Going the Way of Blockbuster: Debating the Future of Physical Test Centers
For over a decade, the testing industry has debated the viability of remote testing for medium-and-high stakes exams. Today, accelerated by the technological and societal changes arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, remote testing has been broadly adopted by medium and high stakes exams around the world. Such a rapid market shift parallels the growth of alternative movie-delivery services and the demise of the video rental giant, Blockbuster, and set the stage for an entirely different debate: whether physical test centers will eventually “go the way of Blockbuster.”
This article provides a short history of the video rental company, followed by arguments on each side of this debate. While there are a variety of test center and remote testing options, this debate will focus on computer-based test centers using in-person human proctoring, and remote testing using online human proctoring. The arguments below are for purposes of expanding upon this debate and are not necessarily the views of the authors.
For and Against, At-a-Glance
Physical Testing Centers Will Be Replaced
Physical Testing Centers Will Remain
Test centers are not available when examinees need them: Online testing permits examinees to test on their own schedule and is more convenient and available when compared to physical centers.
Test centers offer equipment that may not be familiar to examinees: Online testing permits examinees to test with equipment they are familiar with and in an environment in which they are comfortable, increasing demand.
Test centers “cost” examinees more in travel expense and stress: Online testing eliminates the cost and stress examinees face when traveling to test centers, including hotel, meal and parking expenses.
Lack of seating can constrain testing program growth: Online testing is more scalable and flexible, as testing programs are not limited by the number of physical seats available at physical test sites.
Test centers are more expensive for testing programs: The costs to maintain test centers and test equipment is passed on to testing programs and examinees, making physical test centers a more expensive choice.
Security at physical testing sites can vary: Remote testing mitigates the risk of test proctor collusion with examinees. Remote proctoring provides extensive visibility into the test session and behavior of proctors and examinees.
A portion of examinees prefer test centers: Some examinees prefer testing at a test center, where they can be assured of a quiet environment and receive assistance from staff if needed.
Test centers provide examinees with sufficient bandwidth and equipment: Some percentage of examinees will need to test at physical test centers to ensure access to stable internet or equipment that is compatible with the test driver.
Test centers alleviate the stress of exam set up: Test centers offer a smoother testing experience, allowing examinees to focus on the test and avoid the stress of setting up their equipment and test environment.
There is power in choice: Giving examinees choice of where to test allows testing programs to serve the widest population of examinees.
Test centers provide greater environmental security: Test center proctors have greater control over the testing environment and equipment, making it more difficult to use unauthorized testing aids or recording equipment.
Test centers provide additional exam security: Test center proctors can view the test event from many different angles and inspect and confiscate unauthorized testing aids, if needed.
A Closer Examination
Setting the Stage: A Brief History of Blockbuster
At the turn of the century, Blockbuster boasted thousands of video-rental stores around the world, millions of customers and a market value of billions of dollars.1 With a store in nearly every major city, a trip to Blockbuster was a common experience shared by families around the world.
Disruption was on the horizon, however, as Netflix entered the market, first with movies-by-mail and then streaming services.2 For consumers, Netflix offered personalized movie rentals and streaming services without the hassle of leaving home and without the concern of late fees. From a corporate perspective, the Netflix model was significantly lower cost, avoiding the expenses associated with the Blockbuster brick-and-mortar retail locations.3
By 2010, after unsuccessful attempts to get into streaming services, Blockbuster filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.4 Today, the sole remaining Blockbuster store is located in Bend, Oregon.5 Consumers’ adoption of Netflix and the gradual demise of the brick-and-mortar Blockbuster business model raises the question of whether a similar disruption is occurring in the test delivery market.
Point: Yes, physical testing centers will “go the way of Blockbuster.”
There are obvious parallels between the test center business model and the Blockbuster business model. Just as the convenience of movie streaming services disrupted Blockbuster, remote testing has disrupted test centers, resulting in a shift in examinee demand.
Remote testing enables examinees to personalize the time, location and equipment used during the test event. Unlike test center delivery, which is primarily limited to the regular work week, remote testing is available 24/7. This affords examinees greater opportunity to test on their own schedules, during their peak performance times. Remote testing enables examinees to test in an environment in which they feel the most comfortable and confident, without the expense and hassle of traveling to a test center and without the distraction of other examinees and staff. This personalization can also enable examinees with accessibility needs to use their own equipment, rather than adapting to the accessibility equipment provided at a test center.
Just as Netflix was arguably a lower cost for consumers when compared to Blockbuster video rental (especially factoring in late fees), the “cost” of remote testing for consumers is also arguably lower, both financially and emotionally. Financially, examinees can eliminate the cost of travel, and in cases where the only available test center is hours away, testing from home can eliminate hotel and meal expenses as well. Emotionally, examinees can eliminate the stress of traffic, concerns over travel-related delays and the hassle of finding available parking.
Testing programs also benefit from remote testing, which is more flexible and scalable, and less expensive than the test center model. Unlike test centers, where the limited availability of physical seats can constrain growth, remote testing supports a flexible and rapid ramp-up when more capacity is needed. Further, when compared with test centers, where vendors pass on the cost of maintaining buildings and testing equipment to testing programs, remote testing avoids those costs, resulting in savings to testing programs.
While the argument for physical test centers suggests security is different between test center and remote testing, that doesn’t mean remote testing isn’t secure. Proctors are key to security in any delivery model, and online proctors can effectively deter and detect violations of testing rules. In some respects, online proctoring can be more secure than test center proctoring, as the risk of proctors colluding with examinees is mitigated due to online proctor assignment rules and the fact testing programs can “watch the watchers.” Testing programs have extensive visibility into the test session and behavior of proctors and examinees.
