Do You Speak Livemocha? An Interview with Clint Schmidt

Stefanie PankeBy Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

Livemocha is a social network service that supports language learning through audio-visual lessons and peer tutoring tools. Launched in September 2007, the platform has over 5 million registered members from over 200 countries. Lessons are provided for 36 different languages. While the standard lessons are freely accessible for registered users, the platform also offers “premium content” for a fee. Livemocha is more than just “Rosetta Stone on the Web.” A unique selling point of the educational Web community is its collaborative approach to language learning: Members of the Livemocha community do not only learn a foreign language, they also tutor other community members in their native language. Users are encouraged to form learning tandems and offer feedback on their partner’s speaking or writing exercises. The Livemocha platform supports this peer learning practice through comment features, voice recording and social awareness tools.

For ETC Journal, I interviewed Clint Schmidt, Livemocha’s Vice President of Marketing and Products. Clint has an impressive success record of developing marketing and product functions for a variety of high-growth Internet companies, including Half.com, eBay and ZoomIn.com, India’s leading photo sharing and printing site. Clint holds a BSE in Entrepreneurial Management from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Clint Schmidt

SP: When did you join Livemocha and what led to the decision to join this start-up?

CS: I joined Livemocha in March 2008 when the company was still in a very nascent stage. The reason I joined the company is the same reason Livemocha has far surpassed the other language learning startups that launched around the same time: Livemocha makes it easy for people to help one another. I’ve been a part of other successful peer-to-peer companies in the past, and I felt I could help Livemocha reach its tremendous potential.

SP: How many languages do you speak? Are you taking classes on Livemocha?

CS: I am an intermediate Spanish speaker, thanks to years of study and travel, and I’m progressing nicely in my Livemocha Arabic and German courses. I love the excitement of breaking through the communication barrier with people who speak other languages.

SP: As of 2009, Livemocha is no longer labeled “beta.” Now that its infancy is officially over, how has the Livemocha community evolved over time? What were important milestones?

CS: Every time we add another 1 million registered members to our community, we have a little celebration at our office. This month, Livemocha crossed the 5 million member mark so we dressed up our CEO in a chef hat and made him cook us pancakes for breakfast! We dropped the “beta” designation in 2009 because the Livemocha experience had become more polished, and we began to see incredible growth in our global community through word-of-mouth. Dropping the “beta” also meant setting higher expectations for ourselves in delivering a great site experience.

SP: What guides the instructional design of the Livemocha lessons? Can you characterize the concepts of e-learning and language acquisition most important to the platform’s success?

CS: Three very basic concepts work well on Livemocha. First, we know that the concept of language pairs is important. For example, if you are a Spanish native speaker who wants to learn Russian, it’s helpful to present new Russian words and phrases to you in Spanish. We use the inherent advantage and scale of the Internet to provide the long-tail of language pairs and content depth that are so important in attracting a global community.

Second, the speaking and writing submissions reviewed by native speakers on Livemocha are integrated into our courses so there is context for your social interactions. There is a well-defined objective for the learner and resulting instruction that is both relevant and helpful.

Third, we meet a lot of praise from our community for an intuitive learning experience that is engaging, interactive, and social. Learning a language requires persistence, and these critical attributes are often difficult for conventional teacher/classroom environments to provide or sustain.

SP: Describe how you design the course material for a new language! What people, tasks and tools are involved in the process?

CS: We have worked hard to unlock the power of our community, and it has been thrilling to see our members contribute high-quality translations of our lessons into 35 languages (and counting)! Further, they also provide millions of helpful learning tips that make each of our courses more comprehensive and valuable. Beyond the community, we have also had tremendous success in partnership with Pearson Education to create Livemocha Active English, a truly best-of-breed online course that we launched in October 2007 and already has customers in over 100 countries. Our dynamic growth has attracted the interest of several other world-class publishers to bring their content to our platform, but we will remain selective in forging partnerships that are well-suited for our vision and innovative approach to language learning.

SP: Are you aware of any classroom activities that involve Livemocha in the U.S. or internationally? What feedback do you receive from language teachers and students?

CS: We receive extensive feedback from teachers, university professors, and home-schoolers in our community who are using Livemocha as part of their curriculum. These members come from all over the world, and they are quite assertive in requesting new features to make managing groups of members easier and more efficient. We are eager to give our members what they want.

SP: Livemocha has recently raised an additional 8 Million USD in venture capital. Which new features can users expect in the following months? Do you have plans for partnerships with educational institutions to provide certification?

CS: Groups features are high on the list, as well as features that make the learning experience even more engaging, more helpful, and more “viral.” With regard to certification, I can’t say much about our plans here, except that it is a very big opportunity and we are very excited about our ability to innovate in this area.

SP: Most of the Livemocha content is free – that is, users have access to an impressive volume of 30 to 50 hours of learning material per language. Can you explain the Web site’s business model?

CS: The basic version of our courses is free, but we offer a number of premium features for which payment is required. For example, if you would like to download MP3s or PDFs of the words and phrases in your course, you must purchase the Plus version of the course. If you would like your speaking and writing exercises to be reviewed by a qualified tutor, payment is required. Further, our award-winning English course, Livemocha Active English, is a paid-only course launched in collaboration with Pearson Education that includes conversational videos, in-depth grammar and advanced levels that align with the Common European Framework. We plan to add even more paid features and courses in the months to come.

SP: So far, is Livemocha a success, conceptually and financially?

CS: We are pursuing a very ambitious goal: to change the way people learn a language, to make it more accessible, more affordable, more fun, and more effective. Globalization and immigration are making language learning more important than ever before, and many people in the world cannot afford the expense of costly traditional learning methods or do not possess the means to travel to a foreign country to learn through immersion. We strive to provide a superior alternative with Livemocha, using all of the exciting benefits and attributes that the Internet and global connectivity make available to us. It’s a big vision, a new business model, and we are very excited about our leadership position and the advantages it provides.

SP: When you look back and reflect upon your experience with Livemocha, what are the challenges of providing social networking for language learners? What are your personal lessons learned?

CS: First, people are basically good and will help one another if given the opportunity. They will correct grammar for a complete stranger on the other side of the globe. They will create flashcards to help others. They will provide cultural and pronunciation tips. They keep our learning community tidy by quickly flagging inappropriate behavior (which is now quite rare) so that we can remove it from the site. I think we have tapped into a fundamental need and basic human tendency to share knowledge, and each day it feels like we are bringing the world closer.

Second, it is clear that our dynamic, peer-driven learning community represents a disruptive threat to some traditional language learning alternatives which have captured huge profits over the years. It’s a bit puzzling for me to see people in the year 2010 spending hundreds of dollars on CD-ROMs that they hardly use and include no interaction with a native speaker. As Livemocha realizes its potential and fulfills its vision, the threat we pose will become more acute and direct. We have grown to over 5 million members in over 200 countries in less than 2.5 years, with very little advertising. I think that is an early sign of an irreversible trend.

One Response

  1. patrick on 16 March 2010 said:

    My experience with LiveMocha has been very disappointing so far. I’ve sent over 20 messages to other members requesting language exchange an have gotten only 1 reply in return. The speaking and writing exercises that you can put on the site to be corrected usually get no corrections or comments. So far there is no real sense of community.

    [Note: This comment was originally posted by Patrick in What’s the Buzz? Buzz]

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