The NSW Online Science testing pilot–using the Microsoft Cloud

Whoops – despite me talking about this project frequently, I forgot to put anything on the blog…which came to light when I was writing about Janison being a finalist in the Microsoft Partner Awards. So let me put it right

Last year Janison worked with the New South Wales Department of Education and Training to move their Essential Secondary Science Assessment (a compulsory test for Year 8 students) online – reducing the amount of paperwork flying around, and the consequent marking and delays caused in issuing results.

Why makes the online NSW ESSA test interesting?

From an education point of view, it’s an interesting project because they managed to create a new level of interactivity within the tests – allowing students to change the parameters of experiments, and getting immediate feedback. It’s a big jump forward from multiple-choice quizzes.

And from a technology point of view, it’s noteworthy because of the way that Cloud services were used to deliver the test to students – which dramatically reduced the cost of delivering the test. In the pilot project in 2010, 30,000 students from 650 schools took the test online, all in a single day – and using Cloud-based ICT made it possible.

Video case study of the online Essential School Science Assessment (ESSA) test

The technical side of the ESSA online testing

Janison, the partner that built the online ESSA testing system, used the Windows Azure Cloud system to deliver the test, with Azure delivering the interactive content to the students, as well as storing the students individual answers (and streaming those answers back to a on-premise data server too). Students taking the test didn’t see any of this – they just worked their way through a set of multimedia, animated virtual assessments, whilst staff used a web portal to administer the system.

Although all of this would have been possible using a conventional infrastructure, the use of the Windows Azure Cloud reduced the cost – making it 100 times less expensive. In the old model, the system would have needed banks of dedicated servers, which would only be heavily used on one day a year (but would have to have the capacity for hundreds of thousands of students for that one day!). With the Cloud model, what Janison could do was simply use the elastic capacity of the Cloud, and increase the number of servers they were using in the Microsoft datacentre (perhaps in a case of overcaution, using 300 servers on the day). And because they could just switch it on and off like a lightswitch, they only paid for the hours they were using them. This meant the hosting costs fell from hundreds of thousands of dollars (for physical servers) to just $500.

And, for the developers it allowed them to use their existing development methodology and tools, according Wayne Houlden, Janison’s CEO

Without the Cloud, then it’s unlikely the project would have ever got off the ground, or would have taken years to get moving, because of the prohibitive cost, and the inflexibility of a traditional computing project.

The success of ESSA

Of course, successful IT projects never grab the headlines like unsuccessful ones, but the Sydney Morning Herald’s article on ESSA testing described it with no shortage of praise:


The trial…heralds a new era of online assessment destined to transform how students are examined…

…The overwhelmingly positive feedback from students, who are asked to complete a short survey at the end of the exam, and teachers has already filtered out to education authorities worldwide.


And there’s been widespread recognition for the project, as it won the Australian Excellence in eGovernment Award 2011 for Applications Development, and is a finalist in the Telstra Business Awards at the beginning of July. (And was a finalist in the worldwide Microsoft Partner Awards).

Visit the Janison websiteVisit the Janison website to learn more

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