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Duolingo Gets Crowdsourced Community Content Creation

Written by Molly Talbert | on March 2, 2016 at 11:00 AM

Duolingo gets crowdsourced community content creation

Crowdsourcing is a big topic these days. Kickstarter allows people to fund business ideas they believe in. Waze combines GPS navigation with real-time updates from other drivers. Volunteers created and continually update Wikipedia, the vast online encyclopedia. Dividing small amounts of work between many people has powerful effects that positively impact us all.

As the crowdsourcing movement shows us, everyone has the potential to affect change. The trick is finding simple, quick ways for people to lend a hand. All communities have this potential, but actually creating ways to harness this “cognitive surplus” can be difficult. How can you effectively help your community lend a hand in content creation for your organization?


About 100 million people currently use Duolingo, the free, game-like service to learn any of 23 languages. Most language learning software is expensive; with Duolingo, anyone with internet access can learn a new language at no cost and without ads. A fun design uses gamification and community connections to encourage users to login every day, even if it’s just for five minutes of word quizzes.

Even if you haven’t heard of the language learning software, chances are you’ve benefited from their crowdsourced translations -- as students learn a new language, they can translate content from Wikipedia, Buzzfeed and CNN through Duolingo Immersion. Not only does this help with the students’ learning -- they’re translating sentences that are actually used, not just made up for a textbook. It also brings in revenue for Duolingo, helping the service remain free and without ads.

How Duolingo utilizes their community

Duolingo benefits from their community in three big ways: the community points out errors in the app, it translates content (which funds the product) and it builds new language programs.

How does this work?

As a user goes through Duolingo to learn Dutch, Russian, Klingon or any other language, they translate words or phrases, which the software checks for accuracy and grades. A student get points based on how many they get right or wrong. But it’s not always perfect -- language evolves and meanings change across regions or dialects. If a student is sure they translated something correctly but is being told otherwise (and aren’t just annoyed they lost a point), they can mark the question. The Duolingo team looks at the questions with the most marks and modifies them if necessary.

The better you are at a language, the more complex challenges you need. That’s when students have the opportunity to help translate the web. Rather than being assigned a translation from a textbook, students translate real articles from Buzzfeed, CNN or Wikipedia. Although not all translations are perfect, if several people translate the same article, those aggregated translations are surprisingly accurate. Duolingo capitalizes on this in two ways: students have interesting material to translate, and Duolingo makes money to support its software.

Although Duolingo creates revenue from crowdsourced translations, it’s still a small team. It has thousands of users who wanted more languages, but how can such a small team create so many language courses? You guessed it: community.

As the demand for new courses grew, another demand came to its attention -- bilingual Duolingo users were coming to them, passionate about the mission and ready to contribute in some way. To meet both needs, they created Duolingo Incubator, where approved community members can collaborate to build a language course.

That’s how it generates so much content and are able to educate so many people for free.

How to create content out of your community?

You may have the same lofty plans as Duolingo, or they may be more grounded and practical, like finding a way for your community to generate short blog posts or other resources. You know it’s possible, but how do you actually engage your community in these efforts?

Duolingo’s Head of Community, Kristine Michelsen-Correa, laid out the three steps they took at CMX Summit:

1) Have a vision for the project you want to accomplish, and define goals

It’s not good enough to just say, “I want my community to generate content.” You need to know exactly what content you mean. Do you want one community-created blog post a week or month? Do you need help generating data for an ebook or study your team is producing?

The first step is to have a clear, strong vision for what exactly your needs are and what’s in the realm of possibility for your community. In creating a vision, ask yourself, can your community help you further your mission? Do your community members feel a personal connection to the project or your organization? What sort of value is your project providing?

Answering those questions will make your project compelling, catch the attention of community members and compel them to volunteer. Rather than paying people to do the work, volunteers will come to you, ready to contribute.

2) Find and manage volunteers (open small parts)

In designing and visioning your project, you want to make sure there are several levels for volunteering. Some people have a lot of time, while others don’t. Or, some people have a strong skill while others have plenty of enthusiasm, but not the exact expertise you need.

Create various opportunities for people, from the short and sweet to the more long-term or intense, incorporating various levels of expertise. At Duolingo, if you want to help create courses, you need to be fluent and pass an application process. If you’re not fluent, there are still opportunities to help moderate forums and do other tasks.

Remember to keep it fun and engaging for volunteers.Some tasks may require extra work and time; they signed up for the challenge. You should still acknowledge their help, have special events for them, and send swag or handwritten thank you notes explaining how helpful they are. It doesn’t need to be over the top, but a little goes a long way in making sure your volunteers are fulfilled.

3) Start small, learn, iterate and grow

You have the vision, you have the volunteers -- now it’s launch time. As with launching a new community, it’s important to start small and grow as you learn. If you open the floodgates, both you and your volunteers could get overwhelmed.

Start with a fraction of your goal -- say you eventually want to have two guest blog posts a week from your community. Start with one a week or one every other week. Hone your process, build the right tools and systems, and iron out the kinks before allowing everyone to submit a blog.

As you grow, find volunteers to help lead the effort -- this is another way to engage people who may not be strong writers or want to contribute a different way. One idea is to create a micro-site for your volunteers so they can collaborate and feel a greater sense of community with likeminded people.

It’s also important to track progress -- both the program’s as a whole, and individual volunteers. You need to know how the program is going, how valuable the content is and what you need to change for it to live up to its full potential. Volunteers (and you) need to know how they’re doing, if they can progress to another task and how influential their work is. This could be done with dashboards, tracking metrics or gamification -- give badges and other certificates to volunteers after they’ve passed certain metrics.

People power

It makes sense Duolingo would use a crowdsourcing model to take on enormous challenges, like offering free language learning for all, translating the web and creating curriculum with volunteers. Luis van Ahn, a Duolingo founder, is the man behind reCAPTCHA’s -- those boxes you fill in to prove you’re not a robot. He learned over 200 million people spend about 10 seconds completing a CAPTCHA every day and realized the potential. His idea: rather than filling out random letters and numbers, let these people digitize every single book in the world. Computers are bad at these tasks, but humans are excellent. Using the power of community to translate the internet and teach everyone a second language seem like big tasks? Yes, but it’s definitely possible.

So getting your community to help create awesome content? Also possible.

Learn how your community can generate revenue.

Topics: Online Community Management, Volunteer Management, Online Community

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