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Q&A with Surpass Assessment’s Chief Strategy and Partnership Officer

Paul Muir: Chief Strategy and Partnership Officer

Paul joins us from the British Council, where he spent the last seven years as Head of Technology Enabled Assessment.

Paul is on the Board and is Vice-Chair of the e-Assessment Association. He is also a member of the ATP Innovations in Testing Security Committee, and served as the E-ATP Conference Chair in 2021.

In his spare time (he has two small children so this is limited!) Paul is an avid supporter of Ipswich Town Football Club and is a rollercoaster and wildlife enthusiast, with holidays spent in the wilds of Alaska. 

Welcome to Surpass Assessment, Paul. Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Thanks, I’m glad to be here. I’ve worked in the assessment industry since 2000, so for 23 years (I feel old!) in certification boards such as Cambridge Assessment, at education and legal regulators, and as a consultant specialising in educational reform in the Middle East. I worked for the British Council for seven years, helping them to transform from a mainly pen and paper assessment business to one driven by technology-enabled assessment. My team and I delivered change programmes helping clients to transition from pen and paper for over 10 million learners during my time in the role. 

I’d encountered Surpass before, interacted with its technology and staff, and was very impressed with what it could do and the opportunities it presented. 

What do you hope to achieve in this role?

This is a new role at Surpass Assessment and focuses on the industry idea of ‘best in class’. People used to want a one-stop shop for on-screen testing when it was new, but that didn’t necessarily mean getting the best of everything. For example, the test center experience in a package might be exactly what’s needed but underlying item banking and test driver technology may not be the best fit or provide the best functionality for the customer.  

Surpass is in a unique position where, as a service integrator, it can provide ‘best-in-class’ services through trusted partners, offering the very best of each aspect of other vendors’ assessment services to customers. 

We are highly flexible and use innovative technology in assessment, but with an awareness that we don’t cause a digital divide that leaves behind those without the necessary resources or infrastructure. Covid accelerated many digital leaps but sometimes to the detriment of cohorts of learners in some of the more challenging environments in the world. 

My role will be to widen discussion, not just about our world-leading technology at Surpass Assessment, but also how technology and assessment can help people advance their careers and education without leaving people behind.  

Surpass can work offline and without internet during tests, making it ideally suited to deliver anywhere. So, Surpass can be cutting edge but also enable people to access education without barriers, including in disadvantaged areas in prosperous countries or where there are real worries about internet access and reliability. 

Working in partnership with others, we’re in a position where we can design the solution around the customer’s needs – not dictate to them how they need to adapt their processes or compromise on what they want to achieve. Surpass is agile and we will pivot quickly to work with people who can offer the best in what they do. 

What are you excited about in the year ahead?

There are a few big discussions happening in our industry and a key one is around digitization of school exams. The move to screens from paper on a large scale is one of the last big areas for change in K-12 assessment. Now that technology means we can do large-scale modern delivery – how can we? And it raises many issues, such as: should we change the type of questions asked of students, or just move questions wholesale off paper? Should we aim for digital-first tests, built from the ground up so test-takers experience all the benefits that digital delivery can bring? 

We could see regulators, governments and of course awarding/certification bodies change ‘speed’ on this development over the next 12 months as current pilots complete. It’s not a question of if, but when. Digitization has to happen, because traditional paper-based testing isn’t sustainable in the long term, now that students learn in school on screen and are so used to on-screen formative assessment. Plus, governments around the world can’t afford another Covid-type interruption to school exams like we saw in the UK in 2020 and 2021. 

Awarding bodies are now looking at this issue and considering if can we test millions at same time digitally. Whatever happens, a partnership approach will be needed to achieve it. 

Secondly, there is the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) – ChatGPT has accelerated the issues around plagiarism and universities are worried because essay-based testing is key for them. School exams and summative assessment see less threat. As I said in an article with the EAA – how do we work with it, rather than ignore it?  

“AI has been around for 10+ years helping in the marking of assessment and creating high-stakes, valid assessments. AI is not the problem, how it is used is… It is just the latest in a long line of ‘developments’ in the assessment sector and while it is often a knee-jerk to see it as a bad thing, we should be looking to how the technology behind it and its use can be turned to a positive.” 

Paul Muir

I believe we should embrace AI and ensure what we do recognizes it and focuses on how we help it generate content. AI also offers potential to save money and time in the assessment industry by generating items or supporting and in some case automating marking, or helping enhance and expedite standardization. Ultimately, we should use it, not fear it

Finally, I’m looking forward to getting out and meeting new people and potential partners, contacting existing and new customers, and finding new ways of doing things, new tech and new opportunities.  

I’ll be at the ATP Innovations in Testing Conference in March, with the Surpass team – please do reach out to me on LinkedIn, email me to meet up or come along to see me at the Surpass booth. We have a busy conference season ahead too in 2023, so please keep an eye on both Surpass Assessment and my own LinkedIn feeds! 

How are partnerships key to what you aim to achieve?

We’re all doing good things, but there is real power in numbers; we’re not all the best at everything. The more we can work together to share understanding, the more we can improve together to make technology, solutions and services that the Surpass Community and wider assessment industry want.  

We are now beyond one-size fits all solutions – customized is key: as in so many industries like leisure, people are more open to choosing what they want and don’t feel that choice and personalization are risky. In fact, they are expected. 

As Surpass can manage all the integration in this, it isn’t daunting – you really can get the best of the best solutions, and a good bit of everything without compromising.  

Read more updates from the Surpass Assessment team on our LinkedIn page.

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