As Senior Director, Strategy Implementation and Operations at ACTNext by ACT, Ada Woo is passionate about higher education and creating opportunities for learners to access personalized educational experiences. A classically trained statistician and researcher, Ada believes that effectively applying artificial intelligence to assessments and educational tools is the way to fully democratize education.
Describe the path you took to where you are now.
I’ve always been a curious person — always wanted to know the “why” of everything, and see beyond where I am. When I was 16 years old, I decided it would be a good idea to pack up and move from Hong Kong, where I grew up, to Alabama on an exchange scholarship. I ended up finishing high school in the state and went to university. At the time I was really interested in psychology [and majored in that in undergrad]. All new psychology students know is clinical psychology, and I wanted to get into clinical. But as I learned more [and pursued a master’s in experimental psychology], I realized there are many ways to help people in addition to just being at their bedside. Then I got into research. And I got into psychometrics. That’s where I ended up getting my PhD in science of testing. I’ve been in the assessment industry ever since.
When I first got out of school I worked for a health care licensure exam. Pretty much all health care jobs are regulated, so you need to get a license in order to practice, and in most instances the license hinges on your ability to pass an exam. I worked on those tests for over a decade.
The opportunity at ACT came about a year and a half ago. I noticed that they had a new CEO and there were some exciting things happening. ACTNext started within ACT in 2016 as an edtech incubator, so I’d been following that. And I had known Alina von Davier, [a founder of the program and] our senior VP at ACTNext, for a while. She approached me last year and said, “Do you want to come work here?” And I said, “Of course!”
What is ACTNext?
I’ve learned a lot about ACT in the year I’ve been here. Before I got here, like many people, I only knew ACT for that one test — the ACT. Growing up, we know we have to take a test at the end of the 11th grade. You get one shot at one test and that determines what you’re going to do. It’s high stakes.
Nowadays, kids are learning in different ways. People don’t feel like the tests, in a summative way, are measuring what students are learning. [And that’s where ACTNext comes in.] Our CEO has this initiative to transition the company from a traditional assessment company to a measurement and learning company that utilizes technology to see if we can assess while you are learning in real time in a more authentic, engaging way. That, we believe, is a more valid way to measure what you know. After we figure out what you know and what you don’t know, maybe we can use that information to teach you something else in a more adaptive and personalized way. That’s how we’re trying to use technology.
Talk to us about your role as Senior Director of Strategy Implementation and Operations at ACTNext.
I am the chief of staff of this group. We have 30 people within ACTNext [— experts in fields ranging from psychometrics and learning sciences to software development, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and data visualization]. About half the team is based in Iowa City, and the other half is all over the world. We have a team in the greater New York City area, another team in Silicon Valley, three developers in St. Petersburg, Russia, and a couple researchers affiliated with the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands — so we’re all over the place! There was the need to have someone in Iowa City to coordinate with the different departments at ACT, as well as coordinate resources between the senior staff and the researchers, so that’s my job.
What are the benefits of being headquartered in eastern Iowa?
I think Iowa is a great place! We have a long history here because of Professor Lindquist and the University of Iowa, and I’m glad we stayed in Iowa. After I moved here from Chicago, I learned that Iowa is a very well educated state. It has one of the highest adult literacy rates in the United States. Last time I checked, it was like 40 percent of adults went to college or university, and that’s a pretty amazing thing, to have a workforce that’s that ready.
How has your education helped you get to where you are today?
In terms of content, I went the traditional route of going to school, getting a PhD, in an academic area that may be quite esoteric —- quantitative psychology. That taught me the science and the math part of it. I think, more importantly, going to school taught me how to think and how to solve problems. It gave me a structure for when I see a problem. Being a scientist, I have a way to see a problem that if I hadn’t had the training I might not be able to do the same.
You describe the users of ACT products as “learners” rather than “students.” Where did this change in verbiage come from?
I like to talk about our stakeholders and clients as learners because learning is a lifelong pursuit. We have testing products for learners as young as third grade, like Aspire; we also have the pre-ACT, the ACT, and WorkKeys, which tests workforce skills and credentialing. Learning spans the life spectrum. It shouldn’t just be something to get you into a university. To me, calling our stakeholders learners is more appropriate than just students, because we’re all learning.
