3 Ways Emmersion is Using AI to Democratize Language Assessment

One of our core Emmersion culture values is to be a Truth Seeker. In practice, truth seeking relates to our desire to be thorough and rigorous in the development of products that work. It also manifests itself in how we talk about why we do what we do.

One example of truth seeking occurred early this year when our leadership team realized that while we had a shared and well transmitted mission statement—closing the global communication gap—we weren’t nearly so precise in identifying a vision for how we would accomplish this aspiration.

After some admirable truth seeking, we found new clarity. We now say that at Emmersion we are closing the global communication gap through democratizing language assessment and learning with AI-powered products that help people gain access to better employment and education opportunities.

What does it mean to democratize?

Democratize is a great verb for a vision statement. It checks all the boxes. Aspirational? Yes. Substantive? Yep. Timeless? Sure. Uplifting and inspirational? Check and check. But to a Truth Seeker, words—even aspirational verbs—need to matter. They need to mean what they are supposed to mean and must be grounded in reality and practice. You cannot just say it; you need to be able to show that you can do it—that you are doing it.

Emmersion’s vision statement is bold in that it contains a reckoning. To democratize means to “bring a thing of value to every human.” You can’t bring something that is already present, that a person already has. Our vision statement acknowledges inequity. It speaks of barriers to access that need to be seen and discussed before they can be solved.

Shamefully, I will admit that the full weight of this realization seems fresh and new to me. There is regret in that. I know that for many in my profession and circle of practice, this is not news. I’m sorry that I’m slow. There is complacency in privilege.

Why is democratizing important?

This piece of value that Emmersion seeks to democratize is the opportunity to show how you can use your language ability to contribute towards important work. A person deserves to know where they stand. An organization needs the same insight in order to know if a person is well positioned for the work that needs to be done. Perhaps there are technology companies that forget or just don’t care that the bits and bytes of data that they shepherd, sculpt, and safeguard begin and end with a person. It’s all personal. It’s all human in origin and application. We haven’t forgotten; we care.

In light of the deep humanity of our work, we use sophisticated technology including artificial intelligence (AI) to get the jobs done. Our mission is big—it is global and we are small. Relative to our mission and the work there is to do, we will always be small.  

AI allows us to amplify our effort and impact. Inequity is in part the result of scarcity (and in some cases greed). AI enables us to create an abundance where before there was a lack. When it comes to language testing, you might say that you can’t even spell democrAtIze without “AI”. 

Again, you cannot just say it. You need to be able to show that you can do it—that you are doing it.  

3 ways Emmersion is using AI to democratize language assessment and learning

1. Access

We are not alone in recognizing that there is a problem with access in language testing and learning. Another company was founded in response to this problem. You may have heard of Duolingo. Its founder, Luis von Ahn—an English language-learner himself—recounted his experience needing to certify his language ability to be admitted to an American university. He had to fly from his home in Guatemala to another country to find a testing location. 

At the time, he was just doing what he needed to do with the resources he had. Years later, he recognized that absent these resources like so many from his country, his opportunities for educational and professional reach would have been very different. If you need a credential to get an opportunity but you cannot meet the expenses associated with getting the credential, you’re stuck. Millions of people are stuck.

AI addresses access in two directions. First, the cost. Not every language test publisher that has tapped into the cost savings of AI tools has in-turn made their tests affordable (you know who you are), but we have.

Second, when, where, and how a person can take an assessment is another challenge to democratization that technology can overcome. Our AI-powered assessment solutions are always on, accessible on the device that the common human carries in their back pocket. The implications for democratization that this presents can be illustrated well by a recent experience that I had. 

Unrelated directly to work, I traveled to Guatemala to help a nonprofit organization. One of the tasks of this particular trip was to persuade a contact center to allow the nonprofit to seed a satellite office in a rural community. They found a group that was open to the idea if there was sufficient language talent in the area. The nonprofit advertised and soon had 300 people that self-identified as having language ability and desire to work.

The contact center supplied a recruiting team that traveled out on a weekday for a job fair where they would screen applicants through their hiring process, which includes a lengthy face-to-face interview. After the full day of testing, 30 people had been assessed, with only a handful meeting an ability threshold to advance toward employment.

The recruiting team returned for another day a month later and had similar success. A dozen people are now working. It is wonderful. Everyone should be happy. They are happy. People in Guatemala are inspiringly happy. What would make it better?

Well, not to nitpick, but there are still 240 people who are waiting to be tested. Despite the best intentions of the talented and generous recruiting team, at this rate, it will take nearly a year to get through the prospect pool. If the success rate holds, there are nearly 50 people who could be working but instead are waiting. There are almost 200 who, though not ready yet, could know more clearly what they need to work on. 

If only there were an AI-powered alternative that could simultaneously test all 240 in the time it takes you to read this blog post. There is. (In case you are wondering, we are working on getting it to this group—stay tuned.) Democratization of language assessment and language learning won’t ensure that everyone is similarly skilled; however, it will ensure that sidelines are lean and permeable. 

