Testing is a means of validating an individual’s knowledge and skills. Most of us have become accustomed to taking tests since our school days. A few short decades ago, teachers had to type out pages of questions and students would record answers in designated sheets.
The computer eventually replaced the typewriter, making it simpler to prepare and compile questions. Word processing was quicker, questions could be reused, and changes were much easier to make.
Actual computer programs then took over the next phase, making it possible for instructors to generate tests from a random bank of questions. Evaluation and grading of answer scripts also became possible and instantaneous with the help of computers.
Recent advances in technology have now changed the entire process of testing students in both the professional and academic worlds. The internet makes it possible for students to take exams away from testing centers and at their convenience.
In India, online exams are catching on in a big way. Many large employers now conduct all of their testing online. For example, TCS conducts online training and examinations for all their campus recruits. After completing the online training, recruits are given an online evaluation before being assigned to projects.
Certifying organizations are leveraging the latest technologies to offer exams online. Online certification testing is simple and straightforward: A candidate registers for a certification test online and receives an exam key code from the exam provider. The key code enables the candidate to take the test online.
Web-based training and online certification testing have made the IT certification process more popular with candidates. Some of the key advantages of online certification testing are:
Reduced costs — There are no associated travel expenses for the students, and the certifying organization doesn’t have to rent a location. Since students can complete the certification on their computers, their only outlay is the computer, an internet connection, and price of the course.
For online tests, skilled instructors are required to set up the initial design for an original set of questions or a question bank. After that, it’s a simple matter for the computer to generate random questions from the bank, organize them into an exam and then quickly grade the exam. As an added benefit, computer software can also scan the examination area to prevent student malpractice, thereby reducing the manual supervision effort.
Environmentally friendly — The distribution system of providing printed papers to students is entirely done away with. Online tests don’t require printed questions or answer scripts, and results can also be published online. This reduces the use of paper and is beneficial to the environment.
Convenience — In the past, IT pros had to arrange their schedules around set examination dates. This could be very inconvenient and costly. Scheduling conflicts could mean that a student wasn’t able to sit for an exam, regardless of their level of preparation. With online certifications, the entire process of preparing can be done as rapidly or slowly as the student may require. They set their own pace and take the exam when they feel ready.
When it comes to studying for the exam, access to study resources is a significant benefit with online certification. Students are free to dive deeper into areas which they may need more study time. They also have access to additional resources and information from outside the classroom.
Since there is no set training location, students avoid having to travel for classes or the exam. It is beneficial to not have to expend your energy travelling and hope you show up on time. Of course, some certifying entities do require that exams be taken at registered testing locations. So you will still have to travel for the exam, but your preferred time to study remains your own.
Additional benefits — During training time for the exam, students often gain exposure to others from outside their geographic area, giving them exposure to new and different perspectives. As students collaborate online with others they can share questions and solutions thereby developing a sense of excitement and greater desire to learn.
Unfortunately, not everything with online certification training is completely good. There are some significant disadvantages:
Limited social interaction — The training aspect can limit in-person exposure to instructors and students. Some may find it easier to have in-person interaction as they learn. Most communications are via email, chat rooms or discussion groups — there is little if any gathering of students and instructors.
Depending on when a student sets aside time to study, particularly if they choose to study at night, there can often be a time-lag between the student asking questions and receiving instructor feedback.
Effectiveness of Assessment — Many instructors do not consider memory testing as the best method of determining a candidate’s competency. Great care must be taken to design the training and examination so as to prepare candidates with essential knowledge that is more than simple memory and playback.
Unethical Behaviour — One of the biggest challenges with online testing is that it can open the door for unscrupulous practices. Advances in technology have made possible newer and ever more ingenious methods of cheating. Instructors must be up-to-date on cheating methods and technologies that permit them.
In India, stiff competition for jobs and a culture that idolizes high grades has led to cheating becoming an industry by itself. Software to help cheat is available on the open market and students are everyday devising innovative methods of cheating utilizing social media and other technologies.
Last year, the Supreme Court had to step in and order the nation’s pre-medical examination be retaken after it was found that students had come to the examination wearing micro-Bluetooth devises and mobile SIM cards stitched to their shirts. Pens which could scan question papers had been used to take images and transmit them outside through Bluetooth devices.
In this backdrop it is only logical to assume that the IT pro taking the certification exam has access to all the technology available for cheating. Companies are even known to advertise cheating software with punchlines like, “Spy exam cheating devices particularly made for clearing tough exams.”
A certification body needs to be aware of the cheating methods and take steps to prevent the same. India’s country manager for Prometric Testing Services says that every day he encounters interesting and creative ways that people use to cheat. And it is the need of the certification bodies to be equally creative and innovative with their cheating prevention procedures if online certification tests are to become the norm
One common method of cheating is to have a knowledgeable person take the exam on behalf of the candidate. There are actually Indian companies that offer skilled representation in IT certification exams. One way to prevent this is to verify a candidate’s identity with biometric verification — a technical process where a person is uniquely identified by means of a biological trait. Some unique identifiers are finger prints, hand and earlobe geometry, retina and iris patterns and signatures.
When taking an exam from an off-site location, candidates must have a video link that permits proctors to observe them so as to ensure that there are no hidden notes around their room or someone off-camera providing prompts. Proctors are able to scan a candidate’s desk and can use the camera to scan tissue papers, insides of pencil boxes and even the computer monitor.
Software packages like Proctortrack are increasingly used to prevent cheating. Proctortrack utilizes an algorithm to detect unusual student behaviour. It notes behaviours such as looking away from the computer screen for extended periods of time or talking to someone off-screen that could constitute cheating. It also categorizes each student as having high or low “integrity.”
Such software requires students to sit upright and remain directly in front of their webcams. These programs are so sensitive that they can even detect a change in lighting that could flag a test for violation.
Barring all other software on a candidate’s computer is a mandatory requirement for online examinations. In the past students have used GoogleDocs and chat sessions to cheat and discuss answers during examinations. To counter this, it is necessary that once the online test has been enabled, all software applications and other internet connectivity are disabled
What is the future?
Online training and testing is becoming more prevalent in India and across the world. The advantages of cost and convenience are undeniable. Simultaneously, the on-going challenges of maintaining student involvement, questions of effectiveness, and especially the need to prevent cheating are issues that need to be addressed.
Still, online-certification training and testing is allowing millions to obtain low cost IT certifications. The process isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, with advances in technology and the spread of the internet, it’s a safe bet that online certification training and testing will it will continue to grow.