How is ACT leveraging research and technology to make strategic decisions and improve learners’ success?
I can tell you a little bit about one of the prototypes we’re working on. Over at the lab, we have an adaptive learning platform [app] built on iOS and Android devices called Education Companion. It’s essentially a one-stop shop for content delivery as well as assessment in a holistic way.
We have different assessments in addition to the ACT, too. Tessera, for example, assesses social and emotional learning skills.
Just with the ACT, we test two million people per year. So we have really good reach. If we know all that stuff about learners through the millions who’ve taken our assessments, just imagine what can we do to use that information to help them learn better, and give them some feedback. We built this prototype, and then we link their performance on the assessments, quizzes, and pretests plus any data we know about them and recommend content in the areas that they need to learn more in a way that will help them.
OpenEd, based in Silicon Valley, is one of our most recent acquisitions. If you go on YouTube, you’ll see a lot of open education resource content and it’s free. What OpenEd did is use machine learning algorithms to read all of the transcripts of this content and line them up to different frameworks — for example, the common core, grade level, skill level, different content areas. They match up what a learner needs to know in certain areas and what video they should watch. After the video, we give the learner another quiz and see how much they’ve learned and what they still need to know, and then we will recommend another video and other content. We built that prototype and we want it to be an app that learners can carry in their pocket and access at any time in any place. It makes sure that education is personalized and adaptive and can come to you when you need it.
You’ve mentioned ACTNext has a designated lab area. What happens in that space?
We have an innovation space called the co-lab, which is a coworking space for the ACT community. Within that lab we have a space for researchers to run cognitive lab studies and focus groups. We have eye-tracking equipment that team members can borrow to do research on and see how learners are interacting with different stimuli or assessment. We have a virtual reality rig to see how we can incorporate VR into our adaptive learning products to make them more engaging. We have a bunch of different devices — iPads, Android tablets, phones, etc. — for our developers to try out prototypes on different platforms. It’s just a cool space that people want to hang out in and get work done.
How would you describe the evolution of the ACT?
The ACT has been around for 59 years. Professor Lindquist, a professor at University of Iowa at the time, wanted to offer an alternative to the SAT that is more suited to measure high school students’ knowledge and what they actually learn in school. He proposed that to the developer of the SAT at the time and they weren’t that interested, so Professor Lindquist took it back to Iowa City and opened his own business to make this test. ACT started as an industry disrupter, and now, in 2017, we administered two million tests, and 60 percent of graduating seniors took the ACT. ACT started as a disruptor, and we’re ready to do it again, incorporating technology and personalized and adaptive learning, and using our measurement knowledge and scientists to change the game of education.
What strategies does ACT have in place to ensure education and/or assessments are accessible to rural learners?
Technology is going to democratize education. Think back to your best teacher. My best teacher taught me the way I needed to be taught. I felt like the curriculum was geared toward me. When I needed to be challenged, they challenged me. When I needed them to slow down, they slowed down and let me learn. We can use technology to do the same thing and give every learner the best adaptive, personalized learning experience possible. I think if we use technology well, we can really democratize education regardless of if you’re in New York City or Chicago or a town of 200 in rural Iowa.
Part of ACT’s mission is acknowledging “all people of every country, creed, and socioeconomic level deserve a shot at success.” How does ACT enable success?
We let students who have certain needs take the test for free. We have “free and reduced lunch” criteria, so if someone needs the test and can’t pay for it, we generally help. We are pretty generous in that way.
A lot of learning products that we’re developing are also free. ACT Academy, which we released in April, is a free prep test specifically for students to prepare for the ACT. We understand that prep tests can be expensive, prep courses can be pricey, and not every student might have time to do that. So we put some old ACT test forms online, and we built it in such a way that students can take it anytime if they have a computer and internet access, and it’s completely free, and we give them real time feedback. It’s also adaptive, in that if you’re not doing well in a particular area we refer you to open education content. We’ll help you study and come back and take it again.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career?
