Exciting times in e-assessment

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On the eve of Cirrus’ new brand identity launch, we catch up with Vegard Sivertsen, the company’s Founder and CEO. He shares his experiences on Cirrus’ rollercoaster journey so far, from a fledgling, cash-strapped start-up to a professional company competing with the big hitters in e-assessment.

Also, he explains the reason behind the new branding and his vision for Cirrus and e-assessment in general. 
 

What inspired you to develop your idea for an e-assessment platform?

“I was lost for a while after a breakup with a previous company and going through one of the worst rough patches professionally. By complete chance, I came in contact with a company developing an e-assessment platform, and I thought, why not? It seemed like a great new challenge. But it quickly turned out that the product was very complex, and even with 20 years of IT  and educational technology experience I had difficulties understanding the solution.”

“I come from the LMS market, which is highly competitive, with many great products. But as I started to dive into the e-assessment market, I was disappointed with the standard and usability of the available platforms. So I sat down and thought: It must be possible to do this better. To create something that is both easy to use and at the same time has a rich set of features. 

“But it wasn’t going to be easy because even then, in 2013, e-assessment was not new. It had been around for 20 years before that. Customers had come to expect a particular set of features. I often compare it to the car market today: If you enter a car with only three gears, you will not be able to sell a single vehicle because it’s a mature market. You need to have the features that customers are used to, so the challenge was to develop all these features at an extreme, fast pace. And at the same time, keep the product’s usability front and centre. 

“So I guess the primary motivation was to create something that already existed but make it better than the rest. That is what most successful companies do. They are just an improvement of something that has already existed. Look at Facebook improving on what MySpace was doing, Google improving Yahoo, and many examples of products that improved on what already existed. And that was what inspired me. I always believed that usability was the key to winning the hearts and minds of the users. As Steve Jobs said, ‘Everyone can make software. But it takes a genius to make something complex easy.’

“I wanted to create a product that would make people happy and satisfied using it. Assessments can be an absolute nightmare – complex and time-consuming – and I thought I could make the entire process so smooth that professionals and teachers would enjoy making them.” 

From that spark, what were the beginning stages of Cirrus like?

“I would describe the first five years as the struggle with a capital ‘S’. You’ve probably heard of the expression ‘At the end of the money there is still some month left’.  That’s what it was like for us initially, because we never sought funding from investors or venture capital companies. We bootstrapped a lot of it. We made it on our own, but with some help from the three Fs, you know: friends, family, and fools. But yeah, it was extremely difficult.

“Interestingly, even in those days, we never saved on product development. When we saved money, we never cheaped out on product development because we believed the product was our key asset. If we stopped developing the product, it would spell the company’s doom. And, at a certain point, you have invested everything you own. I had gone all in and passed the point of no return. I knew that if I gave up, all would be lost. So I just pushed on, because giving up means losing your passion and everything you’ve worked so hard on. So we pushed on. Eventually, we became cash positive and started building instead of just surviving.”

What inspires you as an entrepreneur?

“This summer, I was reflecting a bit on my life and reminiscing about why I do what I do. Because entrepreneurship is not easy, I often describe it as going in the ring with Mike Tyson.

“You get hit and hit and hit, get knocked down, but you somehow get up again. And I was thinking, why, why do I do this? It was never about the money, which I don’t think is the main driver for most entrepreneurs. 

“No. It’s the feeling of having created something that affects people’s lives in a good way. I think that is what drives most entrepreneurs – an ideal. Idealists are looking toward the future and imagining a better world for future generations and their future selves. I would say you need this passion for getting up again every day after being hit and knocked down by Mike Tyson!”

Where is Cirrus today?

“Every company has different stages. The first stage is the early startup; it’s the survival phase. I call that the Struggle, where you barely hang on and just try to survive.

“That period lasted until 2018, from 2013 to 2018, so roughly five years. Then you have the consolidation phase, where you become profitable and start to grow slowly, but you are cautious because you just survived some challenging years and don’t want to spend too much money. You want to see if this growth is permanent or just an anomaly. That period lasted from 2018 until 2022. And the phase that we are now entering is what we call the “scale-up”. 

