From Testing Powerhouse to ‘Learning Company’

Buying a stake in Smart Sparrow, an emergent player in creating adaptive curricular content, ACT expands its footprint -- in a way fully consistent with its mission, its leaders say.

February 7, 2018

Quick -- describe ACT.

Testing company? No-brainer. Assessment provider? Sure.

Ed-tech company? Hmm.

Learning company? Uh-uh.

Think again. On Monday, the Iowa-based nonprofit best known for its high school exit examination announced that it would invest $7.5 million in Smart Sparrow, whose adaptive learning platform has won praise for its faculty-friendly approach to creating interactive digital courseware.

The investment is important for Smart Sparrow, which like many ed-tech start-ups will benefit from capital as it waits out the often slow adoption cycle for instructional technology in higher education.

"Of all the conversations we've had with potential partners, this is the most exciting by two orders of magnitude," said Dror Ben-Naim, CEO of Smart Sparrow. "We're connecting with a team that's dedicated to education, not as a strategic, monetary investment, but as a core mission."

But by far the most interesting aspect of the arrangement is what it says about the direction of ACT, which like many big organizations and companies these days is evolving in the digital era. ACT's leaders used various terms to describe what it is turning into -- including a "learning company," or, as ACT's CEO Marten Roorda put it on Twitter:

To those who know ACT mainly for its highly visible college entrance exam, it's hard to picture it as a vibrant ed-tech company. But in an era when practically every former book publisher is positioning itself as a technology company and many higher ed software makers call themselves learning companies, why should ACT be different?

And in fact the nonprofit organization has made significant investments in technology in recent years, externally and internally. In 2017, it invested $10.5 million in New Markets Venture Partners, a venture capital firm that invests in growing education companies.

ACT has also poured money into its internal research and development, Roorda said in an interview, and early this year it started an online learning program aimed at helping students prepare for its college exam (following on the heels of ACT rival College Board's partnership with Khan Academy). That followed its 2016 purchase of OpenEd, an openly accessible collection of K-12 homework assignments, games and other content.

Roorda acknowledged that ACT has historically focused on the "end" of various stages of the learning process -- the point at which educators (and students) want to try to measure how much learning has occurred. ACT does this not only at the end of high school, with its flagship exam, but at other points along the education and training continuum, with its WorkKeys exams and, more recently, the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency.

Moving beyond the narrow confines of testing makes sense for ACT, because being only an assessment company "would not create enough impact," Roorda said.

But the boundaries themselves are changing, too, with the explosion of interest (some substantive and some faddish) in personalized and adaptive learning, which almost by definition blurs the dividing line between learning and assessment.

Even though his company proffers a so-called adaptive learning platform, Ben-Naim of Smart Sparrow refers mockingly to the "noise" flowing from the "competition and hypermarketing around adaptive and schmadaptive" learning, in which companies like Knewton raised boatloads of money with grand promises that fell far short.

That hype aside, personalized learning does promise a shift in thinking, though, Ben-Naim said.

"We used to think of learning and assessment as two different ideas -- the content, representing the 'learning,' and 'assessment,' a type of examination," he said. "We then built institutions and arranged our society around that distinction."

The digitalization of the curriculum enables a situation, he said, in which "we continually learn and assess at the same time, and start blending the way in which educational services and assessment are provided. High-stakes exams become a thing of the past, and by blending learning and assessment, you enable a redesign of the whole educational experience."

Given its expertise in assessment, ACT is well positioned -- if not uniquely so -- to play an important role in a world in which learning is personalized by "including a continuous type of measurement into learning systems," Roorda said.

"We have a measurement-driven, completely reliable approach to proving efficacy," Roorda said, noting that ACT was drawn to Smart Sparrow in part because it, too, has grounded its work in research and conducted studies to try to prove its value.

Roorda said that ACT planned -- with its funding for Smart Sparrow and "what will likely be other acquisitions and investments" -- to play a more significant role in learning both in higher education and earlier in the education pipeline.

He said blending learning and assessment would make particular sense in the area of developmental education, with the goal of "making remediation going into college much more affordable."

Roorda said he was particularly excited about entering a market that -- unlike the assessment market where ACT has focused -- is "still very premature" and very much in need of "breakthroughs in terms of research and technology" to help prove that adaptive and personalized learning is more than hype.

A lot of what has happened in this realm so far has occurred "in a black box, where you lack the ability to provide evidence of efficacy," Roorda said. "Our position is completely different. We publish about all of our scientific research, and by pushing for efficacy standards … we hope to help create the maturity and research base that the market deserves, to make it trusted and valid."


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