Just as advances in technology and changing consumer preferences resulted in the eventual demise of Blockbuster, similar conditions will hasten the collapse of the testing center business model. As consumers increasingly expect to be able to work, shop and learn online, they will also expect to test online. Over time, as consumer preference for using remote technology increases and use of test centers decreases, test centers will reach a tipping point where the high fixed costs of maintaining the brick-and-mortar test center network will simply become too expensive.
It took over a decade for Blockbuster video stores to disappear but today, there is only one remaining Blockbuster on the planet. Testing centers are not going to disappear overnight, but it’s only a matter of time before they too become an unsustainable relic of the past.
Counterpoint: No, physical test centers will not “go the way of Blockbuster.”
Remote testing allowed many testing programs to keep the lights on during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many examinees appreciated the convenience and safety of taking an exam at home. But that was temporary. Now that test centers are open again, some testing programs are anecdotally reporting 20%-50% of examinees are electing to test at test centers. Any testing program ignoring the fact that a sizable percentage of examinees want to test at a test center does so at its own risk.
There are many sound reasons for examinees to desire a test center delivery option. For examinees, test centers promise a smoother testing experience. Staff ensure the test equipment, internet bandwidth and physical environment meet program requirements. This is in stark contrast to remote testing, where the cost and stress of keeping equipment and software updated, ensuring stable internet bandwidth and creating a quiet and secure test space fall squarely on the shoulders of the examinee. Many examinees, especially those who are less tech savvy, choose to forego the added stress of remote testing and focus on their exam instead.
Similarly, the technology and internet bandwidth offered at physical testing locations, while occasionally fallible, is still stronger and more stable than many remote locations. If a technical issue does occur, staff are available to immediately troubleshoot or move the examinee to another available computer station. During remote testing, the burden of troubleshooting is carried by the examinees and, if a resolution cannot be found, the examinee is faced with the hassle of rescheduling.
There is power in choice, and when given a choice, a notable percentage of examinees are returning to test centers. They know the technology will work, there is someone there to help them get into the exam, and the environment will be quiet, so they can focus on their exam not on the setup.
Ensuring a fair and accessible test are also key reasons test centers will continue to be needed. Some examinees require accommodations that can best be provided securely at test centers, such as a scribe. Further, not all examinees have a quiet room, an updated computer, driver-compatible assistive technology or the bandwidth needed to test from home. There remain significant areas within North America and around the globe that do not have the infrastructure or personal wealth to support remote testing in any meaningful fashion.
For testing programs, test centers offer a proven security model. Proctors have more control of the testing space; it is more difficult to hide a camera on a bookshelf or sneak a cheat sheet into a test center than into a remote testing event. Some centers offer security tools that aren’t available during remote testing, such as biometrics for authentication or examinee wanding to detect digital devices. Test center proctors can observe examinees from many different angles and, in the event of a security incident, proctors can immediately inspect and confiscate unauthorized aids, and determine in real-time whether an exam rule has been violated — actions which are more difficult or even impossible remotely.
Test centers and related technology will also continue to evolve. By and large, test centers will be in a better position than individual examinees to employ newer technologies, such as bigger computer screens or new biometric technologies, and can implement new ways to improve exam security.
While the COVID-19 pandemic forced a shift to online living for a period of time, as soon as it was safe to resume a more normal life, consumers have returned to in-person shopping, learning and testing. While some individuals may choose to continue using remote testing, a notable number appear to prefer test centers.
The early numbers reflecting a percentage of examinees returning to test centers bear this out. Rather than only offer remote testing, testing programs will empower examinee choice by providing both test center and remote testing options, maintaining the need for test centers for years to come.
Conclusion (or a Reasoned Guess)
Remote testing has proven to be a viable disruptor to the test center model for all types of exams. As technology and consumer preferences continue to evolve, we predict remote testing will continue to expand.
Just as movie delivery and streaming services dramatically disrupted the Blockbuster business model, remote testing will continue to disrupt the test center delivery model. However, with programs reporting a notable percentage of examinees are choosing to test at a test center today, testing programs can reach the broadest population of examinees by offering both remote and test center delivery. Unlike the demise of the Blockbuster stores, examinee demand for choice will likely result in testing programs offering both remote testing and test center delivery over the next several years.
- See Blockbuster Becomes a Casualty of Big Bang Disruption, Larry Downes and Paul Nunes, Harvard Business Review, Nov 7, 2013, https://hbr.org/2013/11/blockbuster-becomes-a-casualty-of-big-bang-disruption, retrieved June 16, 2022; A Look Back at Why Blockbuster Really Failed and Why it Didn’t Have To, Greg Satell, Forbes, Sep 5, 2014, https://www.businessmodelsinc.com/exponential-business-model/netflix/, retrieved June 16, 2022; Hollywood’s New Zombie: The Last Days of Blockbuster, Edward Jay Epstein, The Hollywood Economist, Jan 9, 2006, https://slate.com/culture/2006/01/the-last-days-of-blockbuster.html, retrieved June 16, 2022.
- Blockbuster Becomes a Casualty of Big Bang Disruption, Larry Downes and Paul Nunes, Harvard Business Review, Nov 7, 2013, https://hbr.org/2013/11/blockbuster-becomes-a-casualty-of-big-bang-disruption, retrieved June 16, 2022.
- See https://bendblockbuster.com/, retrieved June 16, 2022.