Expert Opinion: Microsoft Opens Its Books ... and a Pandora's Box?

Microsoft has implemented a groundbreaking new resource for anyone who takes its certification exams.

At the end of August, Microsoft announced that its certification exams were being modified to allow exam candidates to access Microsoft Learn training and review content while taking their exams. That's right: Microsoft certification exams are now, "open book" exams, at least to the extent that exam candidates can search resources available via Microsoft Learn during their exams.

This is of interest to many who take Microsoft exams and others who run or manage certification programs. Will this cause a shift in the industry? Microsoft has been on the leading edge of emerging trends in certification exam best practices before.

I was just as curious as others, and immediately investigated the news. While it appears the Microsoft is indeed making a move in a new and different direction, it is probably not the seismic shift that many may have envisioned when first seeing the announcement.

First off, the Microsoft certification exams have not become out-and-out open book exams in the sense that many may be thinking of. "Open book" to many means access to any and all resources available while taking a test or exam. It usually would mean that such access is unproctored as well — no is looking over the exam candidate's shoulder, in other words, to monitor what resources they are using.

Microsoft has long been a leader in technology innovation, with both successes and failures in the rearview mirror. They will continue to innovate. In this case, since Microsoft controls the nature and content of training and study resources available on Microsoft Learn, there are guardrails and parameters in place. Microsoft has the funding to play around with its (limited) open book concept and see what happens.

Give the People What They Want

Microsoft has implemented a groundbreaking new resource for anyone who takes its certification exams.

The main impetus for making the switch was input from test takers. Microsoft certification exam candidates — primarily those in technically-focused professional work roles — said that they would normally look up certain types of information if various exam scenarios were presented to them while on the job. What Microsoft did was to modify its proctored online exams to include a "hole" in the test taker's otherwise locked-down browser that provides access to select Microsoft Learn content.

Exam proctors are trained to recognize when an exam candidate is accessing resources on Microsoft Learn, which is free and open to the public. There is actually an icon in the exam browser to get candidates to Microsoft Learn. The scuttlebutt is that there were some kinks that had to be ironed out regarding various links already embedded in some Microsoft Learn resources, but those problems have now been solved. One key restriction was preventing access to GitHub, the open source software development platform acquired by Microsoft in 2018.

I mentioned above that the system has built-in guardrails. One key restriction is that exam candidates have not been given additional time is given to complete their exams. If a given individual knows what they are looking for on Microsoft Learn, and where to find it, the lack of additional time to complete the exam probably won't hold them up much. Those who go into the exam intending to just browse around Microsoft Learn and find answers, on the other hand, are likely to find themselves losing a race against the clock.

Time has always been a factor in test taking and this is no exception. In some cases, open book access to Microsoft Learn could even add more time pressure. It will be interesting to see whether complaints come in regarding this aspect of the new exam format.

Follow the Leader?

Microsoft has implemented a groundbreaking new resource for anyone who takes its certification exams.

Microsoft is carrying all of this out in partnership with Pearson VUE, their test delivery vendor, which means that they have essentially built out a framework that other programs could choose to adopt. Cost is a factor for many certification programs, of course, and creating and/or maintaining a vast online library such as Microsoft Learn could be out of reach for most.

By contrast, for a program as large as Microsoft's, relying on this particular open book avenue, could reduce time to market for various new exams. It could turn out to be an ideal solution that quiet complaints from exam candidates and speeds up the release timeline for new exams.

My take has always been that exam developers should include the content people say they would look up in any question that requires it — typically this applies to more advanced, scenario-based questions — and I still believe this to be the case.   If done right, the scenario presented by the question still has to be parsed with no "gimmies." It certainly takes more effort to create these types of exam items, but the payoff is great. The exam candidate must use critical thinking to answer scenario-based questions, and that type of thinking is highly valued in the field.

The risk of questions being screen captured is greater in any open book paradigm. All certification exam candidates are strongly warned against doing nefarious things while completing their exam. Some still do, of course, and some of those individuals are caught. Expulsions from programs still happen. There always seems to be someone who will test whatever boundaries are put in place, whether to serve unethical purposes, or out of a sense of fun, or out of a mistaken belief that a new format allows them greater freedom than it does.

What every certification program wants to be is fair. Certification providers want to protect the integrity of their programs while creating something of value. Exam candidates want to get that value from taking and passing their exams. It will be interesting to see how other programs evolve and change in response to Microsoft's bold new direction.

Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author

Peter Manijak is a training and certification consultant and served as Certification Chair for CEdMA (Computer Education Management Association) for more than six years. He now sits on the CEdMA Europe Board of Directors. An innovator and pioneer of IT certification, Peter specializes in building and managing world-class certification programs and training organizations. Certification regimes he has led include those affiliated with EMC, Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), Hitachi Data Systems, Acquia, Magento and Ceridian. Peter has been awarded CEdMA Certification Chair - Emeritus status and is a regular contributor to Certification Magazine and GoCertify.