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Whether they aspire to attend a prestigious university or get a good job, every student in the UK knows much of their future rests upon achieving good outcomes on 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 with security measures that reflected their importance.

But when the global pandemic took hold in mid-March, the assessment process was halted overnight. With assessment venues closed, learners could not obtain the academic and professional credentials their future depended upon. And many testing providers were forced to confront revenue losses that threatened their very existence. Nearly overnight, assessors began scrambling with how best to respond to the crisis while test takers struggled to identify how to attain the qualifications they needed to enter the workforce, further their education or move between countries.

Leaping into the Breach

A global test provider, responsible for delivering upwards of 3 million assessments per year, needed to find a way to serve learners’ needs of the moment, safeguarding its revenues (or at least some portion of its revenues) in the process. Company executives identified the need to rapidly innovate by introducing a temporary, scaled-down, online version of the company’s core assessment product that could be delivered to a test taker in a wholly digital manner, remotely. While it did not offer the full experience of the in-venue equivalent, company leaders prioritized providing learners with a means to attain a suggestive result over nothing at all. When the crisis passed, they reasoned, most test takers would opt for face-to-face assessments. But all agreed it was the right time to explore an online delivery model.

The decision to take this path was not without challenges, however, as the company pondered many different questions:

  • Staying flexible. With the COVID-19 situation evolving daily, how would the newly formed team maintain flexibility in order to respond quickly to new challenges?
  • Evaluating trade-offs. What was the best way to balance speed to market with existing process and technology quality standards?
  • Refocusing resources. With company resources already engaged on existing projects, how would the team pivot their focus without impacting these workstreams?
  • Aligning solutions. In designing the new product, how would the team ensure it minimized the introduction of technical debt and not deviate from existing strategies?
  • Focusing on customer experience. A paramount consideration: How would the team ensure delivery of a positive test experience and maintain the standards of the brand?

Built for Speed

There was no time to lose. Working on a severely compressed timeline, we leveraged our understanding of the client’s process and technology landscapes (thanks to our longstanding partnership) to help the client quickly pivot from its existing projects and immediately add value to the emergency initiative. While we primarily focused on the solution’s technical design, we also helped our client shape the business processes that would support the new delivery model. This way, we helped ensure that the designs, be they system- or process-focused, could quickly be put into production and administered at scale, with minimal impact to other areas of the business.

We rapidly mobilized to support the client teams as they defined the online delivery model that would underpin the new product, providing specialist knowledge to inform design decisions while simultaneously supporting their existing projects. This approach ensured alignment, where possible, between workstreams in order to reduce deviations from agreed-upon technology patterns and principles. For example, we followed the tenet of “minimal/no development impact to legacy systems.” There were also enterprise-level technology patterns, such as the use of APIs to integrate between systems, that we had to be careful to follow. Working this way helped reduce the number of errors that needed to be fixed later.

Contributing to the design in this way, we were able to:

  • Provide an overview of the trade-offs between speed to market and solution quality, highlighting to the client the implications in terms of security issues, operational considerations and potential introduction of technical debt, so the client could make an informed decision on the design approach.
  • Leverage the team’s expertise to ensure the solution’s design was robust, acceptably secure, flexible and conformed to industry standards, while simultaneously satisfying the business needs — chiefly, for speed — highlighted by the client’s product teams.
  • Maintain technical oversight across both the emergency project and other work programs, minimizing nonconformities and sharing learnings that would help inform requirements across all workstreams.
  • Swiftly adapt, where required, to propose alternate solutions or advise on different approaches where constraints such as time, cost or skills meant that earlier designs were not feasible or did not meet the needs of the business.

Our well-established relationship with the client was a distinct advantage in an environment of speed. Many members of our team have been embedded with the assessor for significant periods of time and could draw on experiences working with many of the people, processes and technology that support its business. This allowed many of our contributions to be proactive in that we were able to suggest solutions to challenges and problems as they came up rather than waiting for specific instruction from the client. This approach allowed the project to progress at an accelerated pace, ensuring a fast response to the COVID-19 crisis.

We contributed to the delivery of a solution that addressed all phases of the test-taker journey, from registration and preparation through to delivery of the test and issuing of final results to test takers. In just a few short weeks we were able to support the design and implementation of a scalable version of the product, with further improvements delivered over the following weeks — all of which was the result of a rapid mobilization of resources and leveraging of deep domain and technical expertise.

Meeting Learners Where They Live

Following this cycle of rapid innovation, the company brought its new, online product to market and begin to administer the test digitally, at scale. The company was able to support test takers in the continuation of their educational journeys until the time when COVID-19 restrictions softened and they were no longer prevented from attending in-person assessments. An unexpected bonus: The team applied the lessons learned from this emergency program to other workstreams, and these learnings have informed future developments through business features that adopt and improve on elements of the temporary solution.

In delivering this program, the company was able to put a new offering to market that provided interested individuals with the ability to take an abbreviated digital equivalent of the client’s core test product, while ensuring:

  • Delivery of the assessment in a wholly remote manner. From the comfort of their own home, the test taker could register, log in and take the assessment in its entirety without any significant face-to-face interaction with the assessor or any of their administrative staff.
  • Confidence in the security of the test. Applying existing methods of malpractice detection in the context of an online assessment, the client could be confident that there was a sufficient level of security built into the system to prevent cheating, and adequate processes to ensure the integrity of the test.
  • Provision of an assessment outcome. By taking a digital-first approach to the assessment outcomes, the client was able to provide test takers with a record of achievement that was comparable to the full test, albeit not recognized in the same way due to its abbreviated format.
  • Support for test takers in their learning journey. The company was able to support test takers in delivery of an interim result that could be temporarily recognized until a time came in which they could attain a full result.

Along the way, we also produced a variety of collateral to support design and testing, including requirements documentation, data models, data flow diagrams and solution designs.

After the rollout of the initial solution, the team has continued to support further iterations of the product to introduce new features, address compromises that were deferred until later releases, and resolve defects made evident after publication. The temporary assessment solution is still in use; the plan is that it will slowly be phased out as in-person conditions return to normal. The company is leveraging what it learned from creating the temporary solution in other in-flight projects, where others are experimenting with similar delivery models. Delivered to over 25,000 test takers, the temporary solution was the right solution at the right time, helping people achieve an interim level of qualification that let them keep their lives on track during the pandemic.

Part one of this series covers Europe’s post-COVID overarching learning and assessment challenges; parts three and four detail our work with different assessment providers. 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 the Cognizant Consulting Practice UK.

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