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Like death and taxes, tests and assessments are a part of life. But a part of life under COVID-19? Not so much. When assessment centers worldwide closed last spring due to the global pandemic, learners and job seekers faced a major disruption in their ability to take standardized tests such as the GCSE (General Certificates of Secondary Education), the AS (the pre-A-level) and the A (Advanced) levels, as well as other vocational and technical qualifications. These assessments have always been held in secure venues to protect their integrity. The abrupt closure of testing centers halted learners’ plans while posing an existential threat to the assessment boards.

With the pandemic surging and no end to the closures in sight, one of the largest and oldest global exam boards asked us to pivot away from our ongoing work shaping its digital strategy to the more immediate issue of protecting its revenue stream.

Strategic partnership to shape a student-focused digital future

We had worked with the assessment board since 2019 to execute its digital roadmap, which we helped shape and define. At the time, the engagement sought to enable:

  • Staff and partners to work seamlessly across a global organization.
  • Students, learners and candidates to interact with existing products in a more digital way — increased self-service, online payments, exam booking and ability to download content.
  • The assessment board’s future value proposition with new digital products and services.
  • All products, services and customer journeys to be supported by systems and data that through deeper analysis and reporting drive continuous improvement.

We helped define and prioritize the board’s initiatives and articulated a sequence of waves to deliver value to its learners, beginning with the delivery of foundations across key domains as enablers of new digital products and services:

  • Enterprise architecture: Defining the future blueprint, decommissioning legacy systems, and designing a new cloud-based digital enablement platform.
  • Data foundations: Designing and embedding data ownership and a culture that recognizes data as the key to enhanced products and services, an improved learner experience and further opportunities to monetize insights.
  • Security foundations: Implementing standards, policies and guidelines; also supporting the recruitment of roles such as chief information security officer (CISO).
  • E-commerce: Defining a pan-organizational solution to satisfy requirements from across the business and markets.

Mission: Rapid response

With the pandemic surging in spring 2020, we set to work helping protect the assessment board’s revenues. Our specialists transitioned overnight into tactical roles supporting this critical work. Working with the client, we shaped a series of projects with the aim of developing several interim, end-to-end capabilities to help the board recoup and safeguard some revenue during the emergency, including:

  • The ability to recruit a larger pool of internationally based examiners, focusing on a diploma music panel in East Asia and Southern Europe.
  • The ability to deliver exams to centers using Zoom videoconferencing technology.
  • Development of a new, low-stakes test, submitted by uploading recordings of conversations taking place with a local interlocutor, and assessed by our clients’ examiners.
  • Expansion of tests to include the growing wave of digital teachers supported by associated digital-training programs.
  • Certifications for arts, submitted by uploading a video recording of the pieces that a candidate prepared for a graded exam.
  • Development of a set of activities for young people to remotely continue to grow skills and entertain.

Architecturally, our team engaged in technology selection, conducted a fit-gap analysis (including non-functional fitment), and carried out architecture due diligence. We helped produce key collateral, including data flow diagrams describing the generation and exchange of product and customer data across core user journeys. We designed tactical security and privacy assessments, which allowed the team to green-light the proposed solutions integrating tools and platforms in a pragmatic and rapid way. These assessments provided a clear qualitative view of the risks the client was taking, informed the client’s leadership team, and supported decision-making. We also articulated steps to mitigate those risks in the short term and resolve any residual issues in the medium and long term.

Our consultants injected structure and governance into these projects, as well as specialist knowledge, helping to ensure that solutions produced as part of the emergency program aligned with the client’s roadmap, capability and architecture blueprints. Another goal was to minimize technical and security debt.

From a technical standpoint, an important feature of our work with the assessment board was that it enables easy “re-platforming” as market needs change. Responsiveness is imperative. The flexible middle-layer platform and architecture allows the client to swiftly release new solutions and to decommission products that are no longer required. We also helped our client boost agility by promoting organization around products rather than legacy siloes that built up over the company’s long history in the UK and around the world. This positions the company to be more responsive to the needs of the 850,000 candidates served each year — both during and after the pandemic. Interestingly, based on initial feedback, many learners find it easier to adopt to virtual education and assessment than examiners, for which there may well be demographic reasons.

As with so many companies in so many industries, the pandemic has accelerated the need for assessment boards to become more digitally enabled organizations. Many types of tests remain offline in the UK at present, so there is more pressure to offer online test offerings that meet high standards for user experience and security. The work continues.

Part one of this series covers Europe’s post-COVID overarching learning and assessment challenges; parts two and four detail our work with different assessment boards. Part five will look at the next challenges coming in the assessment space as the pandemic begins to wane.

This article was written by Marcin Remarczyk, Manoj Chawla, Daniel Liddy and Nitin Kumar of Cognizant Consulting Europe.

To learn more, visit the Education section of our website or contact us.