This feature first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Rapid advances in technology have seen learning and testing methods evolve significantly in recent years, making both academic learning and skills-based professional and vocational education accessible to more and more people across the world. Cloud and mobile technologies have changed the way we learn, work and socialize. Like other aspects of everyday human experience, learning and testing have also become easily accessible and more convenient.
Online learning has made rapid strides in many countries, with schools, universities, professional institutes, corporations and other organizations offering online courses, thereby enabling many to acquire knowledge and skills conveniently and inexpensively. With the widespread adoption of online learning, the demand for online testing has grown as well.
For several years now, IT associations, institutes and vendors have been offering certification courses online. Online testing is an innovation in the IT certification testing process. Though certification exams are mostly delivered onsite at test centers managed by exam delivery service providers, the online testing method is gradually catching on — especially among IT professionals for whom attendance at a test center isn't always possible or convenient.
In September last year, Microsoft announced that it was going to offer its Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) and Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) exams online with a view to making certification testing more accessible. Currently, the MCP and MTA exams are delivered online, in partnership with Pearson VUE, in the United States and many other countries.
CompTIA, the leading vendor-neutral IT certification provider globally, also offers candidates based in North America the option of taking the Cloud+, Server+, and Project+ exams online with proctoring from ProctorU. Apple makes the Mac Management Basics 10.10 and Mac Integration Basics 10.10 exams available online in partnership with Pearson VUE. Candidates who've got their exam code from certain sources specified by Apple are permitted to take these certification exams online.
The Positives of Online Exams
Accessibility and convenience are the main benefits for test takers. Online proctored test delivery makes it possible to take tests at home or at work, thereby saving examinees significant time and expense. This is likely online testing's biggest advantage — candidates don't need to travel to a test center, which could be hundreds of miles away, or even in another country. By making certification exams accessible to people in countries where there aren't any test centers, online proctored exam delivery expands the global reach of IT certification.
Flexibility is another point in favor of online testing. There's no need to register in advance; you can schedule an exam the very day you're free to take the test. Microsoft, for example, frees test-takers from the constraints of having to plan and register weeks prior to the exam, offering test-takers the leeway to schedule the exam the same day, and reschedule up to 30 minutes before the exam, if needed. This is especially helpful for IT professionals with packed schedules.
Online Testing Negatives
Candidates who can't get to a test center and would like to test online may not be able to do so if they experience bandwidth or technical issues. And unlike onsite test centers, where examinees are permitted to take notes, those who test for some certifications online are not allowed to take notes. This can be a drawback for test takers who find it easier to work out a solution to a problem by sketching it out on a scratchpad rather than visualizing it in their head.
Online exams are also more restrictive in terms of freedom to stretch or move around. To ensure greater exam security, one generally isn't permitted to leave the immediate vicinity of one's computer — wherever that may be — while taking an online exam. Candidates uncomfortable with this restriction would likely be better off taking their exam at a test center.
Is It Easier to Cheat on Online Exams?
A major reason that certification entities are cautious about delivering their exams online is because of concerns about cheating. What they worry about is whether they would be able to control a remote testing environment in a test taker's home or office. How would they, for example, ensure that the person registered for the test, and not a proxy, is actually taking the test? How to tell that the test taker doesn't use information from unauthorized sources to complete the test?
Cheating on a proctored online exam is far from easy, because online proctoring makes it possible to verify a candidate's identity, thereby ensuring that the test taker is the person registered for the test. And webcam technology makes it possible to keep watch on both the test taker and the testing area during the test.
Candidates are required to provide documentary proof of identity, such as a passport or a driver's license, to prevent impersonation. Typically, the proctor takes a few minutes to verify this, after which the candidate is required to physically scan the camera around the entire room so that the proctor can examine the room for possible sources of information.
Books, notepads, phones, other devices, notes on the wall, papers, pens, and other items — including a second computer monitor — are not permitted in the testing environment. Candidates must remain in the room during the exam and the exam system is programmed to shut down the moment a test taker leaves the test area.
The proctor will also request a close-up of the test-taker's pockets, arms, and ears. This is to ensure that there aren't any cheat sheets tucked away in pockets, answers scribbled on arms and palms, or a tiny earpiece stuck deep inside. (Do you sense the fear of cheating that swirls through online testing?)
