forget the conspiracy theories, 5G wireless technology stands for ‘fifth generation’ cellular technology. Tie this up with Starlink, a low earth orbit network of satellites delivering blistering speeds to everywhere in the world and the engine that is AI, and we have a perfect storm that will transform global, online learning.
There are around 400 satellites up already. Target is 2027 for thousands more satellites. Why so many, each has a small cone of coverage but it cuts latency. Lasers between satellites travel at the speed of light. This is much faster than optical delivery through cable and allows global distribution with very low latency. Note that this will not wipe out urban networks but is great for rural and low density markets. If you are worried about space debris, their satellites have propulsion, collision software and can be dropped to disintegrate when they come to the end of their life.

How much faster is 5G?

1G networks were the first, 2G networks added data for things like SMS messages, 3G internet added even more and 4G, what we currently use, much faster internet access that has enabled social media and streaming. With every gear change comes faster and more efficient delivery. 5G delivers much, much higher speed and bandwidth. 
4G caps out at 100 megabits per second (Mbps), 5G caps out at 10 gigabits per second (Gbps). That means 5G is x100 faster than 4G technology, theoretically at least. 


Why it matters

To be honest, this is not really about 5G. Starlink is more important than 5G. It allows us to work and learn anywhere. It will allow people to move out of cities. High bandwidth, low latency, reliable internet will change how we work and learn. Its timing is perfect with respect to Covid. Now that we've been through the Great Pause and learnt to work and learn more at home, Starlink accelerates this process.

Online learning everywhere

SpaceX's satellite internet system will offer still blazingly fast speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second and within the next year, Starlink will start betas in the northern latitudes within weeks and a public beta awards the end of the year. It will offer satellite internet to the entire planet, including remote locations where internet isn't currently available. Its satellites are low enough, and move (not geostationary), to deliver this with no blindspots. That’s an astounding leap. A couple of orders of magnitude better and global coverage. In terms of delivery and the user experience in online learning, this means a lot. In short, we can get online. learning anywhere.

Ultra low latency

We spend a lot of time watching that little circle spinning on our screens. Technically it’s called latency, the time taken to find, identify and transfer data. 5G will make this all but disappear. This matters when you’re delivering complex online learning, whether it’s video, simulations, AI, VR or AR.
The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media Like Real People and Places by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, two Stanford academics, is full of juicy research on media in learning. It provides a compelling case, backed up with empirical studies, to show that that people confuse media with real life. This is actually a highly useful confusion: it is what makes movies, television, radio, the web and e-learning work. But their research also supports the case for 5G. 35 psychological studies into the human reaction to media all point towards the simple proposition that people react towards media socially even though, at a conscious level, they believe it is not reasonable to do so. They can't help it. In short, people think that computers are people, which makes online learning work.
Why is this relevant to 5G? Well in real life we live in real time. We don’t encounter little spinning circles, except when waiting on a late train or in a queue, and who wants that? Hearteningly, it means that there is no reason why online learning experiences should be any less compelling - any less 'human' in feel - than what we experience in the real world and the classroom. As long as a media technology is consistent with social and physical rules, we will accept it. Read that last part again, 'as long as a media technology is consistent with social and physical rules'. If the media technology fails to conform to these human expectations - we will very much not accept it.
The spell is easily broken. Nass & Reeves showed that unnatural ‘pauses’ inhibit learning. If the media technology fails to conform to our human expectations - we will NOT accept it. This is a fascinating lesson for online learning. We must learn to design our courseware as if it were being delivered in real-time by real people in a realistic fashion. The effectiveness of the user experience on an emotional level will depend as much on these considerations as on the scriptwriting and graphic design. It all has to work seamlessly, or the illusion of humanity fails. This has huge implications in terms of the use of media and media mix.
A simple finding, that shows we have real life expectations for media, is our dislike of unnatural timing. Slight pauses, waits and unexpected events cause disturbance. Audio-video asynchrony, such as poor lip-synch or jerky low frame-rate video, will result in negative evaluations of the speaker. These problems are cognitively disturbing. They lower learning. All that disappears with 5G.

