Online Certification Exams: Some Say 'All In,' Others to Wait and See

Studying up for the quiz concept

For some time now, Microsoft Learning has, with partner Pearson VUE, been beta testing what it calls "online proctored exam delivery." Cisco Learning Network, the certification and training arm of Cisco, has the same exam partner, but hasn't yet jumped into online proctored testing for its core certifications. As I'll explain in a minute, the IT networking titan has its reasons.


If you visit Microsoft's Online proctored exam delivery (beta) web page, you may be surprised to learn that, for most developed countries and an increasing number of developing ones, nearly all of the MCP and MTA certification exams are available online. While you must check availability for proctored delivery on an exam-by-exam basis through Pearson VUE, I have yet to check any MCP or MTA exam (including all those associated with the various MCSA, MCSE, and MCSD credentials currently available) for which proctored delivery is NOT offered.


Given that Microsoft has apparently jumped onto this bandwagon more or less all the way (with global availability likely by the end of 2017), I found myself wondering where Cisco's thinking might be on this topic. I called my contacts at Cisco and wound up speaking with Tejas Vashi, a director of marketing with a focus on training and certification. While Cisco's take on online proctored exams might be tersely summarized as "not yet," there are some considerable nuances worth pondering in unpacking and digesting the full response.


The key reasons why Cisco isn't ready to get behind online proctored versions of its most popular and prestigious cert exams — such as those for CCENT, CCNA, CCNP and so forth — all revolve around the company's heavy investment in ISO/ANSI certification for most of those certifications. (Yes, certs can be certified.) In particular, I'm talking about ISO/IEC 17024 (which also maps to an ANSI standard for North America).


It turns out that issues related to fairness and accessibility tie into the bandwidth needed for certain online exams. Some exams would have built-in restrictions because much of the developing world doesn't have enough Internet bandwidth to support online testing that involves simulations, animations, or complex virtual networking environments.


It further turns out that 17024 imposes constraints on exam integrity, issues related to identity and authentication for test takers, and requirements that proctors be able to lay real eyeballs on the individuals who are being tested. Long-distance audio and video monitoring mediated by a webcam isn't considered sufficient.


In short, until the standards of ANSI/IEC/ISO certification for acceptable and vetted test delivery mechanisms can be updated or upgraded to include the tools required for online proctoring, Cisco's hands are tied. There's simply no wiggle room to offer online versions of exams in lieu of making them available at physical testing center locations that do comply with standardized requirements for check-in, authentication, and monitoring.


And because 17024 is very much decided and managed by committee, this is something that has to be studied, analyzed and reported on, and then debated and discussed. And that's all before it would even be possible to formulate the changes necessary to specify what kinds of online proctoring mechanisms might then fall under a new version of the 17024 standard (last revised in 2012).


In reality, because of all the issues involved, and the players who must weigh in on the topic, Cisco's hesitancy not only translates into something like "maybe, maybe not," but also into something like, "If it does happen, it could be years before ANSI 17024 certified credentials include online proctored exams." �Nuff said!


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About the Author

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran who's worked as a software developer, technical marketer, consultant, author, and researcher. Author of many books and articles, Ed also writes on certification topics for Tech Target, ComputerWorld and Win10.Guru. Check out his website at, where he also blogs daily on Windows 10 and 11 topics.