“It was a hard journey. You hear about success stories, but you don’t hear about the struggle. Only 1% of start-ups make it. So we are in the 1% club. That is something we can be proud of. 

“I believe that if you create true value for customers, actual true value, something that will help and improve the lives of your customers, success will follow.”

Can you explain the reason for the Cirrus re-branding? 

“We are maturing as a company, growing quickly, and looking at who we are and want to be. So we have done interviews with customers. We have talked to market experts. We have analysed where the market is now, where it’s going, and how Cirrus fits in. What brings customers value? We have examined our value proposition, how we want to be perceived in the market, and a visual identity that reflects that value proposition. 

“One of the things we’ve always been about is quality. And at the same time, the company’s innovative nature means we are a groundbreaker regarding exciting solutions in the platform, which is reflected in the new branding. The new colours and logo represent Cirrus’ vision and focus: The purple colour represents quality and professionalism, while the orange colour is daring and embodies our innovative nature. It also coincides with orange being the national colour of our home base, the Netherlands. It’s a very nice representation of who we want to be and what we strive toward daily.”

What does this re-brand mean to you and Cirrus as a company?

“The new website and branding are straightforward to navigate and self-explanatory. This strategy is also how we approach product and product development. We always put the usability of the software first. The goal of introducing new features is to make the platform more accessible and powerful, not more complicated. And that is a challenge because the more features you add, the more complex and difficult the product becomes. Our goal is to have robust software but, above all else, it must be user-friendly.

“Are we perfect yet? No. We’re continually improving the product. We are learning from customers. We get feedback from customers, we see how they use the product, and we use that feedback to make even further improvements to the product’s usability. This new branding also represents our professionalism as a whole. As we look to the future, we want to show the world that we do not only have robust software that is safe, secure, and reliable, but we’re a fantastic team to have on your side.”

When looking to the future, what is your vision for Cirrus? Where do you see the e-assessment industry as a whole?

The effects of COVID

“I feel that even after two years of COVID lockdowns, the majority of assessments are still done on paper. COVID has accelerated that digital-first strategy with many organisations. Still, often they were forced to choose an e-assessment platform very quickly and perhaps didn’t have time to analyse the best possible solution. 

“So unfortunately, many organisations have had bad experiences with e-assessment in the last couple of years, just because they had to move to some form of online assessments very quickly. So I think there will be a shift when customers realise this and look for a more strategic, professional and long-term partner.”

“We will see a double growth in online assessments year on year. I think that’s an unavoidable fact. The advantages of moving to on-screen assessments are just too significant to ignore. Online exams have so many benefits, right?”

Cheating prevention

Remote proctoring

“Another thing many organisations struggle with is cheating and how to prevent it. Traditionally, organisations have prevented (or minimised) cheating by delivering exams in test centres. But test centres have a lot of drawbacks, they are costly, and inflexible, and candidates have to travel there, wasting a lot of time and money. It has become untenable for many organisations, so the emergence of remote proctoring is an excellent development. However, even with remote proctoring, you can never completely eliminate cheating.” 

Linear-on-the-fly testing

“So, that’s where linear-on-the-fly testing (LOFT) comes in. It means that every candidate who sits an exam will get a different set of questions based on some set criteria, but no single student or candidate will ever get the same questions. Obviously, the larger the question bank, the less chance there is of receiving the same questions. Only then can you ensure that you can set up the criteria for the areas in which you want to test the candidate. 

“Cirrus can then automatically generate a unique exam for each candidate with different questions, making cheating virtually impossible. I think that is a fantastic development in e-assessment because it lets us move away from these large exam halls with 500 candidates sitting the same exam.

“It also allows for continuous assessment, where people take the exam when they feel ready. But of course, you have to make sure that if I sit the exam on Monday, I will not be able to tell my friend, who’s taking it on Wednesday, what the questions were. And that’s where linear on-the-flight testing comes in, with randomly generated questions for each candidate.”

