We think of the Internet as being very young, but one of the pioneers in using the Internet for assessments is about to retire. Paul Roberts, the developer of the world’s first commercial, Internet assessment software is retiring in March. I thought readers might like to hear some of his story.
Paul was employee number three at Questionmark, joining us as software developer in 1989 when the company was still working out of my home in London.
During the 1990s, our main products ran on DOS and Windows. When we started hearing about the new ideas of HTML and the web, we realized that the Internet could make computerized assessment so much easier. Prior to the Internet, testing people at a distance required a specialized network or sending floppy disks in the mail (yes people really did this!). The idea that participants could connect to the questions and return their results over the Internet was compelling. With me as product manager, tester and documenter for our new product — and Paul as lead (and only!) developer — he wrote the first version of our Internet testing product QM Web, which we released in 1995.
QM Web became widely used by universities and corporations who wanted to deliver quizzes and tests over the Internet. Later in the nineties, learning from the lessons of QM Web, we developed Questionmark Perception, our enterprise-level Internet assessment management system still widely used today. Paul architected Questionmark Perception and for many years was our lead developer on its assessment delivery engine.
One of Paul’s key innovations in developing Questionmark Perception was the use of XML to store questions. XML (eXtensible Markup Language) is a way of encoding data that is both human-readable and machine-readable. In 1997, Paul implemented QML (Question Markup Language) as an early application of this concept. QML allowed questions to be described independently of computer platforms. To quote Paul at the time:
“When we were developing our latest application, we really felt that we didn’t want to go down the route of designing yet another proprietary format that would restrict future developments for both us and the rest of the industry. We’re very familiar with the problems of transporting questions from platform to platform because we’ve been doing it for years with DOS, Windows, Macintosh and now the Web. With this in mind, we created a language that can describe questions and answers in tests, independently of the way they are presented. This makes it extremely powerful because QML now enables the same question database to be presented no matter what computer platform is chosen on or whatever the operating system.”
Questionmark Perception and Questionmark OnDemand still use QML as their native format, so that every single question delivered by Questionmark technology has QML as its core. QML was very influential in the design of the version 1 IMS Question & Test Interoperability specification (IMS QTI), which was led by Questionmark CEO Eric Shepherd and to which Paul was a major contributor. Paul also worked on other industry standards efforts including AICC, xAPI and ADL SCORM.
Over the years, many other technology innovators and leaders have joined Questionmark, and we have a thriving product development team. Most members of our team have had the opportunity to learn from Paul over the years, and Paul’s legacy is in safe hands: Questionmark will continue to break new frontiers in computerizing assessments. I am sure you will join me in wishing Paul well in his personal journey post-retirement.