The biggest risk has to be even before I had a career. Thinking back, a 16-year-old packing up and saying, I’m going from Hong Kong to Alabama, that was a huge risk. It ended up working out beautifully, and I’m glad I did it!
Have you had any mentors along your path?
Yes, absolutely! I’ve been extremely fortunate to have met many good people along the way that were willing to help me. I had really good teachers. My first statistics teacher in college thought I could be a statistician before I even knew what a statistic was, so he was really instrumental in helping me. My PhD advisor, Dr. Ira Bernstein [at the University of Texas – Arlington] was wonderful. He was the reason I became a psychometrician. I think that good teachers see what you can be before you even see it yourself.
You were recently appointed to the Innovation Council with Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) under the new EdTech workgroup. Can you tell us the purpose of the group and about your role on the council?
The Iowa Innovation Council is an advisory body to IEDA. The members are business leaders, academic researchers and government officials from all over the state with the purpose of advancing the technology sector in Iowa. The technology sector in Iowa is quite broad; we have heavy industry, we have biotech, we have all different sectors, and then this year IEDA decided to add an additional focus on edtech. With that initiative, they appointed two new members to the council for edtech. I am one, and Adam Keune at Higher Learning Technologies is the other. Adam and I were asked to co-chair a workgroup that is specific to exploring edtech opportunities. We will be working with a consultancy that is going to do the research, and work starts October 5, 2018.
What advice would you give young learners as they contemplate their future and perhaps pursuing a tech- or science-based role like yours?
I think my biggest piece of advice is to try. Don’t say no until you try it. If you were to ask my parents when I was young, they would not have told you that I was good at math — I was not good at math. I didn’t think of myself as a scientist. But if you don’t try, you don’t know. If you try, sometimes you surprise yourself.
From your perspective, what needs to happen to create more access for women in innovative leadership roles?
I think the women who are in innovative leadership roles need to be more cognizant in promoting themselves. Sometimes women don’t spend enough time talking about what they do and why it is important. I am a firm believer that if you don’t see someone who looks like you and sounds like you in a position you want to be in, you don’t know it’s possible to get there. Advocate for yourself — you’re not only doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for a lot of other people, too.
What changes do you hope to see for the future of technology in education?
AI, machine learning, and deep learning are all very exciting. You see things like the machine learning algorithm when you go on Amazon — based on your shopping history, you might want to buy this; or when you go on Netflix, you might want to watch this movie. How cool would it be if that capability could be expanded to education? If you read this or you learn this, maybe you’ll want to learn more about X, Y or Z. That personalized recommendation made possible by AI will be great for education too.
If you could go back and do something completely different career-wise, what would it be?
I think I have a very cool job! I am super grateful, so I wouldn’t want to do anything else. In fantasyland, my favorite singer of all time is Patsy Cline. If I had the talent, I would love to sing like her.
What are you passionate about outside of work?
I like to read and I like to go to shows. One of the best things that happened to me was, ten years ago, my ancient TV broke and I was too lazy to go buy a new one. You’d be amazed how that gets you out of the house. I love to see plays, theater and performing art. I saw Postmodern Jukebox at the Englert Theater [in Iowa City], and that was great. I’d love to explore more of the Engert Theater — it seems like a really cool place.
Do you have a go-to food item?
I like everything fried. Anything that is deep-fried and drowning in hot sauce — I will eat it!
Do you have a favorite TV show or movie?
I consume a lot of media. I read, and I watch YouTube and a lot of open education resources. TED Talks are great. TV is just one form of media, and now I can see that more and more of media is moving out of TV.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave?
For ACTNext, I want people to see that we’re a group of people who are really making a difference and trying to change education. It’s not only ACTNext, either; all of ACT is trying to change education and help learners learn better and make assessments better. I want that to be my work legacy.
On a more personal note, one thing I haven’t mentioned is that I’m a first generation college student. Being an immigrant from Hong Kong and coming from a family that no one went on to higher education, it was super unlikely that I would end up doing what I’m doing today. I want other people to see that if I can do it, maybe they can do it too.