This is an exciting time for education. Mobile, online communities, video and real-time communications have dramatically upended the old education models and introduced new and better ways to learn almost any subject.
One company shaking up the language learning space is Lingoland. The company delivers English conversation practice and lowers the social embarrassment from learning to speak a new language by bringing together learners and English-language tutors in an immersive 3D environment with quest-based objectives. The platform is World of Warcraft meets language learning, and this innovation is drawing attention from students in South Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere.
Lingoland uses Agora.io as the backbone for its real-time communications, so we caught up with Lingoland CEO Tony Diepenbrock to learn more about the company’s journey.
Tony Diepenbrock, founder of Lingoland
Q = Agora.io A = Tony Diepenbrock
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Lingoland?
A: It really originated from growing up playing a lot of video games, getting to know friends through roleplaying games and RPGs. That was really my childhood, and how I became comfortable making friends.
In language class, kids are notoriously shy. They might not feel that motivated to speak in a class, but when you put them in a video game where there’s an objective and there’s some sense of anonymity, they are more comfortable. That’s really the foundation for Lingoland: creating a safe, comfortable place where people can speak and they have objectives in a quest-style game format that help them learn a language.
Lingoland is centered around speaking instead of reading and writing because that’s what students struggle with the most. So we condensed it to its simplest version: you’re an avatar and your tutor is an avatar, and you can run around the city and learn about it. And we’re introducing more game elements over time.
Q: Did you come up with the idea right away, or did the service evolve over time?
A: We started a year and a half ago, and we were really interested in virtual reality. We started by doing a lot of demoing with headsets and with professors in the Bay area, and we started with French and Spanish because those were languages we were interested in. We did that for a few months, learned a lot about digital learning and roleplay-based learning.
That was a hectic time, but we learned a lot.
We actually moved away from virtual reality and the headsets, and built a really simple desktop application that was a very popular and completely free, live, Warcraft-type concept for desktop. And that was good, but unfortunately many of our users were in South America and the economies were very much struggling there. That was our second test.
Then we got mobile up and working about half a year ago. That’s when we really shifted our marketing to a model where users are paying after a free trial, and we really refined the target market to Korea and Taiwan.
Q: Why does immersive learning matter?
A: Anonymity is important.
Students are notoriously shy, and I’m one of those people. If you put me in a video game and I’m talking with someone who I have no idea what they look like, they don’t know what I look like, and no one else in the real world can hear me, it creates a safe space to learn.
That’s really important for us, and I think that’s really important for students in Asia who have been grinded to the stone for five years with books and reading and memorization and tests. It is a culture where a lot is based on just getting into college or passing the test, or not making mistakes. So we’re really trying to build something that is fun for people and reignites their curiosity about traveling and culture, and much more on the things you wouldn’t find on a test. That’s our main objective right now.
I’d almost say that the system is probably not the most efficient system for memorizing vocab or grammar, but we’re making it fun! You can go find the textbooks, you can buy the flashcards somewhere else—and that’s fine. The most important thing is getting people comfortable speaking because that’s the real challenge.
That’s the piece of the puzzle I think that no one has really mastered because you have in-person learning where people are shy, and you have even Skype English which is still video. So it is still awkward. And you have phone English, which lacks the context.
Context is the piece of the puzzle we have. When you’re in the game, you are anonymous but you also have something to talk about. And that makes it a lot less awkward. I’m your waiter, and I’m going to serve you food. When you walk into a McDonald’s in America, it is not an awkward exchange because you have assumed roles and you both have a job. So that’s the last piece of the puzzle: that roleplaying element. Without the scene and the context, good luck! It is really hard.
Q: How is Lingoland using real-time communications, and what does that bring to your project?
We quickly realized, especially in Asia, that it is hard to make money off of content.
Also, most students in Asia already have a pretty good foundational understanding of English. They’re not starting from square zero, they’re going 15 miles per hour and they want to go 30. So live is what people wanted, so that’s when we started hiring tutors. And when we have tutors, it means real-time. We looked at speech recognition and all these other things, but it boiled down to the fact that people really just want to talk with other real people.
So we looked at various VoIP technologies, and we liked that Agora.io has strong Chinese footprint. That’s super important for us because obviously, looking forward, China is the biggest market. We needed a product that works well in China and in Korea and Taiwan, and Agora.io’s done a great job and they have great support. And with Agora, the latency is minimal. So you can log in and talk to the tutors in the game live.
Q: How important was Agora.io’s global network in your decision?
A: I think as a U.S.-based company looking to China for users, the country presents a lot of firewall challenges. Today it might work and tomorrow it might not. It might work in the Northern part of China but not the south. As a U.S. company, we’re at a huge disadvantage because the providers here know nothing about anything going on there. Agora offers a great product at a much lower price than their competitors. And we feel comfortable when they say it works in China, because they have a lot of experience in China and they’ve done a lot of work with servers there.
We get users in Turkey, we have paying users in Dubai. We get people from everywhere despite only marketing in Asia. So the fact that Agora is global is important. Because Agora works everywhere in the world, we can grow where we need.
Q: You also said that quality of experience and low latency is important for your service.
The lower the latency, the more back and forth there is in conversation. When you’re talking with someone and there is delay, it sucks.
But Agora.io does a great job. We immediately knew from day one that clear VoIP with low latency across international borders was important. We knew there was no way we would ever succeed without it, so Agora.io was a natural choice.
Q: How is service adoption coming along, where will the service be in the next few months?
A: Last week we did 400+ sessions that were full-tutoring sessions, so that’s great. We’re getting a lot of action and a lot of interest from users.
We charge anywhere from $5-$8 per hour for tutoring, but we also just launched an unlimited plan for $70/month. That’s probably the best price you’ll ever find in the industry, and the goal is to really bring as much access to as many people as possible.
This month we also launched multiplayer, because if there are two students and one tutor, your cost just decreased by half. The goal is to bring that down as much as possible.
Every month we launch a new city. Last month was San Francisco, this month is New York. Next month is London. So, we’re trying to pick all the popular English-speaking countries. We simplify the city into a few destinations—Times Square in New York, Fisherman’s Warf in San Francisco—and ensure that we’re covering cultural elements like how much to tip, how to order a taxi, understand tax when you’re buying something in a store. Simple, cultural things.