Is online certification testing a novelty or the wave of the future?
When Larry Behrens, a longtime contract trainer, returned home from an assignment with the U.S. Army in South Korea, he decided to become a student. Behrens, who lives in Mesa, Ariz., signed up for several online courses on topics that could help him further his career.
But the courses weren't all Behrens completed over the Web. He also took the exams that led to his certification in Microsoft Word 97, technical writing and other topics through Brainbench, a Chantilly, Va., provider of online testing and certification. "Many times when I'm working, there's no way I could get in the car and drive to a neighboring city and arrange to take tests," says Behrens, who would one day like to earn an information technology certification or a master's degree.
The market for certification, particularly on IT-related topics, has been white-hot in recent years. A shortage of skilled IT workers has driven up salaries for computer-related jobs and prompted many people to obtain certification as the first step toward a career in this lucrative field. IDC, an IT research firm in Framingham, Mass., anticipates revenues for the IT certification market will grow from $2.5 billion this year to $4 billion by 2003.
Although certification candidates often take classes over the Web, they rarely take the final exams online. But people like Behrens are tapping into what Brainbench president and CEO Mike Russiello predicts will be a $500 million market by 2010. "Your typical knowledge worker acquires new skills every few months," says Russiello. And for that reason, they need an anytime, anyplace way to test their abilities.
Despite Russiello's optimism, officials from the software companies that award certification remain skeptical of the idea. "Who's to say you're not using a friend [to cheat]? Who's to say you're not using an open book?" says Jim Greene, director of certification for Novell Inc., the Provo, Utah, Internet software company.
Green explains that Novell doesn't allow certification exams to be taken online. That's because the company wants to protect the status of the 65,000 Novell-certified engineers, as well as the company, its clients and its stockholders. If an employer hired a Novell-certified engineer and later found that the person had fraudulently obtained the certification, he explains, Novell could be held liable.
High or low stakes?
For that reason, Novell, Cisco, Microsoft and most other software makers require their IT certification testing to be done at brick-and-mortar testing centers run by companies such as VUE, Sylvan Learning or Prometric. Students have to show up in person, present two forms of identification, then leave their books and other belongings behind when they go into the testing room, where proctors monitor students in person and via closed-circuit camera. This is known as high-stakes testing.
The type of testing Brainbench offers online is considered low-stakes, which means learners are allowed to refer to their notes and books for help. "It's a good yardstick," Behrens says of the low-stakes exams. "It gives me and my employer an idea of the things I know and the things I'm good at."
Russiello is a firm believer in low-stakes testing and has seen the demand for it grow. In January 2000, 53,000 tests were taken online through Brainbench, 50,000 of which were for IT certification in areas such as Java, Active Server and HTML 4.0. One year later, that number had grown to 371,000 tests, 296,000 of which were for IT certification. (Learners who pass the Brainbench certification exams receive documentation that shows they took the test online, as opposed to in a high-stakes environment.) Two-thirds of the company's business comes from outside the United States.
"There are 200 million knowledge workers out there, and only 20 million will ever take a high-stakes test," Russiello says. And because the average knowledge worker has to learn so many new high-tech skills these days, some software companies are starting to look for alternatives to traditional testing.
One firm that's considering online certification exams is Oracle, the e-business software company in Redwood Shores, Calif. According to Rene Bonvanie, senior director of product marketing, they're particularly interested in using online testing to help people in India, China, Pakistan and Russia get certified in Oracle technologies, as it could prove to be too difficult logistically and too expensive to have them travel to testing centers.
He admits cheating is a concern, but believes those who already hold certifications won't be likely to help others fake it. "Why would you pollute your own brand by sharing (test answers) with someone else?" he asks.
Preventing cheating is also a concern at Brainbench. Russiello says students get new questions every time they retake a Brainbench exam and that the company limits the amount of time students can spend taking the test. "We don't know of too many people who will sit next to someone for an hour and give them the answers," he says.
Finding its place
IDC predicts that the test-delivery side of the IT certification market is poised for the fastest growth. And Bonvanie says the time will come when employers and the software companies that award certification will have to accept online testing as one measure of a learner's abilities. "When we put other elements into the equation, the assessment will no longer be a single-shot test, but will be based on continuous efforts, peer reviews, etc.," he says.
Scott Allison, marketing director with VUE, a certification testing company in suburban Minneapolis, agrees. He believes online testing might become acceptable for recertification in the same way online continuing medical education has become acceptable for physicians. When they take continuing education, doctors aren't proctored, he says. The theory is that because they have already gone through rigorous training and testing to get their license and have worked in the field, they've proved their abilities. He believes the same could apply to IT professionals who have already passed a high-stakes certification test.
Technology could help solve the problem of online cheaters. Retinal scanners, which shine a low beam of light into a person's eye, can be attached to a computer to verify the identity of the person behind the monitor. Fingerprint scanners built into the keyboard can do the same. A third option is to attach a camera to the computer. So far, none of the options have been widely used because of the cost.
"A lot of certification has value in the marketplace. As long as tests have value, and people aspire to certification, they're going to become creative [in how they cheat]," says Fran Linhart, director of certification at the Computing Technology Industry Association, a Chicago-based trade association.
For that reason, VUE's Allison believes the majority of certification testing will continue to take place in a traditional setting. In fact, Brainbench will soon offer customers going through its Certified Internet Professional program the option of taking proctored exams at testing centers.
"It will be a very long time before you can offer the same type of (remote testing) that would be the cost equivalent of a testing center," Allison says.
-Matt Wetzel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of Online Learning Magazine.
COPYRIGHT Bill Communications Inc. 2001. All rights reserved.