Using a webcam, a proctor is able to see the candidate's face as well as their computer screen throughout the duration of the exam. Even eye movements are captured on camera. One can't be sure, on the other hand, that a remote camera spots everything that an alert and sharp proctor at a test center can. Of course, all proctors at test centers aren't necessarily able to keep a sharp eye on each and every test taker.
Also, each test center isn't necessarily the "sanitized" environment it's supposed to be. There have been numerous instances at test centers worldwide of dishonest proctors helping test takers in exchange for money or favors. This is unlikely to happen in an online testing environment, because the chances of an online proctor colluding with a test taker are remote. There's little possibility of a test taker's knowing who would be assigned to monitor his exam. Also, during a test, candidate and proctor can only communicate electronically and this communication can be recorded, a factor that deters collusion between the two.
Microsoft employs a secure browser for online proctored exams, which ensures that the test delivery system alone runs on your computer during the exam — all other programs are shut down. The test process will automatically cease if you try to open another application. Also, copy, paste, print and other functions are disabled, as are keyboard shortcuts, and all function keys. Remote proctoring can also detect unusual behavior, such as eyes often darting away from the test window, and issue alerts.
Despite tools to prevent and detect cheating, those inclined to cheat will keep trying. The knowledge that one is being watched, however, during the entire duration of the test, is itself a strong deterrent.
Are Online Exams the Wave of the Future?
Not all vendors that offer IT certifications give examinees the option of taking exams online. Apple, Microsoft and CompTIA offer some exams online with proctoring. While Cisco delivers most of its certification exams at proctored test centers in collaboration with Pearson VUE, self-administered exams beginning with the exam code 650 or 700 are available online anywhere.
Though online proctored exam delivery is an accessible and convenient method of testing, many IT vendors have yet to shift to this platform. What are the hurdles? Each certification provider likely has its own reason or set of reasons for not adopting online testing fully — or at all.
Some factors that might deter certification providers are concerns about the integrity and security of the online testing process, and about whether the online exam versions comply with the standards applicable to their certifications.
Broadband internet is essential for online proctored exam delivery. Inadequate bandwidth in some countries could also be one of the factors that prevents online certification testing from gaining traction. Apart from this, privacy laws prevailing in some countries prevent online certification exams from being delivered in those countries. Candidates also need to meet specific online testing requirements relating to the computer system, webcam, microphone, testing protocols, and the testing environment. All potential candidates may not be able to meet these requirements.
Given the instances of cheating on certification exams even at test centers, certifying bodies naturally want to ensure that the academic integrity and security of the testing process will not be compromised when exams are delivered online at the candidate's home — or at any location other than a proctored testing center. Despite the convenience of online exams, a proctored test center is still the most practical and secure location to offer a test.
Credible online proctoring systems can already detect and curb cheating to some extent, however, and online proctoring is becoming increasingly more sophisticated. Both Kyterion and Mettl, an India-based online testing service startup, claim that they deploy advanced technical tools and protocols to verify a candidate's ID, as well as monitor the test taker and the computer screen using a number of different technologies.
For online certification testing to really catch on, certification providers need to be sure that online proctoring systems are advanced enough to ensure the security and quality of their certification exams to the highest possible extent. Continuous vigilance and proctoring technology upgrades are critical to accelerating widespread adoption of online proctored testing.
Whether or not students perform better on online tests is open to debate. Performance would likely depend on individual circumstances, such as familiarity with the online testing process and reliability of broadband internet. Inexperience with online proctored testing may hamper the performance of some candidates, but this hasn't been proven. On the other hand, testing in the seclusion of one's home or office could work to the advantage of those who find themselves easily distracted by the presence of others at a test center, particularly by instances of unusual behavior.
The most significant advantages that online proctored testing has over onsite testing are accessibility, convenience and cost, making it possible for more people across the world to certify. Online proctored testing saves candidates travel time and expense as they don't need to travel to a test center. Also, a candidate has more flexibility and doesn't need to plan ahead because he can schedule a test just half an hour before. Given these benefits, look for online testing to gain traction in the years to come.