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Pieter Vermeulen, Director of Int’l Recruitment, University of North Texas

For decades, tests like the TOEFL and IELTS had the corner on the international student market. But Duolingo has edged in on their domain, offering an online exam that is a fraction of the cost and can be taken anywhere, at any time. Pieter Vermeulen, director of international recruitment at the University of North Texas, spoke with The PIE about alternatives to the traditional English language proficiency exams.


"We’re still using very much our old metrics, but we’re just delivering it in a new format"

The PIE: The Duolingo model is a fascinating one. What are your thoughts on its potential to improve access to higher education for greater numbers of international students wishing to study in English-speaking countries?

Pieter Vermeulen: I believe this will be a significant disruptor in the English language testing market, but a disruptor in the positive sense – this will become the new way that many institutions improve the means by which they test for English language proficiency.

The PIE: Approximately 600 colleges and universities in the US accept Duolingo exam results, including UNT. Have you encountered any resistance to the Duolingo English Test, at UNT or beyond?

PV: There are always different parties on campus who will look at this in different ways, right? I’m seeing some resistance from the traditional English language learning institutes (we have one ourselves) who are used to a very different model of testing.

“About 220 [students] roughly have taken the Duolingo exam”

But one aspect of Duolingo that has always reassured me since its introduction to the market is that every test question is pegged to the common European framework of measuring language proficiency. So that means we’re not throwing out the kid with the bathwater. In other words, we’re still very much using our old metrics, but we’re just delivering it in a new format.

The PIE: How many international students are at UNT?

PV: We’re a very large public university with 39,000 students. We have, at the moment, 2,525 international students. So far about 220, roughly, have taken the Duolingo exam.

The PIE: And which countries are those Duolingo UNT students from?

PV: We’re in the process of introducing our recruiting partners to the Duolingo exam, so there’s an awareness phase. The two markets at the moment that have been at the forefront are China and India.

“In China, the DET makes particular sense”

In China, the DET makes particular sense because the Chinese academic year is aligned with the lunar calendar. That means that the end of their academic cycle goes past the traditional TOEFL test dates. The Duolingo exam, then, offers them a window to show us their language proficiency.

India, because of our large engineering school, is another market where we are naturally very active. We are also active in South Korea and Vietnam, and again, in those two markets, we’ve been introducing our partners to the test.

The PIE: Do you think that Duolingo will open up opportunities for students from countries and regions where there is less access to TOEFL or IELTS test-taking centres?

PV: Yes, I think this will very much democratise the process of demonstrating your English language proficiency. Because it is an online test, access is hugely improved, especially in countries where the geography is so vast that it is an impediment to students being able to get to the test centres.

Africa is one example of that wide geography in combination with traditional test centres being centred in one or two major cities. So yes, I think it will help us push into secondary regions and cities.

“We have, at the moment, 2,525 international students”

The PIE: So far, have you seen any difference between how your international students who took the Duolingo exam are performing compared to the others?

PV: A handful of students who took this test enrolled at UNT in September [2019] and have just completed their first semester of course work. As these students progress in their studies, UNT will track their academic performance compared to other international students from similar feeder schools abroad, who have taken traditional English proficiency tests like IELTS or TOEFL.

While no multi-year, large sample longitudinal studies are available yet, early case evidence suggests that the DET and its Artificial Intelligence-driven Adaptive Testing Methodology will likely prove a reliable alternative indicator to traditional English tests.

The PIE: What can AI do for the future of higher ed?

PV: No one knows yet, right? Artificial intelligence itself is so rapidly developing, as is machine learning and everything that makes it possible. But the example of Duolingo in the English language testing realm is a good litmus test for how disruptive and quick change can be.

So we can imagine that a number of other processes involved in bringing students on campus, more in the realm of general admissions, might also be similarly impacted.

“Because it is an online test, access is hugely improved”

General admissions tend to be a very document-driven process, where students have to send in transcripts, tests scores, and financial documents.

A machine can review many of those documents much better than a human, much more accurately. So if you see how quickly those kinds of machine learning technologies are changing you have to expect that there will be room for AI to significantly impact our admissions processes on campus as well.

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