Flawless streaming

Streaming will become much easier and almost flawless, allowing online learning to deliver whatever media is necessary at whatever time is optimal for learning. Note that this does not open the floodgates for over-engineered multimedia in learning, Media rich is not necessarily mind-rich. Many see video as the killer app for 5G. It is one but video is rarely enough on its own in learning. 

AI mediated learning

AI delivered learning will also be easier as realtime calls to cloud-based AI services opens up smart solutions in learning. This opens up a new world for adaptive learning, feedback, chatbots, automated notifications based on xAPI, learning in the workflow. Specifically, it allows access to services, such as OpenAI API to tap into AI on demand. This means smarter, faster and better online learning. We free ourselves from the current presentation of flat, linear experiences. The process, and learning is not an event but a process, will be sensitive to each individual learner. Personalised learning becomes a reality.

New user experiences

New user experiences and processes will be possible when we free ourselves from the tyranny of latency and slow speed internet. The promise of blended learning that can deliver great simulations, immersion and whatever one has delivered in the real world or classroom is now possible. New business models will emerge. New forms of learning with full immersion, AI, personalisation will emerge.

New devices

Rumours have it that Apple will be offering a ‘glasses’ device. In any case, wearables, watches and small devices are now everywhere. 5G allows high speed access to and from these devices. This is not just about smartphones, it frees up fast internet speeds to all devices. We can link learning to devices that provide the context for learning. Where are you, what are you doing, then this is what we can do to help. This all becomes possible wherever you are indoors or outdoors, anywhere on the planet. 

Conclusion

Higher performance and improved efficiency empower new user experiences and connects new industries. This is not about boosting learning. It is about changing the very nature of education and learning. The implications for the poorer regions of the world are obvious as it could be a great leveller. In any case this is a rising tide for everyone.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Everyone wants Blended Learning, few know what it is....

We see calls for the future to be one of Blended Learning. I agree. It had the promise to shake us out of the ‘classroom/lecture-obsessed’ straight-jacket into a fully developed, new paradigm, where online, social, informal and many other forms of learning could be considered and implemented. This needed an analytic approach to developing and designing blended learning solutions. So what happened?

1. Blended bandage
Blended learning was really just the learning world coping with the onslaught of new ways of teaching and learning. It's an adaptive response to what is happening to the learning world as the real world changes around it. By real world I don't just mean Covid, I mean changes in attitudes, learner expectations, demographics, politics, but above all massive and rapid change in technology. Blended learning, as a concept, allowed the system to absorb all of this at a sensible pace, as it was a useful bridge between the new and the old. However, seeing it as some sort of bandage or compromise can quickly disabled the idea, as it can lead not to fresh thinking but a defense of old with a few new, adjunct ideas added on.

2. Blended learning became blended TEACHING
Blended Learning books also turned out the very opposite of Blended Learning theory, namely Blended TEACHING. Teacher/lecturer/trainer authors simply sliced and diced existing ‘teaching’ practices and added a few online extras. Attempts at defining, describing and prescribing blended learning were crude, involving the usual suspects (lectures/classroom plus e-learning). It merely regurgitated existing 'teaching' methods. Blended LEARNING is not Blended TEACHING.

3. Muddled by metaphor
It also got muddled by metaphor. Blended learning started to fail when it got bogged down by banal metaphors. I've heard them all - blended cocktails, meals, even alloys. Within the ‘food metaphor’ we got courses, recipes, buffet learning, tapas learning, fast food versus gourmet. The problem with metaphor-driven blended learning is that who's to say that your metaphor is any better than mine? I’ve even seen the 'fruit blender' metaphor, trying to explain the concept in terms of a fruit smoothie! Let me put forward my own food metaphor. What do you get when you blend things in a metaphoric mixer, without due care and attention to needs, taste and palette? Blended baloney. That is often what we get with models as metaphors - dull, tasteless sausage meat. Blended LEARNING is not a metaphor.

