Can’t Take the TOEFL? Duolingo Might Offer an Alternative | Top Universities

Can’t Take the TOEFL? Duolingo Might Offer an Alternative

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Niamh Ollerton

Updated Mar 07, 2021



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The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we live, work and study for the foreseeable future, with universities moving classes online and many services closing their buildings.

Test centers around the world have been affected by these closures, leaving students with nowhere to study the TOEFL, IELTS or other English language proficiency tests. So where does that leave university hopefuls?

A number of US and UK institutions are now accepting the Duolingo English Test (DET) as stand-alone proof or as a supplement to other English-language proficiency measures – with close to 1,000 universities across the globe welcoming DET results.

TopUniversities spoke with Jeff Tousignant, head of marketing for the Duolingo English Test, about the future of the online exam.

Advantages of using Duolingo

In a digital and virtual world, technology is involved in everything we do – making our lives more accessible, affordable, and convenient. However, Tousignant says traditional English testing hasn’t evolved at the same pace.

He said: “To certify your English, you need to make an appointment well in advance, pay hundreds of dollars, travel – sometimes long distances – to the test center, take a stressful test, and wait weeks for your results.

“In a world where technology is changing the way we do everything, the Duolingo English Test is the future of testing: convenient, fast, and affordable while remaining secure and accurate.”

The benefits of remote learning are unprecedented, and the positives associated with the Duolingo English Test – it being online, on demand, and able to be taken from the comfort of your home – means certifying English is easier all round.

Tousignant said: “For some students, it lowers a critical barrier in the application process. Certain parts of the world are not well served by traditional testing options in terms of test dates and locations of test centers.

“This was the experience of Duolingo’s Founder and CEO, Luis von Ahn, who had to fly to another country to take an English test when he was applying to undergraduate programs in the US.”

Due to this experience von Ahn recognized Duolingo was uniquely qualified to offer an alternative. Tousignant said: “We hear similar stories from students around the world who do not have access to a testing center or can’t afford to travel to one. More recently, due to Covid-19, students have no option to take their exams due to test centers closing.”

Diverse and talented global cohorts are what universities look for to enhance the learning experience, and Duolingo’s test has clear benefits for admissions staff reviewing applications. Tousignant told us: “The DET helps them reach more students by making an important part of the application process more accessible. 

“It also helps them make faster and more informed admissions decisions by reviewing a proficiency score, video interview, and writing sample within two days.”

Schools accepting the DET

Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, Duolingo saw an increasing rate of acceptance from colleges and universities around the world including Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, Northeastern University, Yale University, University College London (UCL), SOAS University of London, and many more.

Tousignant said: “More and more schools recognized the need for an improved English proficiency test, and this was affirmed by the widespread test cancellations caused by COVID-19.”

Although Duolingo’s efforts have largely focused on acceptance onto undergraduate programs, the company also supports business schools that can benefit from the DET.

Some of note include NYU Stern School of Business, Cornell University's Johnson School of Management, University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's College of Business.

Looking ahead

Duolingo notes its use of high-end tech to constantly develop the test-taking quality and experience. Tousignant said: “We’re constantly working to use technology to improve language learning and language testing, and there is a lot of room to grow in that space.

“We believe that everyone deserves access to high-quality education, and that AI can help us do it at scale. We’re proud to serve as a model for how technology can be used to make education and testing more accessible and affordable.”

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