Answer Keys for Fun & Profit

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So I have this idea that I’ve been trying to shake for a few months now, and that’s not worked out for me yet. I think I might have to actually break down and start this business. There’s an opportunity to join me, if you’re interested.

The Problem

Most of my working life has been spent in the Learning & Development sector (the field formerly known as “Corporate Training”, now often abbreviated as “L&D”). In many ways, this is the least corporate part of the business in any business. After consulting with dozens of companies both large and small over the last twenty years, and speaking at industry conferences frequently for the last five, I now feel justified in saying what I’ve kind of known all along: this is messed up.

One of the simple and preventable ways in which every organization I’ve ever worked with is seriously messed up is their lack of answer keys for the assessments in the the trainings they spend so much time making and repairing — but so little time QA-ing or tracking. Maybe they make them when they make a test, but often they don’t. And even when they do, they typically can’t find them when they need them, so they don’t get updated when the rest of the content does and soon are treated as more trouble than they’re worth.

I say “they” but really I mean “we”. I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone at times. But no longer. The fact is undeniable:
In order to know if someone got the right answer to a test, you need to know what the right answer is.

Another annoyingly solvable problem is that, at least for the clients I’ve been dealing with, they don’t know where to put answer keys, or how to format them consistently, or how to secure them so other people can’t find them and use them to cheat. And people will try to cheat, it happens all the time. (In fact, one of the best ways I know to find an answer key is to do a general search on the client’s intranet to find all the ones that students have been making and sharing. They’re often wrong though. Again, because the content always changes, no one seems to know what the right answers are with any certainty.)

The Impacts

When we don’t know what the right answer is, the following things happen:
  1. we tell people they’re wrong when they’re not (people hate that!)
  2. we tell people they’re right when they’re not (more dangerous but slightly less hated)
  3. we look stupid when we admit that we don’t know what is right or wrong and it will take us a while to determine this (especially when we are still definitively telling people as in #1 & #2)
  4. we can’t update or correct things without redoing a lot of work (so it rarely gets done)
  5. we can’t pick up and move our allegedly portable learning content from one system to another, because we can’t test that it works when it gets where it’s going (if we ever tested it in the first place)

This last point is one of the major reasons I get hired. Such as earlier this year when ADP brought me on to manage their learning content workstream while transitioning from one Learning Management System (LMS) to another. When you’re a company like that and you have 20,000 learning objects, most of which have or are assessments, you’ve got a lot of stuff to check and a lot of decisions to make, and a guy like me helps save your bacon.

The Solution

First, we need a standard for how we keep answers to questions. For better or for worse, the multiple choice question is the most common type of all the questions that we ask. I couldn’t find a standard for that, so I made one. It’s in plaintext, so it’s super simple to read for both humans and machines. I’ve been using it a while, and it works.

Next, we need a way to take the assessments that already exist and send them somewhere that can figure out what the answers are. This already happens whenever a score is produced by a computer. This is not magic, it’s generally just JavaScript. I have some ideas about how to do this at scale for at least the two most common rapid authoring tools: Adobe Captivate & Articulate Storyline. (This is the business I keep trying not to start)

Finally, we take the answers that we just generated, in the format we can read, and we circle back with the content to make sure the questions, the answers, and the place we taught them to people are all in agreement. In my experience, it’s truly horrifying how rarely everything does agree.

Looking Professional

We can say things like “either it’s 100% right, or it’s not right” with the courses we make. We do this with the Learners that have to take them, after all. If we are to call ourselves Learning Professionals, actually being professional about the work we do might be a good idea. Call me crazy.

I think I can help us in L&D look more professional. What if it didn’t matter how badly you had mismanaged your assessments and scores until now, if you could just pay some of money and get all the neatly formatted answers within a day or so? Training departments are typically not flush with funds, so it couldn’t be a big fee per assessment, but really anything less than the cost of rebuilding it all or getting outted and having to come clean about the fact that you and your entire team have gotten away with being so sloppy for so long, anything that costs less than that is probably worth paying.

I have this idea that if I could charge just $100 per assessment, I could automate the discovery and output of answer keys in my consistent and usable answer my format. It’s probably not a huge market, but it’s a global one. And if I kept my overhead low and my marketing on the downlow, it might just work.

The Offer

What do you think? Worth doing? If so, might you be interested? I’ll likely be unable to avoid spinning this business up soon, and when I do I’ll be looking for some partners… ;)

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