Finding the next Einstein in Cambodia

“English-language tests – the first step of the overseas education journey – remain out of reach for many”

In education, we use the word “access” a lot. But not everyone understands it in the same way. My own definition is simple – anybody who would like to get an education can get one. That’s what access means.

Without access to education, the world is missing out on a lot. By lowering barriers, we might find the next Einstein in Cambodia, but without access those minds might be missed.

We should also be able to provide the brightest minds the education they need to thrive.

For students who can afford it, this might mean leaving home to study in a country like the UK. They may have no choice but to study abroad because, particularly in many poor countries, there just aren’t quality educational institutions at home, so they must go overseas to access the education they want and need.

Just think of all the world-changing innovations from immigrants who left to study outside their home country. More than half of the top American tech companies were founded by immigrants, or the children of immigrants.

Steve Jobs, Sergei Brin, Elon Musk, Jerry Yang and Pierre Omidyar – they or their parents were immigrants who moved to study abroad, seeking opportunity. I, too, belong in that group, having left my native Guatemala to study in the US, a step towards achieving my dreams.

The start of that overseas education journey is often an English-language test. English is the lingua franca of international education and many institutions, even in non-English speaking countries, require proof of English-language ability for international student admission to their programs.

Yet this first step remains out of reach for many, not because of their English language ability but because they can’t get to a physical testing center to take a standardized English test on paper.

I speak from experience. My own path to the US was almost blocked by an English test needed to apply to college from overseas. The number of seats at testing centers were so limited in Guatemala that I had to fly to El Salvador to take the test. I was fortunate that I had the means to do so, but many do not.

There are 82 countries with no secure English language test centres at all, comprising nearly half a billion people.

Online English-proficiency tests are the answer to this problem. Here’s how I’ve approached providing a solution.

I launched Duolingo in 2011 with the mission to develop the best education in the world and make it universally available. Since then, every decision we have made has been driven by our mission to ensure that everybody who wants to learn can do so.

Historically, Duolingo has been about learning languages. Right now, we’re the most popular way to learn languages in the world – in fact, more people in the US are learning languages on Duolingo than in the US public school system.

But our mission has always been bigger than just language learning. While we started with language learning, we aim to cover all areas of education, including a literacy app and an upcoming math app. In 2016, we developed the Duolingo English Test (DET), an online standardised English proficiency test, in response to demand from our English learners. It costs only $49, significantly cheaper than traditional English tests. Today, the DET is accepted by over 4,000 higher education programs globally.

Making online English-proficiency tests available to students globally will expand access to international education broadly, while helping to find the best and brightest.

Are there even any advantages to in-person testing, apart from the fact that this is what people are used to? We certainly know what the limitations are. The inadequacy of in-person testing was dramatically demonstrated during the Covid-19 pandemic when the closure of test centers caused havoc across the globe.

The disparity in opportunity and outcome between those with access to education and those without is one of the biggest problems facing our world. And despite the shifting jobs landscape, a university degree remains the holy grail for students, with graduates still making more money than their less-educated counterparts.

Because universities in the US and UK monopolise the top tier of global rankings, students want to study in those countries to set the best course for their professional lives. A good number return home after graduating and build great companies. Some of the most heavily-funded startup companies in Asia have founders who studied overseas.

Some may argue, countries like the UK and US are educating some of the smartest minds around, only to retain that talent. But that’s good for the world too. We want people to move around to share knowledge and ideas.

How else will we find the next Einstein?

About the author: Luis von Ahn is CEO and Co-Founder of Duolingo.