That’s Edutainment: Duolingo and Chocolate-Dipped Broccoli

Welcome back to That’s Edutainment, which looks at educational video games of the past and considers whether they hold up today, focusing on their development and on the relationship between education and entertainment. Previous articles can be found here

Today, we’re looking at Duolingo, the language-learning website and app founded in 2009. The header image is from Duolingo, and all other sources are cited throughout. We’ll also consider how Duolingo ties into one of edutainment’s most influential essays, as well as the tension between chocolate and broccoli. (Yes, broccoli.) Let’s begin. 

In her 1999 paper “Can Educational Be Fun?”, American professor and academic Amy Bruckman uses the phrase ‘chocolate-dipped broccoli’ to describe her perspective on educational software. Bruckman writes: 

Most attempts at making software both educational and fun end up being neither. Fun is often treated like a sugar coating to be added to an educational core. Which makes about as much sense as chocolate-dipped broccoli.  

In particular, Bruckman focuses on the 1982 game Math Blaster as an example of “chocolate-dipped broccoli.” Math Blaster is an example of “drill-and-practice” educational software, a description also attached to the earliest versions of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and Reader Rabbit.

Bruckman links drill-and-practice gameplay with behaviourism, the reinforcement-based theory of learning most popularly associated with B.F. Skinner, and instructionist education, “which asserts that learning is about knowing facts.” Bruckman notes, “To try to make the whole process less unpleasant, designers add pretty graphics and breaks to play more fun games, which have nothing to do with the content being taught.” 

The notion of ‘chocolate-dipped broccoli’ as a concept in educational game design soon caught on and became somewhat ubiquitous, going beyond the scope of Bruckman’s original paper. (Writer and game designer Brenda Laurel would use a similar term, “chocolate-covered broccoli,” in her 2001 book Utopian Entrepreneur. This version has perhaps been more widely cited over the years than Bruckman’s original phrase. I’ll be using Bruckman’s original iteration in this article.)

As a concept, ‘chocolate-dipped broccoli’ is closely tied to the principles underlying another educational design concept: gamification. In his 2020 book Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education, academic Justin Reich describes gamification as a process in which “game designers add a layer of points, stars, beeps, and other rewards on top of drill-and-practice activities.” Furthermore, he specifically identifies gamification as “the process of pouring behaviourist chocolate over instructionist broccoli.”

An editorial note: I’m not particularly keen on the phrase ‘chocolate-dipped broccoli’ (and Laurel’s ‘covered’ variation). The phrase implies duplicity; an underhanded effort to make educational content palatable for children who seemingly don’t know any better. (Journalist Craig Toppo describes this “ubiquitous and derisive phrase” as a “rallying cry for people who don’t like games that separate drill and practice from game play.”) And if my past columns in this series have demonstrated anything, it’s that the creators of many edutainment works did not start out with sinister motives. (It also presents broccoli as unappealing; I, for one, enjoy both chocolate and broccoli, though probably not at the same time. Put a pin in that; we’ll revisit it later.)

Nevertheless, Bruckman’s concept of chocolate-covered broccoli can be considered, on its own, as a gauge by which we might evaluate edutainment titles. On this scale, a work of edutainment could be ‘pure chocolate’ (entirely focused on entertainment), ‘pure broccoli’ (entirely focused on education), or (more likely) fall somewhere between these two extremes. And there are few better modern examples of edutainment occupying this middle space than Duolingo. 

Duolingo began life as a website created in late 2009 by Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis von Ahn and his Ph.D. student, Swiss computer scientist Severin Hacker. Luis von Ahn, then 31 years old, was a professor at Pennsylvania’s Carnegie Mellon University and perhaps best known at the time for founding reCAPTCHA, the company that had created the CAPTCHA online system. 

Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker. Credit: Duolingo/Forbes

Earlier in 2009, von Ahn had sold CAPTCHA to Google. He and Hacker now turned their attention to a new project; this time focused on language education. von Ahn later recalled:

There’s a huge number of people that want to learn English, and most of them can’t pay, but the ways to learn a new language typically require them paying, because somebody has to make money. … We wanted to have the best quality of language education, and offer it for free.

Von Ahn and Hacker’s initial idea for Duolingo was a completely free-of-charge website “in which people learn by helping to translate the Web.” Companies could then pay for these translation services (and some, like CNN, did). The website became publicly accessible in June 2012, and the first app version, for iOS, was released in November of that year. Between 2013 and 2020, Duolingo’s number of registered users grew from three million to over five hundred million, with forty million monthly active users as of 2020. 

