Cirrus Turns 10: A Decade of Innovation in E-Assessment

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As Cirrus Assessment celebrates a decade of innovation and excellence in the e-assessment industry, we sit down with Vegard Sivertsen, who has been at the helm from the start. Join us as we trace Cirrus’ remarkable journey through the eyes of our founder and CEO:

Can you take us back to the beginning: what prompted you to start Cirrus? 

The simplest way to put it? I felt that the market was ripe for a transformation. It struck me that there was a significant void in the e-assessment landscape at the time – it was lacking both genuine innovation and a user-centric approach. 

I envisioned a digital exam platform that would break the mould, one that would empower users with its capabilities without overwhelming them with complexity. It had to be robust enough to handle the most demanding tasks, yet intuitive enough that even someone new to e-assessment would find it approachable and straightforward.

Our goal was to design a system that catered to the entire spectrum of users. For beginners, it would be a gentle introduction to the world of online testing, free from the intimidation of steep learning curves. For the seasoned professionals, it would offer a depth of advanced features to explore and utilise, enhancing their productivity and expanding their capabilities. And that is exactly what we set out to provide.

The first lines of code of the Cirrus Assessment platform, written in October 2013

Reflecting on the early years, what obstacles did we face?

In the early days, our primary challenge was financial sustainability. Like many startups, we were in a race against time to establish a business model robust enough to keep us solvent. The first few years were marked by a rollercoaster pursuit of funding to keep our operations running month to month.

Despite this financial tightrope, we never compromised on the development of our product. We were convinced that the intrinsic quality of our platform was the key to creating lasting value for Cirrus. It was this focus on quality that we believed would differentiate us in the long run and secure our place in the market. So, we invested heavily in our product, confident that this would be the cornerstone of our success.

Meet the pioneering development team of Cirrus, with core members still innovating with us today

Over the past decade, what pivotal moment stands out as the turning point that propelled Cirrus into the forefront of educational technology?  

The watershed moment came for Cirrus in 2018, when I met Ian Browne from Chartered Accountants Ireland. At that time, Cirrus was navigating the choppy waters of early-stage growth, striving to find our financial footing. In my conversation with Ian, there was an immediate spark of mutual understanding and recognition. 

Ian’s foresight into how digital assessments could shape the future of accountancy resonated deeply with our mission at Cirrus. He saw beyond the horizon, envisioning a system where exams were more than just a test of knowledge—they were a comprehensive measure of professional competency in a digital era. His conviction in our ability to execute this vision was unwavering. 

Since we teamed up with Ian Browne and Chartered Accountants Ireland, we’ve seen great things happen. It’s been a win-win: we’ve pushed the boundaries of what our platform can do, and they’ve been able to take their exams to the next level. Our work together has made our original vision a reality, creating a system that really gets what professional exams need to be about in today’s digital world. This partnership has helped both of us grow and has shown just how powerful joining forces can be.

Collaboration and tailored solutions are key in our company culture. Can you share an example of how this led to an unexpected, yet groundbreaking, result? 

I’m passionate about working with customers who are as committed to innovation as we are. The most rewarding moments come when we join forces with these customers, working collaboratively to develop functionalities that redefine the limits of technology in e-assessment. For example, our collaboration with Chartered Accountants Ireland has led to the creation of trailblazing features, such as our seamless Office 365 integration. This integration lets test-takers use the same tools in exams that they would in real life – offering a more authentic testing experience. We’ve also developed bespoke question types with other customers that cater specifically to complex subjects like Financial Statements, Mathematics, and Programming.

Pushing the boundaries even further, our recent initiatives have embraced AI to enhance the essay marking process. We are developing functionalities that will support markers by automating the scoring of questions that traditionally required human intervention. It’s these kinds of innovations that underscore the transformative potential of our partnerships.

Handling high-stakes exams demands a blend of maturity and trustworthiness. How have we built and maintained this critical trust with our partners? 

Closing the skills gap fundamentally relies on employers’ trust in the qualifications and abilities of their workforce. From the outset, Cirrus has been dedicated to delivering high-stakes exams that have significant implications for individuals’ professional lives. We understand the gravity of this responsibility and have consistently prioritised the security of our platform to uphold the trust placed in us. Our commitment to excellence was recognised last year when we achieved ISO certification, a testament to our rigorous standards.

“Our commitment to excellence was recognised last year when we achieved ISO certification, a testament to our rigorous standards.”

However, the concept of security extends beyond the physical administration of exams. Contrary to the traditional view that secure assessments require physical test centres, Cirrus has pioneered the development of innovative features like our LOFT 3.0. This system enables the delivery of randomised, Linear On the Fly Testing that is not only secure but also valid, balanced, and equitable. Beyond LOFT 3.0, we offer a suite of security measures including lockdown browsers, AI-driven text recognition, and remote proctoring, ensuring that integrity is maintained in every aspect of the examination process.

Cirrus has been a trailblazer in prioritising user experience. Can you share a story where going against industry norms paid off for us?

