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Candidates can take SAIPA's online Professional Evaluation assessment anywhere. Supplied/SAIPA
Candidates can take SAIPA's online Professional Evaluation assessment anywhere. Supplied/SAIPA

Thanks to a future-focused, strategic approach to digital transformation, the South African Institute of Professional Accountants (SAIPA) was able to react quickly when the pandemic hit in 2020 and fully implement its online Professional Evaluation (PE) assessments platform ahead of schedule without any hiccups.

Plans for this platform had been in the works since 2018, with the institute's ultimate goal being to host all PE assessments — which candidates must pass to earn the designation of Professional Accountant (SA) and become SAIPA members — online by July 2020.

To ensure the transition from in-person to virtual assessments would be a smooth one, a pilot programme was implemented to allow SAIPA to not only perfect the online assessment system but also the way in which PE candidates would be trained to use it.

Preparation makes perfect

“Our first concern was that candidates should not be intimidated by technical disruptions or a lack of digital skills,” says Professor Rashied Small of SAIPA’s Centre of Future Excellence.

To overcome this hurdle, the institute introduced weekly online practice assessments for the candidates in its Project Achiever programme. (This programme prepares attendees for their PE assessment as well as imparting additional professional competencies.)

We are pleased to declare that the rollout of SAIPA's online PE assessment platform has been a great success with no technical glitches
Karl Smith, senior manager: Education, Training and Member Support at SAIPA

Doing so allowed SAIPA to identify both technical issues and any problems candidates encountered using the virtual PE assessment platform well in advance of it going live.

“We are pleased to declare that the rollout of SAIPA's online PE assessment platform has been a great success with no technical glitches” says Karl Smith, senior manager: education, training and member support at SAIPA.

Along with the extensive support given to PE candidates ahead of taking their assessments, Smith credits the success of the platform to careful planning, thorough testing of invigilator software and close collaboration with digital service providers and SAIPA's digital and technology team.

Cloud-based solutions key to inclusivity and integrity

According to Thomas Nyamvura, digital and technology officer at SAIPA, many potential technical issues were avoided by using cloud-based solutions and focusing on user support.

There is no need for a specially booked examination venue and candidates are even allowed to sit the PE assessment in an internet cafe — welcome news for those who don't have connectivity at home.

Browser-based invigilator software, also known as digital proctoring, monitors candidates throughout for behavioural patterns associated with examination or assessment fraud.

“A public venue is not problematic as long as the candidate focuses on the test and does not perform any actions that imply any dishonest actions,” says Nyamvura.

Though SAIPA does not formally provide devices or data to candidates, Nyamvura says the institute is seeking sponsors to assist students to source these where appropriate.

Planning and review

Smith says his team uses the motto “never say never” when planning an online PE assessment such as the one that successfully took place on December 4.

“We try to be prepared for every eventuality because we know that while technology offers outstanding utility, it can also be unpredictable and internet connectivity can be a problem in SA,” he says. 

Risk management is a priority and Smith has a Plan B in case of blackouts or other unforeseen challenges. 

Candidates are also expected to log into the system well before the assessment starts and those that don't are contacted by phone or email to make sure they have access and are offered technical support where needed.

Once the PE assessment is complete, Smith's team holds a meeting to review the online platform's performance and, if any technical issue were to occur, to take action to prevent these from happening again. 

Even so, a post-assessment survey is held with candidates to understand their experience of using the online platform. This, together with the anonymous psychometric performance data the systems provides, can be used to make future improvements where necessary.

“I'm proud of what a little foresight, planning and design-thinking has helped us accomplish in making online evaluations a real success story at SAIPA,” says Smith.

This article was paid for by the South African Institute of Professional Accountants.