Cambridge invests in internal scanning bureau

Cambridge Assessment opens new scanning facility to speed up processing scripts after exams

To enhance the speed and efficiency of processing exams papers, Kodak Alaris announces that Cambridge Assessment, the world’s oldest exam group and the only one attached to a university, has invested over a million pounds to create its own internal scanning bureau.

A key aim of the project is to reduce the time it takes to make scripts available to examiners for marking. It will also provide Cambridge Assessment the ability to introduce new initiatives to enhance the whole exam setting process such as improved analytics. Last year, 34.3 million question papers were dispatched to 173 countries along with 36.3 million examination items such as labels and plastic sacks.  

Working with Kodak Alaris, Cambridge Assessment initially purchased two IBML 5375 high performance production scanners, each able to process over 300 pages per minute along with IBML SOFTTRAC capture software. A third IBML scanner was added in July 2015 to boost processing capacity. 

By bringing some of the scanning in-house, we’ve been able to shave off time which improves our post exam turnaround performance and will ultimately help learners meet admission deadlines

Throughput like this is crucial given the scale of the operation. Live scanning internally started in July 2014 and the exam group expects to process around 110 million images this academic year using a combination of in-house and outsourced scanning.  On site, Cambridge Assessment created 10 million images with the planned volume expected to rise to 30 million images next academic year.  

Cambridge Assessment operates and manages the whole exam supply chain. This covers everything from creating the exam qualifications, generating the exam papers, then printing and distributing them along with all the required materials to administer exams.  After exams are held, scripts are returned for marking, with results and ultimately certificates provided to candidates. Last year, it posted 8 million of them, such is the international popularity and value of its qualifications. 

Post exam processing is testing

Since October 2007, Cambridge Assessment has moved away from physically sending out paper-based exam scripts to examiners for marking. Like other exam bodies, it is using an Electronic Script Management solution to automate the process to make it easier to allocate work to examiners whilst improving speed and security.  Cambridge Assessment partner with RM RESULTS who have previously worked with third party document management outsourcers to manage the complex job of script scanning and indexing.  Cambridge Assessment has been fully integrated with this process and now operates alongside RM Results and the wider supply chain.

We’ve installed the best equipment available and created new processes so we have more control and can scan ‘live’ ourselves

The system at Cambridge Assessment stores data in an Electronic Data Management System (EDMS) from DOCUMENTUM which interfaces with RM’s with secure online marking system called RM™ ASSESSOR.  This is then used to display scanned images of scripts for examiners locally on their computers.

Ian Duffield, Cambridge Assessment’s Assistant Director for Group Distribution, explains, “Originally, we took the view to stick to our core competencies – we’re an assessment organisation not a scanning operation.  However, given scanning and associated services are so integral to us, it was logical that the business would ultimately look at it given the potential to improve script processing time. We’re adopting a dual sourcing approach – working with existing partners and now in-house.”

Reducing the ‘lead out’ window is key

By outsourcing answer sheets for scanning, there can be a delay sending packets to bureau partners.  Cambridge Assessment wanted to reduce the so-called ‘lead out’ time – the window for exams to be collated, marked and results then provided – as customers, particularly those internationally, want this faster. Ian Duffield explains, “This year, for example, we offered our first exam series in March for India. Tests were taken in March and results needed to be available by May or sooner as this is when University entry deadlines are.  By bringing some of the scanning in-house, we’ve been able to shave off time which improves our post exam turnaround performance and will ultimately help learners meet admission deadlines.”

In addition, in-house scanning will help to share a selection of answer papers among examiners earlier so they can standardise marking. For four months of each year, exam traffic volumes are huge given the May/June and November/December exam seasons of southern and northern hemisphere countries.  

Ashley Keil, IBML’s sales director, commented, “To meet demand, Cambridge Assessment has instigated a new shift pattern for staff, namely two eight-hour daily shifts which means at peak times, IBML scanners will be working non-stop 16 hours a day, 5 days a week which is testament to the reliability and performance of our equipment.”

Existing business processes are moving to SAP

Cambridge Assessment is in the process of moving its legacy business systems to a new SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform.  As part of this project, some of the multiple choice exams for its Cambridge English Language Assessment business unit have been redesigned with new forms created to allow these scripts to then be scanned.  This drove the purchase of the third IBML machine given the additional volumes to process. Script data from all of Cambridge Assessment’s scanning activities is stored in DOCUMENTUM. 

Service and support is key – hot swap is the answer

Service resilience is crucial given the volume of scripts scanned and the tight turnaround times which have to be met. Kodak Alaris has worked closely with Cambridge Assessment to meet its requirement of just four hours for break/fix support. A ‘hot swap’ back up IBML scanner has been provided which is located at its business continuity and disaster recovery site called DC20.  The costs of this back up machine are built into the maintenance contract. This is beneficial for everyone.  Kodak Alaris can operate to its current service model and Cambridge Assessment has an immediate solution should there be any service outage.

Ian Duffield concludes, “This is a brand new initiative for us given until recently everything was outsourced. Now we’ve installed the best equipment available and created new processes so we have more control and can scan ‘live’ ourselves. Everything works as it should which is excellent. It’s a real sense of achievement for the team.”

David Messum, Kodak Alaris’ UK IBML sales manager says, “When most people stand by an IBML scanner they say ‘wow’ such is the speed.  The creation of an internal bureau is one of the most important projects Cambridge Assessment is working on currently and we’re delighted to be involved.”