So, where does Duolingo exist on our chocolate-to-broccoli scale? And what, if anything, can it tell us about the modern status of the edutainment genre?

Before we consider answers to those questions, it’s necessary to provide a disclaimer. Much has been written about the effectiveness of Duolingo’s learning approach. For the purposes of this article, however, I’m more interested in the historical and conceptual space Duolingo occupies in the field of edutainment. 

That said, it can be difficult not to engage with critiques of Duolingo, as they are often linked to the platform’s approach and development. When these critiques have become relevant in this article, I’ve done my best to present them in an objective and conceptually-focused manner. The goal of this article is not to make a case for or against Duolingo, especially in regards to its effectiveness or suitability as a teaching tool. 

Now that we’ve established the scope of this article, the first question one might ask is: does Duolingo count as edutainment? My answer would be ‘yes.’ 

The very first article in this column defined the basic concept of edutainment as “school by play,” and that notion is at the heart of Duolingo’s teaching approach. In his book, Reich describes the majority of Duolingo exercises as “some form of translation or recognition activity, where students earn points, complete progress bars, and earn badges for translating text between the target and native language in speech and writing.” 

In Duolingo, points take the form of both XP (experience points) and jewels (red ‘lingots’ on the website, blue gems on the iOS app). Players collect XP and gems by completing activities, including multi-level exercises focused around a specific subject (basics, family, shopping, and so forth). Players’ progress is regulated by a “health” system of hearts, similar to those in the Mario and Legend of Zelda series. Each time a player incorrectly answers an activity, they may lose a heart.

When players complete each level of an exercise, they are rewarded with a crown. Collecting crowns unlocks additional activities and allows players to further progress in their studies. In addition, if players collect enough XP, they can progress through a series of ‘leagues’, competitive leaderboards populated by random worldwide players. One starts in the Bronze League and can work their way up to Diamond. 

The web version of Duolingo, showing many of its gamification aspects. Credit: Duolingo/PC Magazine

Duolingo openly and intentionally embraces gamification as a means of learning. In a 2017 presentation, then-assistant project manager Zan Gilani outlined the company’s “four-point gamification strategy.” These four aspects include allowing users to establish “specific [and] small … goals that they can achieve”; motivating the user through visual depictions of progress; “external triggers” in the form of emails and notifications; and, finally, “rewarding and incentivizing [users] for using the platform at some point everyday.” 

The use of gamification in Duolingo has significantly evolved over the years, shaping its in-game mechanics. A crucial aspect of Duolingo gameplay is maintaining a streak met by satisfying one’s set XP goals. At one point, users were able to pay a small amount of real-world money to maintain that streak, with the goal of keeping Duolingo a primarily free service. Players are currently able to pay for ‘Duolingo Plus’, in which, unlike the basic version, there are no advertisements, and players have unlimited hearts. 

Another key aspect of player engagement is arguably the app’s visual appeal. There are few better examples than how Duo, the company’s owl mascot, has significantly changed in appearance over the years; the newest redesign was unveiled in 2019. (It may or may not be a coincidence that Duo’s green-and-orange colour scheme resembles the outfit often worn by Link, the protagonist of Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda series, who also collects colourful gems throughout his adventures.) 

Duo over the years. Credit: Duolingo/The Verge

Like many edutainment titles before it, Duolingo is built upon a drill-and-practice style of gameplay. In that sense, it shares some kinship with Math Blaster and similar titles Bruckman regarded in her paper as ‘chocolate-dipped broccoli’. For Bruckman, a crucial flaw in ‘chocolate-dipped broccoli’ games is a lack of context: 

In the original version [of Math Blaster], kids answer repetitive arithmetic problems, one after another. Each problem correctly answered earns you a bullet. When you’ve answered enough questions, you get a break to play a quick shooting game. … Part of the problem with this approach is that the learning is out of context. In Math Blaster, you’re not adding 2 somethings to 5 somethings, you’re just adding 2 and 5. 

While it teaches an entirely different subject matter, Duolingo has historically also struggled with contextualization. (User complaints about a lack of context date back to at least 2014.) Language coach Kerstin Cable has argued that in the Duolingo app, “you learn by parroting phrases without even beginning to cover the background stories that grammar and pragmatics tell.” The Cut writer Katie Heaney has also observed that using Duolingo entailed discussing words and phrases “not in normal, plausible contexts.” However, Cable has also noted that the web browser version of Duolingo includes contextual tips, notes, and explanations about, for example, Britishisms in the English language. Expectations for contextualization may be particularly dynamic or compelling for Duolingo, as its subject matter, teaching languages, is of value to adults as well as children.

