ACT Bets Big on Analytics, Adaptive Learning With $7.5M Investment in...


ACT Bets Big on Analytics, Adaptive Learning With $7.5M Investment in Smart Sparrow

By Tina Nazerian     Feb 5, 2018

ACT Bets Big on Analytics, Adaptive Learning With $7.5M Investment in Smart Sparrow

When most people hear the letters ACT, they likely think of the test that helps determine which colleges they get into. But the organization’s chief executive, Marten Roorda, wants to provide more than a score.

In recent years, the nonprofit has invested in several education technology efforts around learning analytics and adaptive learning. Its latest: a $7.5 million investment in Smart Sparrow, a company that offers a platform used by many higher-ed faculty members and instructors to develop online, adaptive courses and simulations.

Roorda wants the ACT to become more involved in the learning process, and provide more analytics solutions to teachers and students. Among the nonprofit’s goals are to eliminate the paper test and go fully digital in the next 3 to 5 years. Roorda thinks that’s important as part of his goal to make the ACT’s learning solutions fully adaptive.

In addition, Roorda points out that the ACT is in the workforce development realm, offering assessments and skill profiles for employers. That’s also an area where Smart Sparrow has users, including Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand, and The Australia and New Zealand Banking Group. As for whether the ACT will tap into Smart Sparrow's expertise for its workforce development, an ACT spokesperson tells EdSurge he hasn't heard that discussed specifically, but it could "always be a possibility in the future."

Roorda plans for the two organizations to share their existing research in adaptive technologies to create more effective online educational tools. “If we combine those forces, especially in doing very foundational research around creating learning pathways automatically, this will require very advanced statistics and machine learning techniques,” Roorda says.

Smart Sparrow, headquartered in Australia and San Francisco, traces its origins to the University of New South Wales, where its founder and CEO Dror Ben-Naim conducted research for the school’s Adaptive eLearning Research Group. The company claims its course development platform has been used by more than 10,000 faculty members across the globe to create over 20,000 digital simulations, lessons and interactive courses. The company has raised more than $23.5 million in venture capital to date.

Ben-Naim says his company was “very pleasantly surprised” when the ACT’s corporate development team approached them about making an investment. From his perspective, Smart Sparrow and ACT both have a mission of bringing in a new era of digital learning experiences that are intelligent, engaging and blend assessment and learning. He says the ACT is a traditional assessment company, and claims a lot of organizations nowadays are beginning to realize the future of assessment is a “much more authentic blend of learning assessment.”

“It is our intention to come up with a few projects and products with ACT that will shift their strategic direction in the next two to five years, in terms of the types of products and systems they want to roll out with us,” adds Ben-Naim. He did not share specific details about what’s in the works.

On Smart Sparrow’s side, this partnership with the ACT offers the company an opportunity to continue its expansion into the U.S. market, where it has been used at institutions including Arizona State University and the Northeast Resiliency Consortium. Smart Sparrow CEO Dror Ben-Naim says the company will stay focused on its core markets in the United States and Australia.

For the ACT, this deal is just the latest in a recent string of investments in education technology groups. Last August, it invested $10.5 million in New Markets Venture Partners, an investment firm that focuses on education companies. And in May 2016, it acquired OpenEd, a free search and recommendation engine for open education resources.

The ACT is not the only test-maker tapping education technology startups for help, though. The College Board, which administers the other standardized test, the SAT, partnered with Khan Academy in 2016 to offer free test-prep materials.

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