IELTS via LAX and not an alien in sight

by Saul Nassé, 16 March 2015

Monday 16th March 2015 
The last time I drove from Venice Beach to Los Angeles International Airport, or LAX, was in 1992, and I had just been asking beach-goers what messages they would send to aliens. Back then I was directing films for the BBC's hugely popular science show, Tomorrow's World. The story I was filming was about NASA's Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, SETI. Twenty-odd years on they haven't found any sign of aliens, which is surprising, as I am sure I worked with one or two at the BBC. My favourite message to the extra-terrestrials, by the way, was from the young guy who said, “Please come quick, we've only got Bush and Clinton.” Funny to think that American voters may have the same choice in Election 2016. 

This time my journey to LAX via Venice Beach was from Pasadena, where I was discussing the future of IELTS, the hugely popular English exam we run with our partners, the British Council and IDP Australia. We passed a significant milestone in 2014, reaching 2.5 million candidates for the first time. The exam is increasingly successful in the United States, and our wonderful colleague Ariel Foster runs IELTS Inc, which is based in Pasadena. The key factor behind its success in the USA, both for candidates in the country and ones heading to it, is the huge range of American organisations that recognise the qualification as proof of people's English skills. Ariel's team have done a fantastic job of winning that recognition for us. 

How to propel IELTS Inc to ever greater success in the USA was on the agenda for our discussions with IDP and the British Council in Pasadena. We focused too on the upcoming launch of our network to deliver the qualification for UK visa and immigration purposes. We are delighted to have won concessions for both the UK and overseas, which is, I think, testament to 25 years of IELTS' success as a carefully calibrated and secure test of candidates' English, run by three partners with a real commitment to education. We also discussed how we can continue to develop the test as the world changes, particularly as people live their lives in an increasingly digital world. 

I had a very vivid glimpse of that digital world on this same trip to the West Coast of the USA. I was lucky enough to visit Qualcomm, who make the microprocessors that are at the heart of many of our mobile phones and devices. My host at Qualcomm's HQ in San Diego was their energetic Director of Mobile Learning, Geoff Stead. The team that Geoff heads has a mission to harness the best of mobile technology to inspire Qualcomm's people to go on a journey of digital learning. 

His team's inventions range from the utilitarian to the artistic. They have created an app for every Qualcomm employee to navigate around their increasingly vast campus, tracking the fleet of buses that shuttle people around. They have also brought to life, 2015-stylee, one of Qualcomm's great traditions, the patent wall. The company is proud of its track record in innovation, and prove it to their team and visitors by plastering their buildings with copies of the multiplicity of patents they hold. Geoff has taken it one step further with a mobile app that allows you to hold your phone up to the wall, creating a virtual world that you can dive into, exploring each patent in turn, drawing up a host of information. It's amazing. 

He's used the same technology to create the world's largest virtual art installation. The side of one complete building has been turned into a tableau that charts the history of communication in a cacophonous visual narrative (pictured). It looks spectacular on its own, but lift up your phone in front and it turns into an extraordinary, animated, 3D world that you can explore interactively 

Back in 1992, my tour with Geoff would have become a Tomorrow's World film that would have been visually amazing. In 2015, it set my mind racing about what learning experiences we might be able to create for our IELTS candidates. Immersive, interactive worlds where you can jump in and speak and listen to English as you go about your daily life? A prospect not so very far into Tomorrow's World, I think. And not an alien in sight. 

Saul Nassé 
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

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