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A question of duality: 11 reasons why exam dual-sourcing is good and bad for learners and exam owners

After seven years of delivering through one assessment company, Microsoft Learning have returned to ‘dual-sourcing’, that is offering their professional MCP exams through two companies, giving their learners and learners a choice of delivery company to take their exams.

Don’t know about this world? Here’s a comparison: study at an institution (in-person, or by distance learning), then book, pay and schedule your final, summative exam at a place that is convenient to you, not at the institution’s own bricks and mortar centre.

Dual delivery in eAssessment has never really extended beyond the IT certification world (apart from transitional arrangements e.g. dilapidation of test centres) and I genuinely thought that this trend had been quashed.

As an organisation creating qualifications and exams, having one or two companies manage all the non-core activity (booking learners, organise venues, taking money, rescheduling, making refunds, reconciling results) is compelling: you can get on with creating valuable content, becoming the voice of your industry, growing your membership.

Dual sourcing in most industries is great when disruption from a single supplier can cause business failure, when the barriers and costs of switching are low and when one supplier cannot produce the amount of coverage or innovation required. So what are the pros and cons for dual-sourcing for the learner/ learner and the exam organisation?

Learner Pros

1. Learner choice. If a learner can find a test centre closer to their home, place of work, or is just more convenient, the extended coverage will help them.

2. Using your favourite centre. The IT certification world demands that students recertify their knowledge in line with product and knowledge development. Multiple test takers (students with an unquenchable appetite for proving their knowledge and understanding) want a test centre they are comfortable with, so they can perform to the best of their ability.

3. Value for money. Get discounts through competition for your exam fees. Better that two companies are fighting for your hard earned money than one lazy incumbent who sits and waits for the money to fall into their lap.

Learner Cons

1. BOGOF. Yes, a pro is actually a con in the long-term. IT Certification is notorious for tactical marketing, throwing big dollars at learners with retail offers such as ‘Buy One Exam, Get Another Free’ in attempts to boost volume. Outside of IT Certification, many institutions see this as unpalatable, reducing the value of the exam and placing huge risk onto a significant income stream. It is not helped by exam institution workers having exam volume boost as a measure related to their remuneration compensation (or so I hear).

2. Pricing. Pricing for global exam programmes is always difficult (currency risks, discounting to account for lower local wages) Aside from the aforementioned tactical marketing discounting, I can’t recall different exam vendors setting different prices, aside from using loopholes around VAT/ Sales Tax to gain an advantage.

3. Hobson’s Choice Do learners really benefit from having a choice from two suppliers that offer no substantial service differentiation? Learners should consider crowdsourcing alternatives which meet their needs and hits the exam programme security/ identity service requirements. Remote invigilation coupled with identity verification solutions are stable and mature technologies; Portable and modular exam delivery is increasingly witnessed in the corporate ‘licence to practice’ arena, so what’s stopping learners having genuine choice?

Exam Owner Pros

1. Introducing competition. By having two organisations ‘compete’, this is thought to introduce keener pricing (but not to the learner), better service, innovation, risk reduction, removes business failure, enhanced reliability, new product development.

2. Just Round Your Corner. Using two organisations can mean a bigger footprint, especially for high-cost capex items, such as test centres. This is the McDonalds trope of being in as many places as possible.

3. Cradle to Grave Learning and Income. Linking your high-end exam programmes directly to mass-market (with lower security and price point), can help to ‘pull’ learners up through the certification and career path, reducing the cost of learner acquisition via linear marketing as they increase their proficiency through their career.

Exam Organisation Cons

1. Lack of professional procurement and vendor management. If you’ve got great procurement and vendor management people and processes, then it’s just a question of scaling up. However, as those of us who regularly write tenders, RFPs and proposals, or reflect on the efforts of government, professional procurement and vendor management is too often an aspiration, without even considering the issues of transparency. Keeping on top of multiple points of contact, service level agreements, review meetings, vendor performance analysis and learner feedback needs skill and resource. Any exam organisation that wants to be relevant to learners, the field of study and the work place needs to think about if procurement and vendor management are core competencies, or a potential pit to throw salary and support money into.

2. Two is the magic number. There are plenty of academic papers and examples of the ‘natural duopoly’ in technology. While the procurement world loves a fully audited supplier list, the reality is often a head-to-head to play one supplier against another. Genuine disrupters to business-as-usual are rare, so only motivated and genuinely ambitious exam organisations will even countenance alternatives.

Just a seven year itch, or a new phase of dual-sourcing? To return to dual-sourcing after a generation with one-single supplier can indicate positives and negatives about the exam organisation, test delivery company and learner attitudes. When a market leader such as Microsoft makes a change, the rest of the market gets a wake-up call. MOOCs are disrupting traditional university delivery by potentially offering a variety of locations for taking summative university-level exams. Corporates want exam delivery options that minimise or even eliminate non-fee paying activity (taking a day off to travel and take an exam).

Merely bolting on more exam seats to either drive competition, increase access or to flood the market is rarely a move that inspires genuine innovation for the learner or boosts an exam organisation’s credibility. Simply, if you want more than one supplier, do it for reasons of genuine service innovation and better exam delivery for the learner, not for a faux ‘competitive’ reason or to nudge your exam volume by a few percentage points to selfishly

increase your personal remuneration.


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