ADVENTURES in Online Testing (Volume 4, Issue 3)
by: Michelle Zediker, Consultant, OWL Testing Software
Ten years ago, the co-founders of OWL Testing Software knew that they were looking at a proposition that could change the face language learning. The small Pittsburgh-based software firm was approached by the world languages coordinator at the largest metropolitan public school district in southwestern Pennsylvania with an unusual request. The district was looking to create a new kind of computer-based assessment tool. They were looking to accomplish more than simply turning their well-worn standardized tests into a computerize document -- simply replacing the pencil with a mouse click. They wanted to evaluate their students with a new type of standardized test. This type of test would focus on how students use language in a practical way – by speaking it. In short, they were looking for a computer-based oral proficiency tool. This technical and educational challenge represented the inception of OWL Testing Software.
The Hatching of an Idea
In 2000, when OWL co-founders, Chris Dalessandri and Irwin Hurst, started the first proof of concept of what would become OWL Testing Software, they knew they were far ahead of what was being done commercially. At the time, little consideration was given to Web-based platforms for assessment. Most software reviewers did not even consider oral response or listening comprehension examples.
To differentiate their product, the OWL team started by focusing on what was hard, what no one else was doing, oral proficiency interview-type assessments. The founders collaborated closely with that first public school customer to work through the difficulties and the test management issues over the next 2 years.
Their goal was to leverage the Web to make online practice and assessment an integral part of the language learning environment. From this initial platform, the software was developed into a commercial product that was installed onsite at few additional school districts. As any young company learning to fly knows, some hard lessons can be learned when spreading your wings. Nevertheless, Chris and Irwin used these lessons to improve the initial versions of the software, OWL v.1.0 and OWL v. 2.0. These initial versions were based upon ActiveX technology, which required users to have Microsoft’s Internet Explorer exclusively for their Web browser.
Soaring Toward Excellence
In 2004, the OWL team made a strategic decision to rewrite OWL from the ground up. It was a monumental task requiring hundreds of hours of design meetings and planning sessions. They were very ambitious with OWL v. 3.0. They included many more question types and thousands of new features as well as the ability to accommodate multiple Web browsers.
Thankfully, that investment has really paid off. Today, OWL version 3.0 is an entirely Web-based, comprehensive test management system. It is available as a subscription service or as a site installed application. There is no software to manage or install on users’ computers, so OWL customers are able to start building their online test and question bank almost immediately. Users can easily integrate audio, video and picture files to customize their tests for their specific learning application. For customers who wish to participate in the OWL Community Library, a wealth of already built online test items are available to jump start their online assessment program. OWL’s comprehensive approach to the assessment cycle gives users efficiencies and convenience at every step.
Features like automatic randomization, test sharing, automatic item scoring, auto messaging, online rating and online reporting allow administrators to manage their entire assessment program with more expediency and control. For site installed users, OWL can be integrated with a student record system providing still further efficiency. An added benefit for educational users, OWL can be a tool for improving assessment at every level. When OWL is used by instructors to rate their own students, there is a ‘wash-back effect’ that helps to improve instruction. By using OWL's data collection, reporting and analysis on an individual activity at the student, teacher, class and institutional or district level, OWL customers can access performance data and improve instruction at every level.
Flying in the Face of Today’s Challenges
Some things have remained constant for the company over the past ten years. Potential customers still want a high degree of capability from their testing solution and they want it FREE. However, at OWL Testing Software, they have found that organizations often fail to consider the real costs of an open source solution. Organizations often consume valuable time trying to piece together multiple computerized solutions to meet assessment needs. An institution can quickly loose sight of their original goals when they become entangled in an assessment cycle that is at best inefficient and unpredictable. That is why it is more important than ever to spread the OWL message. OWL is a singular, well-engineered and well-supported, tool that can meet ALL the assessment cycle needs. OWL customers know that is worth paying for a superior alternative to a patched together, open source solution. OWL enables customers to focus on what is important, learning and assessment, not software development
According to Chris, “Many times a potential customer will ask, ‘How long have you been in business?’ Why do they ask this question? Because they are looking for stability.” Mr. Dalessandri continues, “When I engage with a Chief Technical Officer or a legal representative at an organization, they are not asking about open source. They want to know that we can support them and train their staff. Moreover, they want to know if we are going to be around three years from now when their license expires. These are assurances that you can’t get from free software.”
A Wiser OWL
Today, OWL has developed into a flexible platform that meets needs well beyond traditional high stakes testing. Unlike most pre-packaged language learning systems, OWL is being applied to a multitude of learning scenarios across a variety of organizations. OWL users include government organizations, not-for-profit groups, corporations and educational institutions. In addition to educational applications, like online language learning and assessment, OWL is used for instructor pre-screening and rater evaluations. Some universities use OWL for graduate student self-placement and teaching assistant qualification. OWL Testing Software also is used for professional certifications and pre-employment screening.
Now the challenge for the OWL team is to maintain their competitive edge technologically as well as educationally. The OWL development team is constantly working with their customers and partners to find even more ways to improve online learning and assessment around the world. They are always looking for new pathways to integrate learning and new tools for assessing competencies.
While the Chris and Irwin may not be able to say what OWL will look like in ten more years, one thing is certain. The impetus for innovation will come not from within the OWL team, but from OWL users. At OWL Testing Software, they know that any customer inquiry could be the technical and educational challenge becomes the next innovation in online testing. It is that customer focus that differentiates OWL Testing Software in today’s software development environment. It is what makes choosing OWL an investment in the future of your online testing program.