The August winner of the Computer Reseller News/Syscap Approved Technology Innovator of the Month award, training and performance development specialist Profile Total Quality Business Solutions, is not strictly speaking an IT company at all.
Nevertheless, it has created a Tablet PC-based system, with the help of Hull University, to provide electronic National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) assessments.
The system, which is completely electronic, enables NVQ assessors to capture video footage, digital photographs and audio recordings and add them to a student's portfolio.
In addition, the Tablet PC can be used for hand-written note taking, and written work can be scanned and stored in the portfolio as well.
Paul Webb, managing director of Profile, a six-person company based in Southport, Lancashire, claimed that, while there have been other attempts to develop electronic assessment, this is the only one that is totally digital and controlled by the assessor.
"It is a lot more efficient. It means that the standards are universal and the work is maintained to a higher standard than on paper," he said.
NVQs are now a recognised standard in British industry and provide a route for personal and professional development for thousands of working people every year.
The courses are managed and assessed by appointed training organisations. When the government announced plans to try to make assessments electronic, Webb saw an opportunity.
The organisations that have piloted the system so far have been impressed. Norah Spencer, e-learning manager at West Cheshire College, said: "It's excellent - much better than the paper-based system and much more user-friendly.
"We don't have to write anything down and I'm hopeful that it will improve retention and achievement rates."
The burden of compiling portfolios does put many students between the ages of 16 and 24 off courses, and drop-out rates can be high, said Spencer.
She added that assessors have also benefited from the system because they no longer have to carry and organise multiple paper-based portfolios.
Other colleges have also been running pilot schemes. "It's an easier method of gaining an NVQ. A lot of students find the process of building a portfolio very difficult," said Elaine Nicholson of Liverpool Community College, which has been using the system to assess workers in call centres.
All too often such staff can't leave their duties long enough for assessors to complete interviews. Instead, assessors capture video and audio using the system to show the student at work.
This enables them to complete the electronic portfolio and has the added benefit of ensuring that it is the student who has completed the set goals.
At the end of the course, students can be presented with a CD containing their complete portfolio. This can be used by them or their employers for future reference.
Like West Cheshire, Liverpool Community College is also looking at extending use of the system to other NVQ courses. Spencer sees its use being extended even further.
"We are using it for NVQs, but the way it has been written means it could be extended to such things as Investors in People. We have authoring rights so we can change it as well," she said.
Profile has made the system adaptable so that different types of assessment can be carried out.
The original development work was done in Java, but it is now being converted to C# and a back-end management and reporting module is also in development.
Webb said that by streamlining the process of compiling portfolios, the system will help colleges to reduce costs significantly.
"Traditionally, assessors have been armed with reams of paper when they assess NVQ candidates," he said.
"Now, with just a Tablet PC assessors can be confident that all the information they need, whether it is audio, video or written evidence, is in one place, and they are in a much better position to assess candidates more accurately and more quickly.
"Another big benefit is that colleges are able to retain all their NVQ information electronically. This makes the audit process far easier and quicker."
The company has called the system Electronic Assessment System for Education (Ease) and is spreading the word about its capabilities.
Profile is using Fujitsu Siemens Tablet PCs, supplied by Plum Express of Harrogate, as the platform. Colleges buy the Tablet PC and pay £49 to Profile to run each candidate through an NVQ course.
THE INNOVATION GAME
The Approved Technology Innovator of the Month awards scheme is sponsored by Syscap and backed by Computer Reseller News and its sister title Computing. Eight of the 11 monthly winners have already been named.
These, along with the September, October and November winners, will be shortlisted for two annual awards: one for the private and one for the public sector.
You can enter your firm or supplier by clicking on the Innovator button at www.crn.vnunet.com and completing the form.
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