Tests Without Pens: Interview with Johan Hägglund, Co-Founder of Online Exam Platform, DigiExam
No one likes exams. As a college student, Johann Hägglund was particularly frustrated by the typical exam format, which required him to write with pen and paper for hours. Determined to find a new method for taking and grading exams, Hägglund and his friend Nima Marefat cofounded DigiExam, an online exam platform that eliminates the need to write exams by hand.
Since its launch in 2011, DigiExam has grown to serve over 145,000 students. It also operates on two continents, expanding from Sweden to New York last year.
Hannah Nyren of EdTech Times talks to Hägglund, now CEO, about working with some of the best schools in Sweden, finding enthusiastic product users in the United States, and rethinking assessment.
EdTech Times: Hi, this is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times, and if you could introduce yourself, that would be great.
Johan Hägglund: My name is Johan Hagglund; I’m the CEO and cofounder of company called DigiExam.
EdTech Times: And can you, in one sentence, tell us what you all do?
Johan Hägglund: Yeah, we have created a cloud-based digital assessment and exam platform for schools and universities.
EdTech Times: Oh, that’s cool. So what inspired you to create this product? Where did the idea come from?
Johan Hägglund: It actually came from my own experience as a student. We did basically everything online when I went to business school, but when it came to the final test, we have to use pen and paper for four hours, and for me that was a huge frustration because I’m so used to use, you know, computers and smartphones for everything in my life. So—
EdTech Times: That’s probably a problem that hasn’t been faced before until very recently.
Johan Hägglund: Yeah, definitely. I think most students probably feel the same pain. So it started with that, and we started talking to our friends at university, and they all had the same experience. Then we started talking to the teachers, and then we realized that this is something that is very, very ineffective for them and drains a lot of resources. And that’s where we got the idea that we should actually do something about it.
EdTech Times: I mean, that makes perfect sense. I think that it’s always been harder for me to write. I remember I went to a parochial school; we had to write handwritten notes all the time. And I was always the slowest; I was always the last to finish the exam because it took me so long to write out my answers.
Johan Hägglund: Oh yeah, definitely. I had the same problem, that I always performed better with cases, had home assignments. I got better grades because usually I tend to write a lot, but then I had to go back to change, and that’s pretty impossible with pen and paper. So yeah, definitely.
EdTech Times: Cool. So how did you go about actually starting the company?
Johan Hägglund: Yes, so what we did was that we actually went to our own school and started talking to them. The first response we got was that, “Hey guys, welcome, we have been waiting for this for ten years. For someone to do this.” So that was the first feedback we got, so we actually got two customers back in Sweden, one of the best universities and one of the best high schools before we even had a product. So that was when we understood that this is something, you know, pretty big, that a lot of teachers and schools will actually need.
EdTech Times: Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting approach. So what was your high school?
Johan Hägglund: I went to…my university was Stockholm School of Economics. In Europe, it’s a pretty, you know, prominent business school. And I think what was pretty unique was we worked together with them for two years, developing the whole platform, so me and my cofounder, we probably did more than one hundred exams on our own just to see what can we improve for the next time.
EdTech Times: Right.
Johan Hägglund: So we worked for almost three years with these two schools, to work very, very closely to optimize it after how they work.
EdTech Times: Oh, that’s cool. So after that school, where did you go next? What other schools did you start working with?
Johan Hägglund: So basically, what we did was we worked with my old school and with this, you know, top-ranked high school, and then we tried to identify which schools are the most innovative. And they…so we approached them, and they pretty quickly also got on boarded. And after that, it kinda became standard that, like, a lot of other schools that actually look up to these schools, they starting to use that as well. And today we have, in Sweden, we have twenty percent of the high schools using our platform. In two years.
EdTech Times: Wow, that’s pretty…yeah, in two years. That’s a pretty fast adoption rate. So where did your product start and how has it evolved over the past two years, based on all that testing?
Johan Hägglund: Of course. So the first thing we did, you know, the first question was, Can we lock down a computer? Could we make it safe to just, to deliver a test so that students can’t log into internet or look at their own notes? That was the first thing to do. So the first test, we actually just printed everything so the teacher could just have the answers on paper and after that, we started to build out the platform even more. Okay, could the professor/teacher create things? Could they share different things with each other? So that kind of evolved. And today, we have an end-to-end assessment and exam platform, so it’s very customizable after their needs, so they can do everything inside the platform when it comes to exams delivery and grading and feedback.
EdTech Times: That’s cool. So how many students do you have on the platform now?
Johan Hägglund: So we have, today we have over 145,000 students and we have been conducting almost 400,000 exams. In two years.
EdTech Times: That’s a lot of tests to take!
Johan Hägglund: That’s a lot of tests! It is. But I think it’s a…it’s a relief for both students and teachers.
EdTech Times: Cool! Yeah, that certainly would have been a lot easier for me. I probably wouldn’t have needed all that extra time. So what are you working on right now? What’s your next step?
