innovationQ&A: Ada Woo

Senior director of strategy implementation and operations and chief of staff – R&D and innovation, ACTNext by ACT Inc.

Iowa prides itself on providing a world-class education from the elementary to the university and college levels. In today’s world, technology is a huge part of that. Innovations in edtech are happening right in Iowa City, where ACT launched ACTNext a few years ago. As ACTNext’s senior director of strategy implementation and operations, Ada Woo serves as chief of staff for the R&D and innovation unit. She is responsible for the achievement of strategic initiatives and programs for ACTNext, as well as managing the unit’s day-to-day operations. Woo works with partners from the Iowa edtech community, as well as local and state government, to leverage ACT’s core capabilities in learning, measurement and navigation. In 2018, she was appointed to the Iowa Innovation Council. She holds a doctorate in quantitative psychology from the University of Texas at Arlington. Woo shared her observations on education, assessments and what is needed in innovation.

How do you define innovation?

Technology is starting to catch up to our imagination, and innovation is the change that improves people’s lives. Technological advances have amplified human power to develop things that we could scarcely imagine just a few decades ago. Many things that were previously not implementable are becoming real possibilities.

Innovators should consider how their work may impact people’s lives early in the innovation process. Technology is a tool, and we need to use it to fit our purposes and not the other way around. At ACT, we’re focused on mission-driven innovations. Everything that we do ties back to helping people achieve education and workplace success.

What was your first significant innovation, invention or process?

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by mechanical things and figuring out how they work. Instead of playing with my toys as I was supposed to, I would take them apart and see what was on the inside. To my parents’ credit, they never discouraged my unusual way of playing. Instead, they helped me put things back together and explained what each component does. Many broken toy ovens and wind-up animals later, I learned to look at everything as a system. For systems to work well, individual parts need to work together as a whole. And even the tiniest screws and springs have critical roles to play.

Now looking back, I can draw many parallels in what I did back then and my current role as chief of staff at ACTNext, a research and innovation unit established in 2016 by ACT. I develop processes that help our team of multidisciplinary and diverse researchers and professionals work together effectively, where everyone can shine and make valuable contributions to the team’s goals.

Most people associate ACT with the exam taken by high school students. What drew you to your current position or to the organization?

In the fall of 2016, I heard ACT CEO Marten Roorda’s keynote address at the Europe Association of Test Publishers conference in Lisbon, Portugal. Marten described his vision of learning and assessment that is holistic and adaptive. He talked about how technology such as artificial intelligence, automated content generation and adaptive learning platforms are changing the education experience. Leveraging its market-leading position in K-12 testing, ACT is expanding its core business to include a broader spectrum of education: learning, measurement and navigation.

I was so impressed and energized by the talk, I started following the work of ACT closely.

Around that time, Alina von Davier joined ACT to lead its new research and innovation unit called ACTNext. She quickly assembled a team of multidisciplinary world-class edtech researchers. When Alina asked me to be the chief of staff of the ACTNext team, it was a no-brainer. And moving to Iowa to take the job was just another perk.

What are trends in educational testing, nationally and more locally in Iowa?

Education technology is making great strides in helping students learn and enhancing the education experience. New technologies are enabling tools that provide adaptive and personalized learning, giving students access to engaging and interactive content tailored to their individual needs and interests. Students are able to learn from a plethora of subject areas and access courses that are not offered at their schools.

However, there is a digital divide between rural and urban students. In a recent research report published by ACT, rural students are almost twice as likely as nonrural students to say that their home internet access is unpredictable. Additionally, a higher percentage of rural students only have access to one device at home compared to their nonrural peers. These statistics are especially relevant to Iowa as just over one-third [1,096,099] of Iowa’s population resides outside of urbanized areas

ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning 2018 report, “The Digital Divide and Educational Equity: A Look at Students With Very Limited Access to Electronic Devices at Home,” highlights this problem. We are working actively to raise awareness. We hope this information helps policymakers and legislators to address the issue of the lack of access to digital devices and spotty internet service.

