A Looming Question of Location: IT Cert Exams in the Testing Center Vs. OnlineIf you look at factors that limit the uptake of IT certification exams, the widespread or nearly universal requirement that cert candidates travel to a test center to sit for a certification exam of their choice sits at or near the top of that heap.
In the First World, most cert candidates are seldom more than an hour or two away from the nearest testing center – a global business increasingly dominated by companies like Pearson VUE and Prometric (a subsidiary of the educational testing behemoth, the Educational Testing Service or ETS) – so it’s not a major strain to get cert candidates into a testing center to take any such exams. But leave the good roads, available transport, and high population areas of the First World behind, and cert candidates often face two days of travel (one to get to the testing center, and another to return home), with a third day sandwiched between to actually take the exam (or exams) that they need to tackle the various certifications that interest them.
One way to really understand this situation is to ponder the situation that Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) candidates face when they sit for the lab exam for that credential. With only ten lab facilities available around the world, unless a candidate is lucky enough to live in or near Bangalore, Beijing, Brussels, Dubai, Hong Kong, Raleigh/Triangle Park (RTP), San Jose, CA, Sydney, or Tokyo, he or she is facing potentially long-distance travel to get to one of these locations, along with hotel and living expenses to absorb while taking this grueling exam. If everybody had to do this for all certifications, the pressure to change the system would quickly grow to enormous levels.
Long-term macroeconomic and demographic trends argue that this pressure is there for all certifications, simply because emerging and Third World economies now present themselves as the biggest growth markets for IT tools and technology. That argues strongly for creating alternatives to the “travel to a local testing” center model that currently dominates the majority of IT certification programs around the globe. So far, the most appealing alternative is to develop online technologies that permit a certification candidate to sit for an exam without having to travel too far and perhaps even to use a computer already available to run the test engine and take a test.
There are some ethical, technical, and logistical hurdles involved, but there are also some promising tools and approaches in development (and modest use) these days. Let’s start by understanding the test center situation, so we can appreciate the efforts to meet and match their capabilities outside such cloistered and perhaps far-away locations.
The View From (and In) the Testing Center
Until about two years ago there weren’t any meaningful alternatives to using an authorized testing center for IT cert exam delivery, unless like the (ISC)2 – the sponsor of the SSCP, CISSP, and other popular infosec certifications - you bit the bullet to rent and staff your own periodic exam locations that you set up and proctor with paper-based test instruments according to a specific and strict schedule usually published 12 months in advance. In that light, it’s interesting to note that even the (ISC)2 has more or less given up on managing its own exam scheduling and logistics, and is migrating over to delivery for all of its exams through Pearson VUE. Obviously, test centers from those like VUE and Prometric have lots of appeal, and it’s important to understand what those centers have to offer:
- Formal, stringent ID checks and validation: test center staff require and check two forms of ID to make sure the person who shows up to take the exam is the same person who signed up to take it
- Good physical security: test center testing rooms are set up to make it difficult to cheat, and usually include video and visual monitoring from the on-site staff. Increasingly test centers must also withstand outside inspections to make sure test content is not being videoed, so exams can be reverse engineered after the fact.
- Regular, standardized equipment: both VUE and Prometric enforce specific and minimum hardware requirements on testing center computers, networks, Internet links, and link security. This lets these companies download virtualized environments to target test machines to deliver secure testing environments and to maintain isolation across multiple uses of the same equipment. Both companies have invested heavily in creating capable, secure testing environments that support test taking but do not permit test-takers to run other applications while taking an exam.
- Computerized testing makes results easy to obtain, thanks to automated scoring. This is why so many exam candidates can walk away from the test center knowing their exam scores on the spot, and if they’ve passed or failed their exam.
The more valuable a certification is, the more the exam usually costs. Not a small part of such costs go to imposing all kinds of security and integrity constraints on those exams, to make sure the testing process can’t be subverted and maintain the value of the credential involved.
But assuming it’s desirable to let the same computers that increasingly deliver training, study, practice, and simulations to certification candidates also deliver the standardized or performance-based exams that actually test and verify their skills and knowledge, there is considerable interest in using tools and technology to match the kinds of security and control a test center offers, so that more people can get involved in the education, practice, and testing efforts needed to certify more qualified IT professionals. This need is even more acute in higher education, where the impetus to study and learn online reaches an even broader audience, but where desires to ensure the integrity of exam results – and the degrees or certificates they can lead to – are just as important, and the number of potential students is easily one or more orders of magnitude greater in size.
Ed TittelEd Tittel is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who’s worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written and blogged for numerous publications, including Tom's Hardware, and is the author of over 140 computing books with a special emphasis on information security, Web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.
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