Johan Hägglund: So basically, I would say that what we see as a trend is that when you start using our platform, a lot of schools, universities, they try to move up so they can work more formative. And what we want, our vision is that they should use our platform more frequently. Not only for the final test. So we have a lot of professors that actually change the courses, so they have four, perhaps four or more, different exams or assessments during the course, to more frequently assess the students. So that is something that we are working on a lot. You know, how can we get them more engaged and using it more frequently? Because I think it’s not that nice for no one to have just one, big test, that there’s a lot of anxious involved and, you know, you could always have a bad day. I think in general, you know, to increase the student learning it’s better to work more formative.
EdTech Times: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point, and I also think that’s one way that technology can make a huge difference in learning is if we have shorter, more frequent tests that are easier to grade that don’t take up, you know, huge chunk of time. Then we’ll constantly have a benchmark for where the students are in the learning process.
Johan Hägglund: Yeah, definitely. And I think one of the key aspects that we have seen so far when we are working with teachers is they want to adopt a lot of new things, but they don’t have the time. And I think that’s the problem of a lot of solutions, and in general, that a lot of systems are pretty bulky. There’s a few teachers that loves them, but the ordinary teacher, they have problem using it. So I think we’ve been focusing really on what can every teacher learn in five minutes and actually saves time immediately. So in that sense, I think that they have the ambition, but they simply don’t have the time. And a lot of tools are too complicated. But when they have something that’s easy to use, they can of course use it more frequently; that’s the beauty of it. So using our platform, it’s not just you have one test but have several tests because it saves so much time.
EdTech Times: Right. I’m sure all the students will love that: more tests! But it can be more useful, especially if they’re tests based on what you’re actually learning, not just tests that are arbitrary. So where do you see the company going in the next five years? Do you have any idea of what that path might be or what the product development pipeline might be?
Johan Hägglund: Yeah, definitely. I think we’re starting in the vertical; you bring your laptop to campus, you have the test. I think the company’s going to evolve to something much more than that. We’re kind of, you know, our vision is, become the best in the world at what we do now. And then we gonna, of course, broaden the view. So I think we will become an end-to-end assessment platform, so that both students and teachers can reach their own potential. And I also think that a very important thing is that students and teachers, you know, they—across, how do you call it, different universities and schools—they can start working together. Because we see today that you go to different schools, and you know, they have the same problem. But they all solve it, you know, individually. They could work together in a so much easier way.
EdTech Times: Yeah, I feel like that’s so frequent, that everybody has to go through the process of figuring it out for themselves, where if they all just communicated, they could all solve the same problems and save so much time.
Johan Hägglund: Yeah. I think that’s the future. These open resources and everything that people work together and share things. I think that will definitely lead the future, especially if you can have the same type of questions, you can start comparing and learn more. So you can have that kind of insight; I think that would really transform what we’re doing. But for us, also, it’s baby steps. We have to start taking away the blue books, taking away the pen and paper, and then of course we can add more features. But some universities, some schools are ready for it, but in general, just that kind of transition is pretty big for a lot of institutions, I would say, today.
EdTech Times: So I know that you currently live in the US. How long have you been working with the US and have you had any luck getting US schools to adopt your software?
Johan Hägglund: Yeah, definitely. I would say that we were working actively in, like, eighteen months, and we started off roughly one year ago. And we started very small-scale to learn about the market, the same as in Sweden, starting with a few schools and customers and trying to see how do we need to customize the product in any way to be compliant with the market. So we started, for example, in higher education. Today we have around thirty universities using it in some extent. So we started testing with Columbia University; we’re also right now testing with Wharton. But so far we have been focusing more for the K-12 market. So we have around three hundred high schools across the country that’s using it to some extent. And we have some very good schools in Manhattan that we work very closely with.
EdTech Times: Oh, that’s cool. I’m glad that it’s progressing so well in the US as well because it’s a huge market for education. How would you say that it’s different working with US schools than working for Swedish schools?
Johan Hägglund: I think the main difference is that, you know, by default, it’s more noisy because there’s so many…In Sweden, we were pretty…there are a lot of good things happening. But here there’s so much innovation going on. And I think that’s also what we love about coming to United States. So much things that…development is really in the forefront here. But that makes it–even though, perhaps, we don’t have any direct competitors—but there’s so many different ways of doing assessments. So in that sense, how do you get the attention of the superintendent or the teachers? How do you make them prioritize what you are saying or your solution? So I think in that sense, it’s much tougher. There’s so much other things to choose from that complements us.
EdTech Times: And we also have so far to go to improve our test scores. We have to do more testing.
Johan Hägglund: Yeah, but it’s the same in Sweden. We’re pretty declining in the PISA [Programme for International Student Assessment] tests. We’re doing a lot of good things, but the PISA test is…yeah.
EdTech Times: Oh, really. That makes me feel better about being American! Tell me a little bit…I’m gonna go back to something that’s a little bit more personal, but as an entrepreneur, what personal advice would you give to other people who are entrepreneurs, whether they are teachers who have an idea for something they could use in the classroom or software developers who want to give back and help education. What advice would you have for people who are interested in innovating in education?