What are some of the ways an organization can cultivate a culture of innovation?

Building a diverse team is a key element for driving innovation culture. This makes intuitive sense, because people with diverse backgrounds working together to solve some problem or task often results in broader thinking, supported by multiple points of view. Research also backs up this idea.

In a recent study by the Boston Consulting Group, companies with management team members who were diverse in industry background, country of origin, career path and gender were more innovative than less diverse companies. This also translates to a company’s bottom line. In the same study, companies with the greatest proportion of women in management roles generated about one-third of their revenues from innovative products, whereas only one-quarter of the revenues came from innovative products in companies with the least gender diversity. Increasing the diversity in Iowa’s tech workforce just makes good business sense.

Diversity is one of the first things someone will notice about my colleagues at ACTNext. We are a group of 29 edtech professionals who came from all corners of the globe to work in an Iowa-based company. ACTNext is led by Alina von Davier, a world-renowned computational psychometric researcher from Romania. We also have team members from the Netherlands, Belgium, Russia, China, Vietnam, Israel, Singapore, India, Pakistan, Colombia and different regions of the U.S.

Women researchers and edtech professionals contribute in all levels of ACTNext.

As the group’s chief of staff, I see firsthand how our diversity makes us a stronger and more innovative team. Diversity is one of our strongest assets.

What is the state of Iowa’s biggest challenge when it comes to innovation?

Communication. We could be better at telling the story of innovation in Iowa. The economy in Iowa is great. We are known as a leader in agricultural technology, but the true potential for the presence and growth of the Silicon Prairie is not yet fully realized. 

My work with the Iowa Innovation Council, led by the Iowa Economic Development Authority, is dedicated to fulfilling the economic development potential of the various technology sectors. Iowa is a historic leader in education, and the IEDA has made edtech a crucial part of the council’s recent focus.

Area employers can do a better job of recruiting outside the state. Places like Silicon Valley in California have a strong reputation for innovation, but innovation can happen anywhere.

Before I came to Iowa, I didn’t know there was such a vibrant tech community in the state.

“Technology is a tool, and we need to use it to fit our purposes and not the other way around”

What are two or three of the most exciting areas that you are working on?

Sixty years ago, ACT was born out of innovations in both technology and assessment practices. Today we continue that tradition as we push education technology to new frontiers. We are expanding our offerings to include the learning, measurement and navigation aspects of the education experience.

We are excited to showcase some of our new products, including a piece of learning content recommendation software that is unlike any other on the market, the Recommendations and Diagnostics engine. RAD is an application programming interface that employs machine learning to offer personalized recommendations and resources by diagnosing a learner’s mastery of academic skills and assigning free learning resources automatically. We’re currently working on Version 2 of RAD to expand its capabilities and reach.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently selected ACT to develop a creative thinking assessment for the Programme for International Student Assessment to be implemented in 2021. We were selected to complete this test because we have some of the most innovative thinkers in the assessment industry.

What is the most pressing global challenge that innovation could meet?

It is a pressing global need to provide equitable access to education to people everywhere. According to a UNESCO Institute of Statistics report released in 2018, 1 in 5 children worldwide between the ages of 6 to 17 are not enrolled in school. This equates to 263 million children and young people. Just think about the untapped human potential we are leaving behind. What would we gain as a society if more people can get access to quality education?

I personally experienced the opportunities education can bring as a first-generation college student and an immigrant. Education attainment translates to major economic impact. In the U.S., data collected by the Social Security Administration show that men with college degrees earn about $900,000 more in their lifetime than high school graduates. Women with bachelor’s degrees earn $630,000 more.

At ACT, we are working to create adaptive learning platforms that would give each student a personalized learning experience. We are using machine learning and artificial intelligence to align, curate and harness the power of open education resources. Equity and access are in our company’s DNA. Using technology to improve the educational experience is just another step in our evolution as a company, and continuing our mission of helping people achieve education and workplace success.