Is Microsoft's foray into home-based exams the future of certification?

Microsoft made some waves back in September when it announced it was ending its relationship with certification exam vendor Prometric at the end of 2014, and would be partnering with Pearson VUE for all future certification exam services. A big deal at the time, this announcement was trumped later in the month when Microsoft revealed its plan to offer online certification exams that candidates could take from the comfort of their own homes.

Microsoft is now offering certification exams online.

On Sept. 22, Microsoft released its first online-proctored MCP and MTA certification exams for candidates living in the United States. (Microsoft has promised expansion to other countries as the program develops.) Candidates can book and take certain MS exams from their homes, or another approved space. The candidate is supervised by a remote proctor via webcam and microphone during the process, which also includes a pre-exam camera check of the room, the candidate's ears (no headsets or earpieces allowed) and their pockets (which must be emptied).


If the proctor is satisfied with the arrangement, then the candidate can proceed to take their booked exam. There are strict conditions in place during the exam:

- Candidates are constantly recorded (video and audio) for the duration of the exam.
- Candidates may not take notes during the exam.
- Candidates cannot eat, drink, or chew gum during the exam.
- Candidates cannot take a break during the exam, for any reason.

There's no word of a required dress code at this time — personally, I'd vie for pajamas and a top hat.

Microsoft's home-based exam program offers some key advantages over having to visit registered test centers. Candidates who live a long distance from the nearest Pearson VUE location will definitely appreciate saving the time and travel expense. Also, those who suffer from "exam anxiety" will likely be much more comfortable sitting for an exam in the familiar environment of their own homes.

The convenience of this solution even extends to booking an exam. Qualifying exams can be scheduled and taken on the same day, with only 15 minutes' notice if an appropriate slot is open. And, just like taking an exam at a test center, exam results are available shortly after the exam is completed.

Sounds good, yes? There are, however, a number of limitations and potential problems with online-proctored exams.

The biggest potential problem, of course, is cheating. While Microsoft has done its best to tighten down the process as much as possible, any exam experience that takes place outside of a monitored test center room is vulnerable to exploitation. And, it's not difficult to predict that those who manage to "game the system" will share their cheats in online forums and chat groups.

Also, some of the candidate restrictions, while obviously intended to curtail cheating, seem overly strict. No drinks, not even an innocent glass of water? And, the inability to take notes will be problematic for many exam takers, particularly those who use the start of an exam to write down some key concepts before digging into the questions.

Finally, it's not clear what happens in the event of a momentary Internet glitch while taking an exam. This isn't necessarily a common problem for all Internet users, but anyone who has Skyped over a dodgy connection can tell you that online video occasionally locks up. Would someone automatically fail their exam if the proctor loses sight of them for 30 seconds?

Despite these issues, most candidates will see the expanded accessibility of MCP and MTA exams offered by the online-proctored home-based system as a big improvement over traditional testing methods. Significantly, if Microsoft and Pearson VUE are able to expand this offering into other countries while working out the more troublesome wrinkles, it's likely that other IT certification vendors like CompTIA, Oracle and Red Hat will be pressured into creating their own online home-based exam services.

Consumer adoption of cloud computing has proven that people today have higher expectations for access to anywhere/anytime on-demand online services. It's reasonable to expect that IT pros who are preparing to take a certification exam will, more and more frequently, have some of those same expectations.


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About the Author
Aaron Axline is a freelance technology writer based in Canada.

Aaron Axline is a technology journalist and copywriter based in Edmonton, Canada. He can be found on LinkedIn, and anywhere fine coffee is served.