Johan Hägglund: I think that the core question to ask is, you know, talk to the end user. I think that’s like…it sounds so simple, but I think there’s a lot of companies that actually start building things but they aren’t really sure what problem they solve. So I think what we did good was that we had this humble approach that we know that, okay, we don’t like taking tests with pen and paper; we want to do it online, but we also have to respect that we don’t really understand how professors work, how administrators—you know, how does it really work? Ask them the question, and take that into account when you build the product and test it frequently. So I think, you know, it’s in continuous development. Nothing gets, you know, completed in that sense. I think that is the key to build something. And also in education because, you know, if you want to sell to school, if you want to pay for something, it really has to solve a problem. It cannot be something that’s nice to have; it needs to be a real pain for the school teachers or students if they are actually going to spend money on that or invest money in that solution. So in that sense I think it’s critical to talk to the end users and work very close with them.
EdTech Times: What is the most surprising thing that you’ve learned through this process of creating a company, growing a company, moving the company overseas? What is the most important thing that you’ve learned?
Johan Hägglund: I think, in general, how much time it takes to build something out of nothing. How do you create something; how do you make it so that people actually trust your services? I think that is…and with that said, it’s all about finding the first champions of your product. I think in every market we can find one or two people that’s actually made all the difference for us. They see the product, they see what it can do, the potential. And when they use it, they endorse it, they are your ambassadors. I think finding those and getting those people on board, that’s made all of the difference for us. And I think in general that’s also the beauty of it, what we do, is that teachers are so passionate about if they find something they really like, they really let people hear about it. I think that is what I love about working with education is there’s so much passion going on. Especially if you look at Twitter accounts. If you see a teacher, of course the only thing they Tweet about is teaching. But if you see a doctor, it’s not about—
EdTech Times: That might be a little dry.
Johan Hägglund: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s so unique about teachers, that they’re so proud about their profession. And that’s what we love to do, working close with them.
EdTech Times: Yeah, that is a really great thing about working with teachers. And you know, in education in general, it’s easy to get inspired about education because you’re helping people. Everybody needs education, everybody’s been a student. It’s something we all can relate to.
Johan Hägglund: Yeah, definitely. And I think both me and my cofounder, we have such strong personal stories about why we ended up where we did. In high school, I had one of my teachers, he was very, very inspiring. I was good in sports, and I was talented in school, but I didn’t spend too much time studying. He really, you know, saw me. And he said, Johan, you have so much potential. You should be involved in this organizations, you should study this subjects. I think you can go very far. I think that kind of, it woke something in me. Without his help, probably I wouldn’t get into this great business school and I wouldn’t came up with this idea and have the courage to actually follow my dreams. So in that sense, I think the teacher, they are the ones who can change lives.
EdTech Times: Thank you for that quote; that was a great quote. Yeah, it really is true; teachers change lives. And I think that when it comes to education technology, we don’t mention that enough. And again, to address that there’s no way you can replace a teacher. The software is to help make the teacher’s job easier. So yet again, teachers cannot be replaced. One thing I’m gonna backtrack, and we’ll add this into the part about the product, is how is your product different from other digital testing sites that are out there?
Johan Hägglund: So definitely. What we saw when we came over is that there are a lot of online quiz tools and also a lot of other lockdown browsers that’s kind of web-based. So basically what we did was that we have built real applications that the students install, which means that they can take the test offline. So they are not dependent on internet because one of the first tests we had was the whole internet went down, the whole school, and then we had an online tool, so we were kind of…we saw that’s a huge problem. If you’re going to have an important test, it has to be able to be delivered and handed in offline. So we have that kind of offline support, and that’s much, much more reliable in that sense than if you have, for example, [unintelligible] the quiz tool or whatever. So that’s the first part. The second part is that, you know, the ease of use. Like I said, every teacher, within five minutes, could get started. And I think that’s pretty—it’s very, very important. And third part, I would say, is it’s an end-to-end platform. It’s not a feature. It’s not like a lockdown browser where you just lock a certain part. So in that case, it’s more comprehensive in all of the things it can do. You can have anonymous tests, you can share tests with colleagues, you can grade your colleagues’ tests. So you have much more features when it comes to that part of the exam. So in that sense I think we have a very unique position in the market.
EdTech Times: You’ve obviously thought about this a lot. Awesome, well, thank you very much; it was great speaking with you. I can’t wait to look up you guys again and see how you’re progressing in the next year or two.
Johan Hägglund: Yeah, thank you so much for the conversation.
Previously an academic adviser at her alma mater, Texas A&M University, Adelia has contributed her editorial skills to The Eckleburg Project, Redivider, and Texas A&M University Press. She recently moved from Texas to Boston to pursue a master's degree in publishing & writing at Emerson College. She devotes her free time to reading fantasy novels and spoiling cats.