Blog: 600 terabytes - Simon Lebus

Blog: 600 terabytes - Simon Lebus

As we come up to the election one of the more bizarre suggestions for driving up educational standards has been that teachers should be forced to sit A Level exams alongside their pupils. Quite aside from providing a distraction for teachers at a time when they are supposed to be focused on preparing their students for the exams, it is not clear what this would achieve, aside from an even more instrumental approach to teaching to the test.

Indeed experience suggests that rather artificial exercises of this sort are unrevealing. A few years ago we arranged for three journalists to take A Levels in their specialist subject (albeit without much opportunity for preparation) and unsurprisingly they received rather mixed results.

A much more useful contribution to the smooth functioning of the exam system would be if more teachers were to get involved in marking.

In the meantime, Lord Sainsbury, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, officially opened the West Cambridge Data Centre last week. Cambridge Assessment is one of three partners in this, the others being the university's High Performance Computing Service (HPC) and the University of Cambridge Computing Service (UCS). The HPC is involved in some of the university's major big data activities, in particular projects on large scale genomics, while the UCS supports the university's information services requirements.

In bringing these three departments together the project needed to support three radically different sets of technical demands. Cambridge Assessment's needs have particularly to do with absolute security and resilience as we need to be able to process large volumes of data related to individual candidates, different question paper combinations and multiple optionalities within question papers, and we need to be able to depend on there being no system downtime so that we can be sure of getting the correct results to all our eight million candidates in a timely fashion. This is no trivial task and recently we approved a systems upgrade to deal with the fact there are more than 200 different option combinations associated with the new history A Level papers currently under development.

The current storage capacity in the new Data Centre is in the region of 600 terabytes. One way of making sense of this figure is that the entire catalogue of the Library of Congress (a reasonable proxy of the sum of human knowledge) is estimated at 15 terabytes, so our current processing capacity is several times that and three or four times what it was as recently as five years ago.

It is precisely this sort of massive processing capacity that is required to turn the dream of big data into the reality of practical applications for how we improve learning and education.

Finally many of you will have seen the extraordinary photo of parents, friends and relatives scaling the walls of an exam centre in the Indian state of Bihar in order to get answers to students sitting their exams inside. While this wasn't an exam we were running, it is a good illustration of the challenges faced all over the world in ensuring exam security, something we generally take for granted, and also how important exams can be in determining a child's future and hence the lengths people will go to to ensure good results.

At a conference a few years ago in the US I listened to a progressive Chicago educationalist decrying the role of exams and complaining about how they distorted educational priorities. When it came to questions, a delegate representing one of the developing countries observed that in his country exams were regarded as socially progressive as they represented an advance on nepotism, which had previously been how jobs and university places were allocated - something we should remember when reflecting on the role of examinations.

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

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