4. Velcro learning
Dozens of definitions of blended learning then floated around, most of them muddle-headed, as they were simple delivery dualisms:
   Blend of classroom and e-learning
   Blend of face-to-face and e-learning
This ‘velcro’ approach to blended learning simply took the old classroom paradigm and added an online dimension. It was an attempt to simply use the definition to carry on doing what you did before with some extras. The problem with a definition that fixes a delivery mechanism in advance of the blended design e.g. classroom or ‘f2f’ is that you’ve already given up on rational design.

5. Broad dualisms
A slightly better approach was to broadly define the world of learning into two inclusive categories:
   Blend of online and offline
   Blend of synchronous and asynchronous
   Blend of formal and informal
The problem with these definitions is that they are looser but still wide components that may not be needed in an optimal blend. These definitions are simply too general, in that they simply divide the universe into two sets. However, the real issue with all of these definitions is that they are really definitions of blended INSTRUCTION not blended learning. We need to look at the concept from a broader learning perspective with definitions that rise above ‘instruction’ to concepts that encompass context.

6. Flipped classroom
This is just one species of blended learning and a rather simplistic version. Again, however, the focus is on blended ‘teaching’ not ‘learning’. It’s yet another fixed dualistic formula. The concept is primarily about switching the focus of teaching away from exposition towards more Socratic f2f methods. It served a purpose in proposing a radical rethink but still fits the old lecture/classroom/f2f v online dualistic mindset.

7. 70:20:10
This is a more sophisticated version of blended learning in that it emerges from theory and studies that show how people actually learn in practice, as opposed of supply type models of teaching. Around 70% of learning comes from experience, experiment and reflection, 20% from working with others and 10% from planned learning solutions and reading. It’s common in organizational learning, it proposes and explained in superb detail in 702010 towards 100% performance by Arets, Jennings and Heijnen. Now we’re getting there but again these percentages apply more to workplace learning than education. It’s a great shift away from traditional, flawed mindsets about how people learning but needs further work to be useful across the entire learning landscape. Blended learning has certainly taken root but it has no defined shape, theory, methodology or best practice. You can call anything a blended solution.

8. Sophisticated
All of the above are either metaphors, simplistic dualisms, or subsets of blended learning. Don't mistake the phrase for an anlaytic theory. Blended learning is so often used as a platitude. It is an old mindset that smothers the idea before it has had the chance to breath. What happened to analysis? Blended learning abandoned careful thought and analysis, the consideration of the very many methods of learning delivery, sensitivity to context and culture and a matching to resources and budget. It also needs to include scalability, updatability and several other variables. What it led to were primitive, dualistic 'classroom and e-learning' mixes. It never got beyond vague 'velcro' models, where bits and bobs were stuck together (now that's a metaphor). You need to work towards an 'optimal' blend. 

9. Analytic
Truly analytic Blended Learning is not a back of an envelope exercise. It needs a careful analytic process, where the learners, type of learning, organisational culture and available resources need to be matched with the methods of delivery. It has INPUTS, decision making and OUTPUTS. Until we see 'Blended learning' as a sophisticated analytic process for determining optimal blends, we'll be stuck in this vague, qualitative world, where the phrase is just an excuse for old practices. Your blend may have no lecture or no classroom components. It may have no online components. But most will be an optimal blend where good teaching and learning theory is applied, alongside analysis of what needs to be taught, who you are teaching and the resources for delivery.
10. ’Veil of ignorance’
In practice, to do blended learning, one has to apply what called the ’veil of ignorance’, an idea that goes back to Kant, Locke, Rousseau and more recently John Rawls. You have to go through a thought experiment and imagine your course, workshop, whatever, as having NO pre-set components. Now do some detailed analysis on what type of outcome you want from this in terms of your ‘learning’. Only then, having rid yourself of personal preconceptions and institutional forms of delivery, can you really start to rebuild your course/learning experience. So you start with an analysis of the learning and learners, then take into consideration your resources envelope, with a full cost analysis. Also include long-term sustainability issues such as updatability and maintenance. To construct a blended learning experience you have to deconstruct your natural bias to do what you or your institution have always done and reconstruct the learning experience from scratch.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

7 great things Duolingo teaches us about good online learning

Luis von Ahn is the brains, driver and innovator behind Duolingo. From Guatemala, he’s a mathematician and computer scientist on a mission to keep language learning free. The story is fascinating. It was valued at $1.5 billion at the end of 2019 and their revenues have risen through the pandemic from $400,000 per day to $600,000 per day, with only 20% of revenues in the US. They have x50 more users than their nearest competitor and x5 the revenues. So what's behind the success?

