For a great many people, in a great many different ways, the world turned upside down in February and March, and very few things have returned completely to normal ever since. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced both individuals and organizations to adapt, changing or eliminating old norms and finding new ways to get things done.
Some of the changes have been unwelcome or uncomfortable — "mask" has become many people's new favorite four-letter word. Other changes, however, have turned out to be both timely and beneficial. Red Hat, the world's leading provider of open-source solutions, announced one such exciting change earlier this month.
Effective immediately, certification candidates hoping to earn one of multiple Red Hat credentials, can schedule and complete a remote certification exam. After launching remote testing with four key credentials — Red Hat Certified System Administrator (RHCSA), Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE), Red Hat Certified Specialist in OpenShift Administration, and Red Hat Certified Specialist in OpenShift Application Development — Red Hat has quickly expanded the program and intends to eventually offer most exams remotely.
Randy Russell, director of certification for Red Hat, said that the idea of remote testing is not new. "Remote exams are something we contemplated some years ago but decided not to pursue on account of security gaps we perceived in the vendor-based solutions that were available," Russell said.
One of the biggest roadblocks to offering remote exams in the past, Russell said, was the difficulty of securing a remote exam candidate's computer and testing environment. Exam security is vital to prevent candidates from cheating, or from stealing exam content to sell to other potential cheaters.
Exam security is largely dependent on the participation of a proctor, who monitors the candidate as he or she takes the exam. Red Hat certifications exams have always been monitored by a proctor, either remotely at testing centers or in person for classroom exams.
Without the participation of a proctor, Russell said, it's very difficult to tell whether an exam candidate is relying entirely on his or her knowledge and skills to pass the exam. "Managers and recruiters, here's a tip," Russell said. "If you hear of a certification that can be earned by passing an unproctored exam, RUN AWAY."
Exam cheaters are setting themselves up to fail professionally, of course, but there are other damaging ramifications of cheating:
"If underqualified candidates are earning your certifications," Russell said, "they diminish the value to employers making recruiting and management decisions based on certifications, they compromise the value to business and government agencies that stipulate certification requirements in their Requests for Proposals and tenders, and they undo the work and effort of people who earn their certifications legitimately."
Another challenge that prevented remote exams in the past was the difficulty of ensuring that exam candidates have the right software, hardware, and network available to complete the exam. "Red Hat's certification exams are completely hands-on, performance-based assessments," Russell said, "which means delivery of our exams is considerably more complex than delivery of a typical multiple-choice exam and hence makes delivering reliably even more challenging."
To facilitate remote exams, Russell said, Red Hat has created an entire operating system (OS), specifically designed to directly administer an exam, or to verify compatibility of a candidate's existing hardware and network. The purpose-built exam OS is executed entirely in RAM and leaves whatever is installed on a candidate's laptop or desktop computer untouched and unchanged.
"Indeed, someone could remove their computer's hard drive entirely," Russell said, "and it wouldn't make a difference to the operating of our live exam environment. While the computer is running this complete operating system, the computer is locked down for all other purposes, which addresses the security concern. After the exam or compatibility test, you just reboot into your usual operating system environment, which is untouched and unaffected by having run the live environment."
With the possible exception of purchasing an external web camera, most people won't need to acquire any special equipment. "In order to take a Red Hat remote exam, you'll need a computer that can boot from a USB drive, a USB thumb drive or other device that can be overwritten entirely, broadband Internet access, and a couple other things you are already likely to have if you are using a laptop," Russell said.
Exam candidates will also need to download an ISO image and burn it to a USB flash drive or other external storage device. There is no need to purchase or install software, which Russell thinks will come as a relief to many exam candidates.
"There's something of a conundrum in the world of online testing," Russell said. "On the one hand, we are rather skeptical about whether the solutions out there actually restrict cheating as they should. On the other hand, if they actually could control your system, is that something you would want to install on it? That sounds more like a virus or a trojan horse than a benign application.
"With our solution, your installed operating system is untouched and pristine. If you're the exceptionally cautious sort and unconcerned about voiding your warranty, you could remove your hard drive entirely while using our environment."
Proctor on the job
Red Hat's exam proctors, in addition to monitoring each candidate's exam as it's in progress, can also help to ensure proper function of the exam delivery system. "Taking a Red Hat certification exam — typically three to four hours — is not exactly a day at the spa," Russell said. "While the principal responsibility of the proctors is to observe and enforce, they are also customer service representatives to an audience that is already a bit tense. Our proctoring team does an excellent job in this regard."
Red Hat is hoping to offer remote testing for most certification exams eventually. The exams that are already available remotely will remain available on a permanent basis. COVID-19 may have accelerated the pace of change, but the convenience and accessibility of remote exams will be the new norm for exam candidates.
"Even in the post-COVID-19 world we all hope to see," Russell said, "remote exams will remain the preferred option for many people, although we will also see people choosing our other approaches. That's the key: providing choices."