When Thomas Kropmans was a schoolboy he put a huge amount of effort into an assignment and was completely crestfallen when he failed.
Feeling fundamentally wronged by the system he took his work to another teacher for a second opinion. He passed with flying colours. “From that moment onward, I knew that assessment is, in principle, unfair and the decisions around it could benefit from serious improvement,” he says.
Thomas Kropmans is now a senior lecturer in Medical Informatics & Education at NUI Galway. He is also a co-founder, with software engineer David Cunningham, of Qpercom, a company set up eight years ago to return to his long held belief that assessment, particularly in high stakes exams such as medicine and law, needed to be dragged out of the dark ages of pen and paper into the world of web-enabled technology.
What has helped Kropmans realise his objective is the growth in educational informatics, an emerging field of data analytics within medical education. It provides information not previously available to help academic institutions assess pass or fail rates among their students more effectively.
Qpercom has been a slow burn as Kropmans has also been busy with his day job, but the company has now finished and launched its first product OSCE (Objective Structured Clinical Examinations) Management Information Systems. It is aimed at undergraduate and postgraduate medical and health sciences students being evaluated on tasks such as interviewing patients, removing stitches or taking blood pressure.
“The OSCE has been in existence for over 40 years in medicine and has been adopted into health sciences, law and other subjects,” Kropmans says. “It’s a very labour intense exam as students go through a consecutive series of stations and at each station an expert examiner observes and marks them. Previously this marking was done on paper and mistakes were made. We have automated the logistics, the data entry and the data analysis and apply the Standard Error of Measurement to each student. This determines whether they should pass or fail. This process makes the decision-making fairer and more objective. It is also free from the human error that in the past has meant some students passed when they shouldn’t have. In short, we are improving the overall quality of the exams and helping to ensure better and more highly qualified doctors,” Kropmans says.
Qpercom’s potential clients are higher education institutions and “professional bodies that take their assessment procedures seriously”, Kropmans says. The business can now boast a number of high profile educational establishments among its clients including the Karolinkska Institutet in Stockholm, the universities of Umea and Leuven and the National University of Singapore.
The system is also being used by St George's University in London to assess its students in four locations worldwide and by the National School of Health Care Science in Birmingham, which examines students in 23 healthcare-related disciplines. NUI Galway, the College of Psychiatrists, University College Dublin and the Medical Council are also using it.
Qpercom is based at NUI Galway where it employs five people. Two more jobs are set to come on stream shortly. The business has been developed without outside investors so far and, while the actual start-up costs were minimal in terms of capital expenditure, Kropmans estimates the cost of the man hours involved in developing the product and its IP at in excess of €160,000.
The business is now turning over around €250,000 a year and its revenue model is software as a service. Qpercom is currently developing a new product for the College of Anaesthetists in Ireland.
“We are still unique in the marketplace and while competitors are popping up, none of them has the advantage of spinning out from a medical school and being able to develop a solution with and for educationalists based on real life experiences,” Kropmans says.