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A New Dimension in Digital Learning

ACTNext, ACT’s innovation research arm, is introducing a new dimension in personalized learning and educational support with Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based voice service available on more than 100 million devices.

Alina von Davier, ACT senior vice president and head of ACTNext, Suzana Delanghe, ACT chief commercial officer, and Steve Polyak, ACTNext senior director of Research Innovation Development, explain how this pioneering approach to engaging learners through voice technology can deliver information to a new generation of learners accustomed to the digital world and eager to explore new technology.


Why pursue this new digital approach to advance learning?


Alina: At ACTNext, we focus on mission-driven innovations. Everything we do ties back to helping people achieve education and workplace success.

To be perfectly honest, it would be considerably easier to work on projects supporting the current state of personalized and adaptive learning, but that’s not what gets us out of bed in the morning. ACTNext is working toward a sea change, toward what lies over the horizon, not just the next generation.

That’s true through our work on pilot studies that explore personalization and adaptivity in a truly mobile experience, like the Companion prototype, or developing capabilities like the Recommendation and Diagnostics (RAD) API that continuously tracks evidence of learning, diagnoses skill mastery and generates ACT Academy’s personalized recommendations.

Our Amazon Alexa skill provides ACTNext with an opportunity to explore how it can best help students through a voice-enabled system that is now available on 100 million devices.

What can students expect from the ACT Assistant on Alexa?


Suzana: Our plans include bringing the ACT Assistant to life with test information and guidance to students in the native digital world they are familiar with and comfortable using. Students will be able to rely on the system as a virtual coach for learning and personal assistant to help them navigate the test process.

We will provide test preparation through the free ACT Academy, which offers practice tests and personalized recommendations to improve learning.

Students can use their Alexa-enabled device to ask the ACT Assistant what the ACT test measures, when and where they may take the test, and how much it costs. Alexa can conversationally remind students about the registration deadline for an upcoming test date, when to upload their photo, and what to bring on test day. It can even provide test-taking tips.

What was the most interesting part about developing a skill on the voice platform?


Steve: In the same way that web and mobile evolved over time, voice-based interactions between people and products/services are emerging as the next frontier that consumers will demand from businesses.

These interactions can arise seamlessly in conversations without the need to open a laptop or an app. A simple, “Alexa, ask ACT…” can trigger a smart speaker in the home and draws ACT into a casual conversation between family members.

Anticipating all of the possible questions can be challenging, for example: “ask ACT when the next test will be,” “ask ACT how much does it cost to take it,” or “ask ACT when we will be able to get the scores.”

In addition to providing complete replies, we have been focusing on natural conversation flows. For example, if asked about “why one should take the ACT?” it might make sense to ask if they would be interested in learning more about when and where they could take the test, after they have learned why they should.

Designing for voice is very different from web or mobile. Voice users expect the skill to be intelligent and efficient. This can mean dynamically detecting context switches in conversations and remembering important details that were already established (e.g. preferred test dates, what grade a student is in, etc.).

We are excited about the work we have done so far to apply the voice-based design to test preparation coaching as well. This creates a conversational agent/voice for the ACT RAD software interface. A simple “ask ACT what I should review today” results in a brief, targeted summary of progress along with advice on an area to review. Smart speakers with integrated screens also help to enhance the interaction and allow learners to directly access and review recommended resources.

When will the ACT Assistant be available on Alexa?


Alina: We anticipate a full roll-out later this year.

Meanwhile, we are providing demonstrations at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) 2019 Conference & Expo in Philadelphia on June 23-26 and at the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) in Boston on June 28-July 2. If you’re attending one or both of these conferences, come see us at booth 963 (ISTE) and/or 1100 (ASCA).

If you’re not attending these conferences, don’t worry. You can still get a sneak peek by signing up to be on the Beta Test Team. Experience the power of ACT Academy and Amazon Alexa to help students maximize study time and boost learning. Learn more and sign up here.

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About ACTNext

ACTNext is the change agent for ACT using research and technology expertise that extends ACT’s assessment experience to transform life-long learning for all. We innovate using AI-algorithms, data-based and theory-grounded methods, which allows ACT to realize the next generation of learning, measurement, and navigation products. We deliver customized, best in class systems for personalized feedback built on analysis of an individual’s skills, behavior, and means of knowledge acquisition. Most importantly, we recognize learning is a journey, and we aim to partner with learners on their unique pathways to success. Visit actnext.org to learn more.

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ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Grounded in 60 years of research, ACT is a trusted leader in college and career readiness solutions. Each year, ACT serves millions of students, job seekers, schools, government agencies and employers in the US and around the world with learning resources, assessments, research and credentials designed to help them succeed from elementary school through career.

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