How Duolingo Offers Free Education to Millions

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Duolingo is a free web service and smartphone app lets you take basic lessons in Spanish, German, French, Italian, or Portuguese.

Having only used the service for a few weeks, I can't speak to it's long term effectiveness. I can however report that it's an amusing and great-looking tool with a gamified "skill tree" that keeps me wanting to come back to learn more and earn more points.

Most notably interesting about this service is the creative means by which Duolingo is funded.

The brain behind Duolingo is Luis von Ahn, 34, a boyish-faced computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Sometimes called the father of crowdsourcing, he’s best known for inventing the CAPTCHA, the squiggly word or words you have to type in on password-protected forms. Google GOOG -3.1% bought his company, reCAPTCHA, and uses your free labor to verify hundreds of millions of words from books that its scanners can’t parse.

A similar kind of crowdsourcing keeps Duolingo in business, in a more sustainable way than an educational nonprofit like Khan Academy ever could. Once young López takes a few language lessons on the app, he and perhaps 30 other Duolingo users hone their skills by translating some text on a Wikipedia-style editing page.

With the sheer volume of ad-supported and "freemium" services out there, I'm interested to see how this far more creative crowdsourcing approach will perform. In the meantine, I admire what von Ahn and his team have brought to market in Duolingo- both the learning tool and the funding model. These are interesting times.