2. Equity

Another bitter learning came from my trip to Guatemala as I met and trained teachers who would prepare students to demonstrate their English language ability in this screening interview. I considered myself well-credentialed for this task, and if I had walked straight into their classroom from the airport, I would have been blissfully well-prepared. 

The problem is that I spent three days in their community, literally in the lives and living rooms of their students, before the training. When I say “living room”, I do not mean the space with the TV and the sofa next to the kitchen and the formal dining room. I mean the room where they and their entire family do their living—all of it.

Imagine my horror the night before my training when there, on my preplanned list of tasks to elicit level-appropriate language, was “tell me about your favorite room in your house”—a question I have used more times than I can count. But don’t worry; that is okay because I could just move to “tell me about a time when you were on vacation and something unexpected happened.”

Yes, regale me with tales from one of your many sojourns. Okay, well “do you have any hobbies? Polo? Skiing? Golf? Tennis?” I might as well have just been planning to ask, “why are you here?” What could be said other than “because I haven’t had the experiences you’re going to ask me about when I apply for a job.”

Thankfully, I was not alone in the room. The teachers came prepared with great ideas for their classroom, and I got to do what I was well equipped to do: praise them for their excellent and inspiring work. However, it was a lesson well-learned, and it provided a new angle of appreciation for Emmersion’s TrueNorth Speaking Test that elicits speech performance through innovative listen-and-repeat tasks that are much more neutral to direct experience and thus provide a unique advantage toward a more democratized assessment.

Even when they come with the right tasks, human-powered, interview-style language assessments have a vulnerability. Yes, same source, but different smell—it is the human. If it does not let you down with its presentation of tasks, watch it fail you with its distracted analysis of the responses. Not to say humans cannot do the job, because trained-right, maintained-right, and attuned-right in the moment, they can. That is just three “rights” that can—and will—go wrong.

Traffic stops on the way to work. Skipped lunch because of the hiring crunch. Favorite soccer team loses the star player for tax evasion. What do all of these things have in common? They are a threat to reliability with a human-rated test that an AI-scored assessment does not have. 

3. Fit

Bringing something to the common man is different than bringing something to the common mannequin. Just as every body is different, everybody is different. You would not knit sweaters of the same size for your 5-, 11-, and 17-year-old grandchildren. AI demonstrates its intelligence not only through its consistency—but even more so with its ability to adapt and react. We leverage this AI-powered adaptivity across our product offerings. 

An adaptive test form is dynamic. With each item and the insight it reveals, the test adjusts and tightens the fit between the difficulty of the item presented and the person’s ability as it comes into focus. This results in an assessment that is more efficient, more reliable, and, frankly, more comfortable. You can learn even more about the need for adaptivity in our white paper Why Adaptive?.

As we were nearing the end of our development of our adaptive speaking test, we talked about making the adaptive version a premium product. It represented a significant investment of resources, expertise, and time that could more quickly be recovered through a dynamic pricing approach. However, charging more would ultimately mean that the benefits of the adaptive test would pool at the feet of the well-resourced instead of reaching the end of the row.

While we had not yet articulated this clarified vision, there was the foresight and displayed integrity that it is not who we are or what we are about. There is dignity and respect when things are made to fit. It is a privilege to work under a mandate that we do not hold back.

This vision of democratized opportunities for people around the world in order to close the global communication gap inspires me. Perhaps it inspired you to finish this lengthy exploration. Thank you. But before you leave, I would ask, “Would you like to help?”

Be a Truth Seeker with us!

Part of truth seeking is a readiness to admit that you do not know it all, and that you cannot do it alone. We are happy to share the satisfaction that comes from working towards solutions to big problems.

Do you have expertise in language teaching, testing or research? Let’s connect; I think you would find our current initiatives really interesting.

Do you have access to language-learners? Help us connect. One of the challenges when creating AI tools is not having an appropriately representative test pool to inform those solutions. We are constantly trying to add learners of diverse profiles to our research pool. Large groups or single individuals—each can make a difference.

Do you have an opportunity where you think our solutions could make a difference? We would love to have a conversation. Comment below!

The TrueNorth English Speaking Assessment was developed to modernize English language testing with patented artificial intelligence and machine learning. This technology allows for immediate results and scoring as opposed to all other language assessments that take 24 to 48 hours to grade. TrueNorth provides a convenient and immediate English testing solution that has been validated and calibrated to global testing standards and is also available in several other languages.

Some of the largest international companies rely on TrueNorth testing every day. With this technology, BPOs and international companies utilize real-time data and reporting to assist in attracting and hiring the best talent. Additionally, more than 650 universities, colleges, and training institutions around the globe use the TrueNorth platform for course placement and progress tracking. TrueNorth is delivered online with only the need for headphones and microphones.

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