Duolingo has addressed these criticisms about contextualization, at least in part. The Duolingo Stories feature includes short, interactive reading comprehension exercises which place words and phrases in a more immersive and narrative context. In 2020, Duolingo introduced ‘Duolingo World’, a new endeavour in which nine fully-voiced human characters appear, and interact with one another, throughout Duolingo’s various exercises. Each character has their own unique personality and design.

The cast of Duolingo World. Credit: Duolingo/The Verge

Duolingo art director Greg Hartman spoke to The Verge about the project: 

Obviously Duolingo is a very gamified language learning app … We took a lot of cues from other games, and I think you realize how motivating characters can be; when you remove the main character you have an emotional attachment to you’ll probably play that game less. We wanted to establish some emotional connection, and have characters that encourage users, by giving them positive reinforcement. 

This echoes another significant aspect of Duolingo as edutainment: because Duolingo is a web and app-based platform, its content and mechanics are able to actively develop over time. A lot of classic edutainment titles were released as fully-formed, unchanging products, without the opportunity for significant revisions. Educational apps or websites can be more adaptable, able to incorporate new features and approaches in response to shifting needs or expectations. 

Duolingo clearly exists somewhere in the middle of the chocolate-to-broccoli scale, as the app openly uses gamification techniques in the service of language education. In 2018, von Ahn spoke with The Atlantic about Duolingo’s approach: 

The biggest problem that people trying to learn a language by themselves face is the motivation to stay with it … That’s why we spend a lot of our energy just trying to keep people hooked. … We prefer to be more on the addictive side than the fast-learning side. … If someone drops out, their rate of learning is zero.

All the same, a significant number of Duolingo users turn to the app for some form of language instruction; especially following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. From February 2020 onwards, at least thirty million new users had registered with Duolingo. Their motivations for doing so often included using Duolingo as an additional educational tool: 

Initially, new learners joined to supplement school classes, with 27.9% reporting school as their main motivation for studying a language, compared to 22.6% joining for school during March/April 2019. Brain training (15.9%) was a distant second among reasons for taking up language study during the lockdown. Unsurprisingly, travel didn’t factor into learners’ plans: although 19.9% of learners started studying a language for travel reasons in March/April 2019, only 12.7% of new learners were daydreaming of using their new language abroad during the first weeks of the 2020 lockdown.

While Duolingo facilitates this learning through entertainment, it’s far from an outlier in modern edutainment. In 2016, writer and game designer Sande Chen surveyed fellow creators of educational software about their approaches to game design. Chen concluded, based on these responses, that it might be more effective for educational game designers to focus on entertainment, as opposed to focusing purely on education:

[P]rioritizing education over entertainment has its limitations. … [M]any developers have found prioritizing entertainment over education can yield the desired results. Kids would rather play an entertainment title over an educational one, even if that entertainment game makes them learn astrophysics.

Chen considered a potential “entertainment-education convergence” occurring in the future, “in which a game for entertainment can also be a game for education. Education would no longer compete with entertainment because education would be entertainment.” One might argue that this has already occurred; as I have outlined in previous articles, this combination has always been present in edutainment in some form. Whether an edutainment title can truly achieve this convergence remains to be seen.

The question remains: where does Duolingo fall on the education-entertainment spectrum we considered earlier in this article? Is it a stalk of broccoli with a light chocolate coating, or a tiny piece of broccoli in a sea of chocolate? The answer to these questions may depend upon one’s personal preference or expectations for the learning experience Duolingo provides. 

If we engage with this metaphor on a base level, most people, when pressed, would probably opt for chocolate over raw broccoli. (When images of chocolate-dipped broccoli accompany articles about edutainment, broccoli is generally depicted in its unprocessed form.) Some people might even prefer their broccoli cooked. 

My point here is that the general approach to software combining education and entertainment, to whatever extent, is extremely fluid. One only has to look at how the narrative surrounding Math Blaster changed within the span of only ten years after the original title’s release; originally perceived as too entertainment-focused upon its 1982 debut, the series was criticized in the mid-1990s as not entertaining enough. Perhaps this constantly-shifting dynamic between education and entertainment is what truly informs and shapes edutainment.

Duolingo itself is just over a decade old at this point, and has already evolved, and continues to evolve, beyond its original format and scope. Edutainment will always experiment with new ways of approaching its core goal of “school by play,” and this is, for me, what makes the genre fresh and consistently exciting to write about. 

Join us next time as we return to the Humongous Entertainment catalogue with a look at one of the studio’s most beloved titles, 1996’s Pajama Sam in “No Need to Hide When It’s Dark Outside.” See you then!