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The small independent putting the fun in testing

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Andrew Stokes, managing director of the Hong Kong-based EFL software company ClarityEnglish, talks to Melanie Butler about testing on mobile phones, the perils of unanswered emails and high tech toasters

Clarity always strikes me as an ELT disruptor, a company started by two guys, a Tefler and a nerd, in a spare bedroom in Hong Kong. This year you went handheld – producing a placement test for mobile phones. Are you taking on the edtech giants?
No, I don’t think so. We are quite happy as a small independent publisher with the freedom to take on projects we enjoy and which we think will be useful. For example, we are currently working on an online course to help nurses in the Philippines get the 7.0 in Ielts Writing that they need to work in the UK. That’s way too small for an edtech giant.

You developed the Dynamic Placement Test with the German test specialists Telc. Did the test already exist and you adapted it – or did you develop the test to fit the technology? For our first online test, the concept was to digitise a paper test, which meant a lot of gapfill and multiple choice. This time we realised that with digital tests we have opportunities to do new things. For example, rearranging words to form a sentence. Think of all the skills involved in that. You need to understand the words individually and how they relate to each other. You also need to be able to cope with the grammar, and to interact with the functional intent of the sentence. It’s complex and challenging; it‘s not possible just to skim through clicking a, b or c at random. We hope that it is also more fun — there doesn’t seem to be very much fun in testing these days. One thing I admire about Telc is that they are interested in making tests engaging and enjoyable..

Why put a test on mobile phones? Isn’t this just a gimmick?
It’s a question of logistics. Asia University in Taiwan, the first institution we talked to about large-scale digital placement testing, had 2,000 freshers to test. And a computer room with just 20 desktop machines, so it would have taken half a semester to test them all. We soon realised that every one of those 2,000 students had a powerful computer sitting right in front of them: their phone. And of course, a smartphone is not only convenient (and paid for by the student); it’s also an ideal tool for a basic language test. For most people, especially of that generation, their handheld device is their primary means of communication.

What was the biggest technical challenge that you faced in terms of the test?
We wanted a test that is as democratic as possible. It needs to be able to run in less developed areas, such as remote parts of the Philippines. This means that we can only rely on intermittent internet connections, so we had to make sure that it continues to run even when the connection is lost, which we achieved. But actually, the biggest challenge has been administrative. For example, the system sends out emails to students with a download link for the app. We were surprised to discover that a lot of students never check their email. That kind of issue comes from out of the blue and finding solutions (Facebook? Instagram? Whiteboard?) is part of the fun of it.

Taking out your crystal ball, where do you see the love affair between tech and testing in ten years time? Will our toaster be testing us too?
Yes, and that will be a proper test with consequences. Anyone who has used Amazon’s Alexa knows that you will tell your toaster that you want your bagel ‘lightly done’, ‘slightly overdone’ or ‘burnt to a crisp’. You will be able to assess the accuracy of your vocabulary against the surface of the bagel that pops up.