Digital exams: a case study by British Council and Aristo
When British Council wanted to digitalise the internationally recognised Cambridge exams back in 2014, the Amsterdam-based organisation encountered a number of issues. Because British Council is a foundation, they lacked people and funds. Moreover, Cambridge had a lot of requirements in terms of the examination method. Thankfully, Aristo proved to be the ideal partner for British Council and the entire exam process is now running smoothly, like a well-oiled machine.
Internationally recognised language exams
British Council is an international organisation that encourages educational possibilities and cultural relationships between people from the United Kingdom and people from the rest of the world. In doing so, the organisation focuses on promoting the English language and simplifying people’s access to learning the language.
Jan van Uum, exams manager for the Benelux region: “The main portion of our work here in the Netherlands consists of giving people the opportunity to obtain an official, internationally recognised language certificate, and to test their English to see what level they are at. For the first part, which includes the Cambridge English exams, we collaborate intensively with Aristo Accommodaties."
“In the Netherlands, we provide thousands of such exams every year,” Jan van Uum continues. “From beginners to people at the academic level, and from private individuals and schools to corporations. The exams used to be held in the traditional manner, with a pencil and paper, but around 2010, Cambridge reluctantly began the digitalisation process. Naturally, we did not want to lag behind here in the Netherlands, but we encountered a great many problems. First of all, we lacked the capacity for sizeable investment; after all, we are not a commercial enterprise, but a foundation. In the Netherlands, we are not subsidised by the Dutch government or any government, and any profits we make do not go to our shareholders, but are fed back into the UK to support development activities worldwide. So our first issue was how to find sufficient people and funds.”
A quick start
“At the end of 2014, we sat down for talks with various companies that specialise in digital exams. However, none of them were willing to host third-party software on their systems, because it might interfere with their own processes and software. And there was another issue; as the Cambridge exam includes an oral section, we would need extra meeting rooms in addition to the main exam rooms, and that proved to be difficult. Finally, Cambridge maintains a rule that its exams must be conducted by qualified, trained supervisors and examiners, and that technical backup must be available.
The testing institutes we were in talks with were unable to meet all of these demands. Moreover, we could not guarantee a minimum volume of 50,000 exams a year, which meant that they were not interested in investing in us. In short, we had to find a different solution. Thankfully, we eventually turned to Aristo. We had been working with them successfully for many years at that point, so that was a plus, but they were also able to adapt more easily than any of the other parties."
The preparatory process took a lot of time, and it was a bit of a struggle to figure out the right way forward. “It was important to us to get things right the first time,” Van Uum adds, “to reduce the risk of damaging our reputation. Moreover, Cambridge sets a lot of requirements in terms of the examination method. After all, an institution that issues certificates worldwide has to somehow make sure they all meet the same standards.” For example, Cambridge selects ten exam days each year on which all of the computer-based exams all over the world have to be completed before a set time. Timing is paramount in these circumstances; it would be unacceptable for an exam to start too late or be cancelled. This was quite a challenge, especially on the technical level.
Both the candidates’ and the supervisors’ computers had to satisfy certain minimal technical specifications and be able to communicate with the central server in a safe, flawless manner. We needed spare computers and, of course, a reliable internet connection. “Aristo was able to respond to our needs and even engaged an external IT partner for supplying the hardware and managing the software we provided.”
Jan van Uum: “Before we officially got started, we did extensive testing in collaboration with Aristo. The first pilot was conducted at the Eindhoven location, but the ultimate test was in May 2015. Four of Aristo’s employees sat a test version of the official Cambridge exam and all passed with flying colours, as did the system. Sitting the exam themselves allowed Aristo to see if there were any more issues to be solved or improvements to be made. Shortly after, the first official exams were conducted and we have greatly optimised the exam process since then, not least because of Aristo’s continuous efforts.
The laptops that were initially used have been replaced by computers, the headsets have been replaced by headphones and special computer rooms have been set up at every location. Moreover, the internet connection is much better these days thanks to the much faster, more reliable optic fibre network and the connection is upgraded constantly in order to keep up with the increased data traffic.
Finally, we tackled the issue of examinees not being allowed to talk to one another on the day of the exams. We did this by organising morning and afternoon sessions, and by fine-tuning our internal routing to prevent candidates from running into one another in the hallway or during break time."
Nowadays, the exam process is running smoothly like a well-oiled machine, and British Council’s clients especially benefit from the many advantages. Van Uum: “Typing is faster than writing, meaning that candidates finish earlier and are able to sit their oral exams on the same day as their written ones. Moreover, the headphones ensure that they are not bothered by ambient noises. This makes us unique and allows us to contribute to our clients’ future success.”
Moreover, Van Uum and the rest of the organisation see the partnership with Aristo as very valuable. “We had been working together for many years, so we knew what to expect. Not just in terms of the locations, but also in terms of the communication between parties. The best part, in my opinion, is that Aristo thinks along with us, takes a proactive approach and goes the extra mile. They provide solutions to help us make things even more comfortable for our candidates, give advice even when they have not been asked for any, and also take care of little things such as putting up instructional posters. All of this signifies that Aristo knows what they are doing, are professionalising themselves more and more and moving with the times and all future developments. They call it ‘taking care of your every need’, and I could not agree more.”
Do you want to know what Aristo Accommodaties could do for you at the digital level? Please feel free to contact us to exchange ideas, no strings attached.