1. Habit
Doulingo is all about making learning habitual. This is the magic dust. I’ve written about h-learning before and it has a long theoretical history going back to Locke and James. The daily tasks and streaks are achievable and you get visual rewards as you progress. The behavioural science behind the formation of habit is also good. This is driven by good design but mostly by clever AI.

2. Adaptive
The primary problem in language learning is motivation. This is where design and AI come in. The bite-size learning chunks and highly visual sense of progress and completion of levels is exactly what drives users forward. This is the good side of gaming. I’ve been involved in adaptive learning for years and really do believe that it offers huge promise in efficacy in learning. 

3. AI drives pedagogy
Duolingo employ high-end AI experts and pay top dollar for this expertise. The personalisation and adaptivity is sophisticated, as it knows what you’ve learnt and, importantly, if you’ve been absent, what you’ve forgotten. This is important. If you don't learn for a few days, it know that you've forgotten and pulls you back a little. Algorithmic personalisation may have more to do with rectifying forgetting than learning.

4. AI drives engagement
But the real application of AI is even more interesting in 'notifications'. They are extremely sophisticated as, algorithmically, they decide what to say and when to say it. This is the clever use of data to automate the learning process, to keep people going. They notify you regularly, but not too much. But the most effective notification is the ‘final warning’. If they feel you have dropped off, a timely message, making you feel slightly guilty, works wonders. They are constantly looking at data to increase habitual learning.

5. User experience
This matters. Simple, clean, plenty of white space, consistent palette, no teacher face or teacher avatar, simple progress bar at top of screen. Then there’s scoring, levels, daily goals, completions, green for success, red for failure. Duolingo also works superbly well on mobile and has keyboard input as an option. 

6. Learning experience
No clumsy drag and drop, open input for full phrases and sentences, allows people to type what they hear, remediation when you fail, sentence as audio when you get it right, not scared of repetition, single day streaks, spaced practice. They work hard at this. I’ve seen it improve year after year.

7. Learning wants to be free
Throughout this whole journey, from late 2012, the primary aim was to keep the service fundamentally free. This was and still is their mission. They are all zealots for free education and hire top-end people at good salaries, who believe in this mission. Keep it free, well largely, as only 3% of users pay the subscription – learning wants to be free.

Innovation
Duolingo went through some serious innovations and pivots. Luis invented CAPTCHA which was successful in digitising books and newspapers and was keen on similar free solutions to problems that, as a by-product, solved other problems. With Duolingo he tried selling translations but that market was commoditised. He then tried ads at the end of each module, so as not to interrupt the learning process. But his final pivot was subscriptions to avoid ads. This solved the problem. 

Critics
His critics, who say that Duolingo doesn’t teach you languages, miss the point he thinks. Most of these apps are about picking up the basics. Learning a second language is a mountainous task and Duolingo aims at the foothills. Their goal is to get that process kick-started and aim for intermediate level B2, and they’re getting there. B2 by the way is the level of English required to work at Google. He also claims, rightly, that the enormous sums spent in schools, trying to teach languages is a disaster zone, with a tiny fraction ever getting any functional proficiency. Remember, Duolingo is free.

Competitors
There are other apps. 
Memrise is perhaps better at dialogue with more video clips but clumsier interface and design. It also uses AI and has a Fremium model to add features such as a grammarbot, pro chats, difficult words, speed review, listening skills, learning stats and more.
Babbel is a German alternative but a subscription service. The voice recognition software (uses AI) can be a bit annoying but it also now adopting AI as the driver. It a more traditional structured lesson approach.
Bussuu is London based and another AI-driven app that operates a Fremium model. It is flashcard based but a more social app, allowing you to speak into the app.
There’s debate about what is best but my point is that all use AI to drive pedagogy, go for the bite-size thing, focus on habit and motivation. I still prefer Duolingo.