Parametrisation

“And you can even take it a step further by using parameterisation in your questions. This involves using parameters or variables in your questions so that one student has different values or wordings in the question than the next. This means that even though test takers get the same questions, the questions will still look different. This makes reusability of the question limitless.” 

Fit-for-purpose questions

“Another thing that I’m very passionate about is using fit-for-purpose questions, as this makes it very difficult to cheat. For example, if you are a computer engineer and need to take a computer science test, cheating is difficult when you have to write code for a computer program during the exam. Right? This is what we call a more simulation-based question type, where we test what you would typically do in an actual working situation. And so, instead of testing memory, you test skills. You test knowledge and understanding instead of regurgitating information from memory.”

Micro-credentials

“Next, I think we’ll see a lot more micro-credentialing. This means that instead of these big moments where everyone is taking the exam at the same time – the big exam periods twice a semester – we’ll move to more continuous assessments. Test takers will get tested more frequently, perhaps every three, four weeks, and the assessments are chopped up into smaller parts. So instead of getting a whole mathematics 101 exam at the end of the semester, students may sit a small test on algebra and mini-exams in other areas of mathematics. With continuous testing, you have a series of smaller, less intimidating exams that can be added up at the end of the year.”

What is your vision for Cirrus?

“It’s all in the name… A cirrus cloud is a cloud that sits about 10 kilometres in the atmosphere; it’s the highest cloud in the sky. That reflects on two things: One, we are a cloud application, delivered as a service solution in the cloud. And two, the cloud’s altitude speaks to the company’s ambitions. We have very lofty aspirations! We aim to become one of the world’s top five e-assessment vendors and have plans in motion to take us to the top. Things are about to get very exciting around here!”

How will Cirrus help to transform the industries you serve?

Create better assessments

“Our slogan is ‘Create better assessments.’ What we mean by that is that we want to empower our customers to deliver a better experience assessment experience for the candidates, which can be done in various ways. One of them is the quality of the exams. Just how good are the questions? How relevant are the questions? 

“In Cirrus we have several tools available to help users create better assessments by collaborating with their teams. Workflows that help them ensure the quality of their assessments. For example, psychometric data feeds into the system directly after candidates take the exam. This data gives you empirical evidence of the quality of your exams – because the quality of assessments and questions can be determined through mathematical formulas.

“In short, psychometric data tells you something about how good your questions and assessments are. And every time a candidate answers a question in Cirrus, that information is fed back to the system. Actual, tangible, mathematical data allows you to improve your online exams continuously. It’s fascinating stuff that allows all of our customers to prepare their students for the 21st century by testing skills and knowledge accurately.

“We work closely with our customers to attack their organisation’s issues. Our linear-on-the-fly testing option and parameterised questions help them prevent cheating, especially in combination with the blueprint option, which makes creating exams faster and easier.”

Time savings in marking

“Another development that we are looking into is using AI, for example, when marking questions. Marking exams is one of the most time-consuming activities in the whole e-assessment process. So, having many human-marked questions in an exam can be very time-consuming. Imagine if you have thousands of candidates, and they each have 20, 30 essay questions that need to be marked; you’re talking about tens of thousands of scripts that need to be marked. 

“Solving this and significantly reducing marking time will be a game changer. Our initial analysis of AI marking is that it’ll save 60% of marking time. That is because you still need to train the AI to ensure the AI understands how you’re marking. So you need to mark a certain number of sample scripts, and then the AI will be able to machine learn from your marking behaviour and take over from there. 

“But even without AI, e-assessment offers huge time-saving advantages concerning marking. For example, one of our customers has 80 markers marking one exam. They mark 10,000 scripts, which used to take them five days. And just by using Cirrus, they went from five to two days, moving from paper-based marking to an online exam platform. That sort of time-saving should be interesting for a lot of organisations in itself. And we can expect even greater time savings when the AI technology is ready.  

“All in all, I think we can expect some very exciting developments, both for Cirrus and in the e-assessment industry in general.”

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Cristina Gilbert
Cristina Gilbert
Copywriter and digital content enthusiast, Cristina is motivated by the fast-paced world of e-assessment and the opportunities online exams give students to thrive.
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