I firmly believe that the key to capturing our users’ loyalty is to provide an application that not only functions well but is also a pleasure to use. The pressures associated with high-stakes assessments are significant, and our system is designed to minimise, not add to, this stress. I hold to the principle that while solving complex problems is a common skill, the genius lies in making the complex effortlessly manageable. The genuine value we aim to deliver is in the simplification of the user experience, which in turn saves time and reduces effort.

“Solving complex problems is a common skill, but the genius lies in making the complex effortlessly manageable”

To illustrate, consider the comparison between Apple and Android smartphones. Despite both offering similar capabilities, there is a notable preference for the iPhone, often due to its more intuitive interface. And if you need a credible source, just ask my mother;) She juggles both but ask her to find the nearest coffee shop, and it’s the iPhone she trusts—not because she loves the fruit logo, but because the interface makes sense to her. 

What innovative feature or service do you believe has had the most significant impact on our success?

Innovation in the field of e-assessment often separates the trailblazers from the observers. At Cirrus, we pride ourselves on being at the forefront, continuously unveiling features that are set to redefine the industry. We have a range of innovative features that are already making testing easier and more authentic for our customers, like our LOFT 3.0 functionality, our advanced maths and programming question types, etc. 

While all these innovations are significant, if I were to spotlight just one, it would be our integration with Microsoft Office 365. This feature allows examiners to provide candidates with template files in Excel or Word, which candidates can then manipulate directly online, utilising the full spectrum of tools available in the Office suite. This capability is not just about convenience; it’s about authenticity. Candidates can demonstrate their proficiency in creating complex pivot tables, crafting comprehensive workflow diagrams, or illustrating concepts with drawings in Word—tasks they would encounter in the workplace. This level of practical application in testing ensures that assessments are not only a measure of knowledge but also a true test of applicable skills in a real-world context.

Cirrus has broken barriers in multiple countries. Can you discuss a challenge we faced while expanding internationally and how we overcame it?

From the outset, Cirrus was crafted with a global vision. We embedded international functionality at the product’s core, anticipating the needs of a diverse user base. This foresight enabled us to accommodate various time zones, cultural formats for dates and times, and language translations with ease – features often overlooked in the early stages by others, yet challenging to integrate later on.

Moreover, we recognise that compliance requirements and privacy laws vary across borders. Our decision to host on AWS has proven advantageous, allowing us to establish regional hosting solutions to meet the specific regulatory requirements of each country.

As the company matures, staying innovative can be a challenge. How have we managed to evolve while retaining our pioneering spirit?

Every growing company faces a pivotal test: maintaining the spark of innovation amidst expansion. It’s a well-documented trend that as companies balloon in size, their innovative pulse often slows, forcing them to absorb smaller, more agile firms to stay on the cutting edge. This slowdown can usually be traced back to increasing bureaucracy and sluggish decision-making. 

Yet, there are notable exceptions that prove leadership is key. Take Apple, for instance, which thrived on innovation under the visionary leadership of Steve Jobs. His departure marked a shift towards a more measured, iterative innovation strategy. This illustrates a fundamental truth: the tone for innovation is set at the top. It’s about embodying the visionary spirit akin to Jobs rather than conforming to a cautious playbook. In my role as CEO, I strive to foster this spirit of innovation, ensuring that every team member feels empowered to bring forward new ideas and that these ideas can take flight without getting entangled in red tape.

There’s always room for improvement. What upcoming enhancements should our users look forward to in the next year?

Our main goal at Cirrus is to improve the lives of our users by providing a tool that helps them save time and improve the quality of their assessments. We achieve this by offering a user-friendly yet robust system that simplifies the assessment creation and marking process, rather than causing undue stress or frustration.

We are continuously refining the usability of our platform, making it even more intuitive and user-friendly. Our upcoming features are specifically designed to streamline the marking process, providing users with clear, real-time insights into the progress of co-assessors and introducing a more coherent workflow management system. These improvements aim to demystify the marking process, making it more transparent and efficient.

And there is even more to come with the Cirrus MarkPro upgrade. This will revolutionise the way scripts are annotated and scored, and will further incorporate sophisticated AI grading to augment the precision of human evaluation. By harnessing the power of machine learning, our system will not only learn from markers’ input but will also, after calibration, be equipped to independently score submissions. This represents a significant leap forward, promising to reduce the workload on human assessors, enhance the consistency of scoring, and ultimately provide a more reliable assessment of candidate performance.

“By harnessing the power of machine learning, Cirrus will not only learn from markers’ input but will also, after calibration, be equipped to independently score essay questions.”

As we conclude our insightful conversation with Vegard, it’s clear that Cirrus Assessment’s journey is a testament to the power of expertise and a deep understanding of the industry’s needs. Looking ahead, the Cirrus Team remains committed to leveraging our knowledge to support and empower our customers, ensuring that every innovation and service enhancement is aligned with the real-world demands of educators and assessors. Here’s to the next chapter in Cirrus’s story, where the focus remains steadfast on nurturing the trust and success of our global partners! 

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Dani van Weert
Dani van Weert
Cirrus' Marketing Specialist Dani is interested in how we can make technological advances work for us, to improve education and make it more accessible.
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