By: Saad M. Khan, Director of AI and Machine Learning, ACTNext

It had been a hard day traveling for work. As I tried to relieve my homesickness by scrolling through photos of my kids, I stumbled upon the iPhone ‘Memories’ feature.

With one button, I could create cute videos composed of nothing but automatically curated pictures and videos from my archive. A video of my 3-year-old over the years? No problem. “Saad’s Adventures in Hawaii” with Hollywood-style action-movie music? Easy as apple pie.

Browsing through these endlessly engaging (OK, mostly to myself) videos being created on the fly, I couldn’t help but think . . .

What if ACTNext–ACT’s innovation arm–could create educational content in such a manner? Is there a latent structure, a recipe, we could employ using existing educational videos and associated metadata to create engaging, precisely targeted learning content in real-time?

As a computer scientist, I knew it would be more technically challenging than the ‘Memories’ feature. Perhaps Google X, Amazon Lab126, or a similar R&D team could pull it off, but could we do it here, at ACTNext?

The answer is, “of course, yes!” And not simply because we must, but because it is in our DNA. You see, ACT was the first educational technology company, well before there was an EdTech.

It started with E.F. Lindquist’s patent for an optical scoring machine that enabled the radical scale up of the modern testing industry. Now, almost 60 years later, the time has come for ACT to lead EdTech once again. To help us get there, ACTNext is doing three important things:

#1 North Star Vision

First, we are helping identify a North Star – a tangible, achievable vision that acts as a guiding principle across the organization. At ACTNext, we believe in a transformation into a learning and measurement company. We envision a shift from the traditional testing company model, which primarily interfaces with students at a single point in time (e.g., college readiness tests in high school) to a company with an unbroken chain of products and services that starts in K-12 and extends into the workforce.

Realizing such a vision requires both ingenuity and the gritty work of building a technological infrastructure. This brings me to:

#2 Culture of Innovation      

Much has been said about innovation. Often companies claim to be “leaders in innovation” by showcasing their patents and papers. But innovation is not the same as invention.

An invention is usually a “thing,” while innovation is typically an evolutionary improvement of existing procedures, uses, or functions that uses inventions. The most powerful innovations include carefully crafted customer value propositions and business models, and are often a result of painstaking rounds of iteration and refinement (e.g., Apple did not invent the personal computer, but made significant innovations on Xerox PARC’s inventions).

The Educational Companion app is an excellent example of innovation at ACTNext. Powered by dynamic cognitive diagnostic models and machine learning algorithms, the app also leverages historical ACT test data to provide psychometrically sound, real-time feedback for students and parents to accelerate learning.

#3 Moonshot Projects

The final element of our strategy has been undertaking bold new initiatives and having a higher tolerance for failure. These projects, Moonshots, are high-risk/high-reward ideas that organizations lacking the deep technical expertise and data resources of ACTNext would be reluctant to take on, but we can.

ACTNext researchers are working on developing machine learning algorithms that can generate educational content such as reading passages and micro videos. Moreover, there is exciting progress being made in projects underway on topics as varied as real-time adaptive learning, social and emotional learning, and measuring collaborative problem solving skills, any of which could be the next game-changer.

This brings us back to ACT’s first moonshot, Lindquist’s optical scoring machine. It was the invention that ushered in the era of large-scale standardized testing and made ACT synonymous with educational assessment.

Sometimes a single brilliant idea with a small, dedicated and skilled team can change the world. Indeed, as Margret Mead once said, it is the only thing that ever has.