Using Technology to Help Solve Problems of Practice

13 Jul

In CEP 812 this week we learned about three types of problems that all educators face in their practice. Well-structured, ill-structured (complex), and wicked (unsolvable) problems arise in educational practice every day and it is up to teachers, like myself, to be sufficiently equipped to face such problems. The primary focus was on the well-structured and ill-structured problems to be identified and addressed within the educational practice, all the while keeping technology in mind as a tool to help solve such problems. An ill-structured problem all educators face is that no two people learn alike (if all learners were alike, the problem would be considered well-structured and a single curriculum would be sufficient to solve the problem). Therefore, the challenge this week was to find a technological tool that could be used to help accommodate children with special learning needs. As a teacher of Spanish, I chose the ill-structured problem of foreign language acquisition and the existing difficulty therein of meeting each student’s developmental language needs. Though foreign language acquisition is not typically viewed as a problematic learning need, some students indeed struggle with acquiring a second language and I chose Duolingo as my technology tool to help equip me to face this ill-structured problem.

Before I could begin my attempt to resolve the issue of meeting all learners’ unique needs using Duolingo, I needed to identify possible problems children may face from the level content being taught. What I teach, not just how I teach, might be problematic for some types of learning styles. Basic vocabulary could be considered a well-structured problem because each word has a single specific meaning (dog = el perro) in both languages. Grammar, parts of speech, and anything needed to build meaningful communication in the target language would then be considered the ill-structured problems of which students would more likely have difficulty learning. Simply because a problem may be considered well-structured, does not imply that learners will not have difficulty solving it. Duolingo helps a foreign language teacher address these potential problems for learning foreign language content (vocabulary, grammar, etc.) by allowing students the autonomy of self-paced learning. An “ICT (information and communications technology) is a valuable tool and a resource for both the teacher and the learner, providing flexibility and versatility in how information is presented and used. It allows the learner to explore, to experiment and to evaluate, and provides opportunities for the teacher to be innovative in designing and delivering the curriculum” (Heaney, 2012, p.164). When a learner needs extra time on a concept, Duolingo automatically tracks progress and meets the learner at the learner’s current level of skill.

Duolingo incorporates writing into its language learning software and according to Marianne Nikolov and Jelena Mihaljevic Djigunovic (2011) “generally, all learners considered writing a difficult skill, and sometimes revised and proofread their drafts, translated, and used bilingual dictionaries. Differences between more and less successful writers were observed in the perception and use of metacognitive strategies: the former used more strategies and employed higher-level processing during writing” (p. 105). Therefore, no matter what the learner’s skill set is, or the speed at which the learner progresses, all learners are accommodated through Duolingo’s proficiency tracking.

A final benefit to Duolingo being a great tool for solving ill-structured and well-structured problems is its portability. In fact, according to a study on optimal second language learning conditions by L. Quentin Dixon, Jing Zhao, Jee-Young Shin, Shuang Wu, Jung-Hsuan Su, Renata Burgess-Brigham, Melike Unal Gezer and Catherine Snow (2012) and strong home literacy practices enhancing student learning, teachers “can encourage home literacy practices by sending home books and other literacy materials and prompting parents to read with their children in either L1 (first language) or L2 (second language) and to take their children to the library” (p. 39). In place of taking a Duolingo “book” home to read with parents, students would need only to log in to their Duolingo profile at home, the library, or a mobile device to share their foreign language learning experience with parents and family. Duolingo helps to solve a variety of problems of practice for the foreign language teacher and will definitely stretch me to become more creative in my teaching.


Dixon, L., Zhao, J., Shin, J., Wu, S., Su, J., Burgess-Brigham, R., . . . Snow, C. (2012). What We Know About Second Language Acquisition: A Synthesis From Four Perspectives. Review of Educational Research, 82(1), 5-60. doi:10.3102/0034654311433587
Heaney, L. (2012). Promoting language learning in the primary classroom and beyond: A case study. Gifted Education International, 28(2), 161-170. doi:10.1177/0261429411434987
Nikolov, M., & Djigunović, J. (2011). All Shades of Every Color: An Overview of Early Teaching and Learning of Foreign Languages. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 31(Mar), 95-119. doi:10.1017/S0267190511000183
WikimediaCommons. (2014). Duolingo French food skill tree. Wikipedia. Retrieved July 24, 2015, from
WikimediaCommons. (2015). Duolingo logo. Wikipedia. Retrieved July 24, 2015, from

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