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Mind and Machine

Duolingo's New Flashcard App, Tinycards, Says A Lot About Our Obsessions

The language-learning company's new app lets users teach and learn anything from biology to Pokémon. A look at the most popular topics.

Duolingo's New Flashcard App, Tinycards, Says A Lot About Our Obsessions

[Photo: Flickr user City of Boston Archives]

Since Duolingo launched in 2012, the language-learning company's eponymous app has become a favorite, winning over 150 million users who enjoy its cheery animations and gamelike mechanics, as well as the ability to compete with friends. But they wanted more. "We saw that there has been . . . a consistency of demand for flashcards," says Zan Gilani, a marketing associate at Duolingo. The company obliged with Tinycards, an app that applies the company's philosophy of presenting material in multiple ways to reinforce it—as well as rewarding users with smiley faces and praise when they get something right.

Tinycards doesn't begin and end with language flashcards, though. The app (currently available for iOS devices in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia) is constantly adding new digital "decks" on topics ranging from science to history to geography. Tinycards also lets users make their own shareable decks on any topic they want. More than 10,000 have been created since the new app launched on July 19. Nine thousand people have favorited the user-created deck "Flags of the World." Reflecting the Zeitgeist, 8,000 have favorited "Who's that Pokémon?" and 6,000 favorited "Pokémon Names."

Flashcards have been around forever on paper, and flashcard apps are plentiful. A quick search on the iOS Store returns dozens of apps that have at least a flashcard component. Most of them are for language, which is popular with Tinycards users. (They can link Tinycards to their Duolingo account, so that progress they have made in the language app unlocks corresponding levels in Tinycards decks.)

Screens from the periodic table deck show how Tinycards reinforces concepts, asking users to type in the word "lithium" (at left) and double-checking that they know beryllium.

The unlimited range of topics, to which anyone can add whatever they please, is what makes Tinycards so addictive. There are other pop-culture themes among the top user decks, such as Marvel and DC Comics heroes. But many popular decks focus on academic and sometimes esoteric topics: dog breeds, art history, writing Arabic, and even Morse code (that one has 5,000 favorites). Tinycards fans are "people who want to learn something interesting every day or every few days," Gilani says. "If you look at the things that have been popular, like flags of the world and Pokémon, nobody is learning these [to prepare] for a quiz."

Most successful, though, have been the decks that two of Duolingo's professional designers create, including Countries of Europe (30,000 favorites) and the Human Skeleton (26,000). Gilani says that the company researches what topics people look for online and also picks topics for students, like the periodic table and the U.S. Bill of Rights. People are searching for "a lot of anatomy and medical stuff," he says.

Choices presented for the manubrium bone. (It's the one on the left.)

Cute illustrations certainly don't hurt Duolingo's appeal. The cartoony skeleton, for instance, with different bones highlighted on each card, is pretty adorable. But Tinycards also makes it relatively easy to produce decent-looking decks, like one I made on Roman architecture. The app's connection to the search engine Bing brought up a selection of serviceable images for such entries as the Palace of Diocletian. Duolingo says that the searches will be filtered to avoid copyrighted materials, pulling from such sources as Creative Commons, although they are still ironing out a few details.

To fill out text fields on the back of the virtual card (where, say, the name of the building and its location in Split, Croatia, would be listed), it's a simple matter of tapping and typing. Or sometimes not so simple: Thanks to my clumsy thumbs, I had to retype quite a few entries. I also had to pull out my laptop to research certain topics. (The Pantheon was completed in 126 AD, by the way.)

There will eventually be a web interface for designing Tinycards. "It will make card creation infinitely easier," says Gilani, though he can't say when that will happen—nor when the much-requested Android version of the app will come out. And while Duolingo says it's focused on the English-speaking market for now, once Tinycards becomes available in other countries, the number of decks should grow even more.

Selections in my Roman architecture deck.

One high school Latin teacher has created 78 decks for students, and users have made 99 decks that reach the mandated limit of 150 cards per deck. Some of those Latin decks are taken from textbooks, which could present copyright problems. Following our phone conversation, Gilani emailed me Duolingo's official response on the issue: "'[We] comply with reports of copyrighted content from the content owners and take down infringing content."

Still, having users that go a little overboard is an enviable problem for an app maker. Tinycards feeds another urge beyond learning—and that's teaching. People are proud to show off what they know—in Wikipedia entries and YouTube how-to videos and across all social media. With the game aspects that let people compete against friends, Duolingo's original app made language learning social. By letting people be both learners and teachers, Tinycards has done something similar for all fields of knowledge.

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