With 30-years’ experience developing item banking and assessment delivery systems for some of the biggest international examination boards, the Minerva team has now channelled that knowledge into creating a complete, end-to-end assessment system. Simon Beeston, Director of Assessment, Minerva, tells Intelligent SME.tech more about the company and how it has developed a platform that can deliver any type of assessment all the way through the assessment life cycle.
What is your story? What motivated you to create Minerva?
When we started Minerva in 2018, it was after many years of working in the field of international examinations, in both the public and private sectors and in different verticals. Ideal you might think, but it had often been as frustrating as it was rewarding, and the frustration was always a result of the hidden complexities in developing and running examinations and the compromises you inevitably had to make to fit in with both legacy systems and what you might call legacy thinking.
As a result, successes were often short-term, with hidden workarounds to make business processes ‘work’. Coming off the back of that, we were determined to develop a platform that would be flexible enough to deliver any type of assessment all the way through the assessment life cycle, and clever enough to make some of those complex assessment processes much, much easier to manage.
In fact, we either wanted to automate them completely, or build all of the necessary tools into the platform so that the application could manage all of that complexity, leaving the end-user to manage the overall process. A process that could then scale to deliver as many types of assessments as the organisation required.
Who is your typical customer and what challenges are they looking to overcome?
Examinations are ubiquitous throughout education and the world of work, of course, and can have very high stakes when used for things like determining immigration eligibility. We wanted to be available for any organisation involved in those kinds of tests but inevitably we have had to focus on those clients who believe that assessment is important enough to invest time and effort in, not to mention some budget as well.
That rules out anyone who just wants to write a few questions and hand them out to their students. So, our clients typically already invest heavily in learning and assessment and realise there may a bit more to it than just dashing off a few multiple-choice questions every so often. For any organisation like that, we have a range of options from paper-based testing to online computer adaptive testing and pathways for Digital Transformation that adjust to the organisation as its capacity for change evolves over time. What they all want is automation to manage the complex record keeping and workflow processes involved in assessment and then to produce better, more reliable tests that have a beneficial impact on learners and with test results you can believe in.
As a tech start-up, can you highlight some of the key challenges you’ve encountered?
The challenges for us were initially around designing the platform in such a way that it could do as much as possible for as many types of clients as possible. We feel we are getting that right and our engagement with different customers has proven that to be the case. However, reaching those clients and engaging with them can still be challenging and I guess as is the case for most start-ups, building a customer base and building revenue remains an important focus for the business. But you just have to keep going and we can, and we will. And we can now see positive signs on the revenue side and great feedback from clients that tells us we’re doing something right!
How has your own company used technology to scale beyond geographical borders?
One thing that has helped massively is being able to host with Microsoft Azure so we can reach any location and it’s relatively easy to scale our infrastructure to grow as demand grows. You can access the platform anywhere in the world and in these travel restricted times, we can reach clients anywhere in the world with one of the many online conferencing tools available. We never thought we could sell to complete strangers online using Zoom or MS Teams but it’s amazing what you can do when you have to!
How has COVID-19 impacted your business and how have you adapted?
COVID-19 has of course impacted on us pretty significantly. We can try to get round it and reach our customers as mentioned above, but there’s another thing with examinations: candidates don’t want to be sitting together in an exam room so much these days. Organisations want to use Remote Proctoring tools so they can run examinations in a location that the candidate chooses.
Remote Proctoring applications can lock the candidate computer down and monitor their activity as a proctor (invigilator) would in a physical exam room. We have therefore had to engage with tech companies who have already developed Remote Proctoring applications in order to integrate with them so that we can offer this option for running secure tests. Typically, our clients select the Web Proctoring company they want to work with, and we then work with them to deal with the application integration in the background. Then secure, online tests can be run anywhere in the world and not just in bricks and mortar test centres.
Can you offer advice to educational organisations keen to include assessment technology into their strategies?
The prospect of managing learning and assessment has become rather harder in one sense but accelerated by the impact of COVID-19 in another. So, for any organisation looking at developing its assessment capabilities, it has to consider how Minerva fits into its existing estate, while also thinking about the kinds of assessments it wants to develop or transition into the platform.
You can just use Minerva as an end-to-end platform that will deliver all of your assessment requirements, but it’s often the case that organisations have existing Learning Management Systems, HR systems, student administration systems and so on, that have to be connected together to deliver a positive user experience on the one hand, and yet with business processes that can be managed by the back office team on the other. So, it’s often a case of starting with some strategic thinking and planning out what the organisation wants to achieve and what needs to change to make that happen. A classic change management project I guess! We like to feel that our experience can help save a lot of time and money for our clients by starting with a realistic plan that has clear benefits as deliverables.
How far will technology play an important role in the future of education?
And the thing is, this technology won’t go away even if COVID-19 does. Educational organisations are going to have to continue to deal with these change management issues regardless. Of course, students will want to go back to lectures and have tutorials and so on, but the access to online learning and assessment that has jumped forward in the last couple of years has already become a standard part of education for schools, universities, employers and exam boards alike.
What key piece of advice would you offer other tech start-ups?
Looking back over the last couple of years and thinking about how we have been engaging with our clients, sure, the clichés about knowing what problem you are solving and who your customers are, remain true. That’s why they’re cliches! But you do need to have something original to offer as well and with Minerva, deciding to make complex assessment processes both automated and easy to configure and run, has proved to be a great narrative to take to the market. Have that thing, understand who your customers are and the problems they need to solve, and well, you have a good chance of making it.Click below to share this article