Team Spotlight: Demystifying the Complex World of Taxonomies and Machine Learning

Meet Marci Ladd, Certica’s product and solutions manager for Academic Benchmarks. A longtime member of the AB team, Marci manages Certica’s network of standards, taxonomies and the relationships between them, as well as the AB Connect recommendation engine and associated algorithms that power it. In addition to working closely with members of Certica’s product, sales and services teams, Marci spends much of her time helping AB Connect™ clients and prospective clients understand the multidimensional nature of relationships among and between learning standards, and how those relationships accelerate the alignment process. Keep reading to find out more about Certica’s resident taxonomist!

How long have you been in your role at Certica?

I started with Academic Benchmarks in 2005 and became a member of the Certica team when AB joined Certica in 2016. In that time, I’ve worn many hats – first in services and client support, then in product and solutions. It’s been very exciting to witness the evolution of AB over the years and see how the continual enhancements to AB Connect match up with the needs of our industry.

What exactly is a taxonomy?

Simply put, a taxonomy is a classification system. Most people think of biology – like the animal or plant kingdoms – but taxonomies are no longer limited to scientific classification. The purpose of a taxonomy is to make information easier to find; it’s a way to organize, catalog and index large volumes of information related to a particular subject in a logical and methodical way, using a defined set of terms and tags. Think of taxonomic terms and tags as search terms; they power a robust search and discovery experience that is a common need in this information age.

Why are taxonomies so important to Academic Benchmarks and the alignment process?

The Academic Benchmarks taxonomies are the foundation of the AB Connect alignment system. Our unique model for codifying learning standards with our taxonomies is used by the AB Connect recommendation engine, to provide an efficient and accurate process to tag and align content and maintain those alignments over time. To align means to bring into precise adjustment or correct relative position; in the world of education, this implies a precise relationship between learning standards and content. Precise alignment is achieved through the use of the Academic Benchmarks taxonomies and AB Connect alignment system.

Can you explain how the recommendation engine works, and how it improves the accuracy and efficiency of the alignment process?

Google, Amazon, Pandora, Netflix – they all use machine learning to predict what a user will like or dislike. They take input from the user and return related results in prioritized order.

Similarly, our recommendation engine leverages descriptive metadata around content, including taxonomic terms, coupled with input provided by the user as to what learning standards are “liked” and “disliked,” to provide the best recommendations for alignment to other learning standards. This process makes maintaining alignment to standards over time (when a state or other authority changes their standards) and region (extending into new states or countries) an efficient and highly accurate process.

Machine learning algorithms are programmed to improve recommendations over time. The AB Connect alignment system both learns on the local scale – tuning itself to the specific inputs for a single learning object – and on the global scale – learning about the relationship between sets of metadata inputs and standards relationships across our repository of over 4 million learning standards and education search terms, and hundreds of thousands of alignment decisions within the AB Connect ecosystem. With this continual refinement of recommendations and accuracy comes great efficiency, potentially saving thousands of hours of manual work.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the education sector over the course of your career?

With an applied mathematics background, I always watch for patterns and trends. As I’ve followed academic standards over the past 20 years, I’ve noted three things that directly impact AB Connect: increased emphasis (and reliance) on technology, increased accountability and a focus on deeper learning.

While the implementation of Common Core State Standards has had many challenges, the standards themselves drive at a deeper understanding of the underlying principles. We see a similar, more robust approach to science education in the Next Generation Science Standards as well. Gone are the days of rote memorization, and I see this as a trend towards better thinkers and problem solvers in the rising generation.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

I firmly believe that creativity and analytics are not mutually exclusive; I have a love of both! That, along with my passion of helping people, makes my role in product and solutions a great fit.

Thanks for the great insight, Marci! Now let’s learn a little more about you.

Where is the most interesting place you’ve traveled?

I love to travel – and live – abroad. In fact, I’ve lived in 5 different countries on 3 different continents! While living abroad I’ve always taken the opportunity to travel as much as possible and get a taste (both literal and metaphorically!) of the many diverse cultures around the world. I don’t think that I can choose a “most interesting” place, but here are some candidates:

  • Morocco. Even after living there, I never lost a feeling of enchantment that comes from the many ways your senses are engaged – the vivid colors, spice-market smells, and exotic tastes are never to be forgotten.
  • Austria. Vienna was my childhood home, so it’s always listed among my favorites. Even with how modern it has become, there is still a sense of the familiarity of home when I go back to visit.
  • China. I recently traveled there for the first time, and it was a wonderful experience!

What was your favorite subject in school?

It was always a tossup between music (chorus, band, and orchestra) and math. It was no surprise that I ended up studying both in university.  I merged my love of them with an emphasis on acoustics in my undergrad studies. For graduate school, math won out, and now music fills my off-the-clock hours.

It sounds like music is your favorite non-work related activity!

Definitely. Music has always been part of my life. Starting in my youth, I began singing in and conducting choirs and playing instruments. I’ve been fortunate to be able to continue this passion wherever I have lived. I currently sing with a local community choir, serving on the music board, and am the music director for a church choir in my congregation.

Connect with Marci on LinkedIn.