Fostering Ed-Tech Growth From Within and Without

By David Lariviere

To evolve successfully to meet the growing educational needs of today’s and future classrooms, which often revolve around emerging technologies, Educational Testing Service (ETS) recognizes that changes have to come from within and be spread without. Standing still can’t be an option.

Since 2017, ETS has embarked on a new initiative — externally through the creation of a portfolio of artificial intelligence technologies and internally by creating a corporate crowd-sourcing atmosphere in which new ideas can flourish. The AI Portfolio consists of tools that ETS has developed over many years whose applications can be used by other companies either on their own or as integrations into other technology.

The way in which we’re going to be successful is by being more connected with the broader environment. But the environment changes rapidly and we need to change with the environment.

~ David Williamson, Vice President of New Product Development

At the head of this massive undertaking is Vice President of New Product Development David Williamson, a 22-year veteran of ETS. “If we are going to continue to fulfill our mission, we are going to need new ways of doing it because the world is changing around us,” says Williamson. “The way in which we’re going to be successful is by being more connected with the broader environment. But the environment changes rapidly and we need to change with the environment.”

To do that effectively, in his view, ETS has to listen more to what the market is telling it. “We are moving to identify organizations that have complementary skill sets, and work with them on product opportunities to co-develop or build around ETS assets,” explains Williamson.

The external outreach has been “a huge success right out of the gate” and could lead to new innovations being developed. “We meet with these companies and say to them, ‘Here’s the kind of assets we can bring to the table.’ Maybe there are products we can develop together or we may have assets that we can incorporate into your products,” adds Williamson.

ETS has already secured financial agreements with Chinese educational companies New Oriental and TAL for deploying assets such as automated scoring systems, question banks and other test preparation materials, and speech recognition and speech scoring products for students trying to improve their English-language education.

Not surprisingly, many organizations are taken aback by what they learn about ETS. “They had no idea we had these assets. It’s totally new to them,” says Williamson. “They think of us as test providers for the SAT and GRE, but they don’t realize we have cutting-edge things like AI-based assessment technologies available.”

Looking ahead, Williamson wants to expand to other countries beyond China and focus more on U.S. companies as well in building new relationships that will enable ETS to contribute to improving the quality of education and creating equitable educational opportunities.

But, while the external efforts are showing promise, it’s the internal activity that might bear the most fruit in the end. The concept is Greenhousing, a program through which ETS employees submit their proposals for new products aimed at tackling particular challenges in education. Greenhousing is essentially a giant suggestion box for ideas, but instead of just dropping the idea into a box, you get to engage with ETS colleagues about the idea and move to develop it further, seeing how far you can push the concept. “The two ways that something like this can fail is a lack of participation and that nothing ever comes through the funnel, and, so far, neither of those has happened,” Williamson explains. In two years, almost 100 concepts have been suggested, with about half going through the forum process and receiving feedback from tech, marketing and research. Several have gotten multiple rounds of early-stage concept development funding.

During each stage, if an idea shows potential, resources are added. At this point, ideas are attracting serious consideration and four have ongoing funding. “It’s possible that one of those will be the next big thing in education,” says Williamson. “We’re pleased with the organizational engagement because we’re depending on people to decide to do this in their free time and that’s a big lift.”

It’s also a way to mine a large company’s best resource — its employees. “There’s the pride and self-satisfaction of doing something that’s important, to identify who has the talent for it, and a way of nurturing people who have the inclination,” observes Williamson.

Listening and partnering more in the market and cultivating ideas from within is a bit of a new road for ETS to travel down. And nobody knows that better than Williamson. “ETS culture has traditionally been stacked against it, which is part of why I’m trying to do it,” he says. “Sometimes we’ve had a bit of an isolationist attitude. Sometimes what the market needs is different than what we think is best. Now we don’t want to abandon our commitment to quality and research, but we have to develop some effective mechanisms to incorporate users and not impose on people.”

If the last 20 months is any indication, ETS is headed in the right direction.