Take-Home Certification Exams: Adventures in Online Proctoring

February 18, 2016 at 4:35 pm | Posted in Proctors, Study hints, Technical Tips | Leave a comment
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So, you’ve spent months studying for the latest certification. You’re ready to schedule the exam and  proudly showcase your new knowledge and skills. Until recently, your only option was to take the exam at an approved testing center. [Editor’s note: the following opinion does not represent the corporate viewpoint of Kaplan, Transcender, Graham Holdings, or any sane person, Josh. ~A.L.] Most test centers are a cross between a corporate cubicle farm and prison camp. Sure, there are people there, but people in their worst possible moments: bleary-eyed, nerve-wracked, and way too over-caffeinated. [Editor’s note: This would explain those horrible ID photos on my score reports. ~A.L.]

If you don’t live near a corporate testing hub, you might dread the half-day of commuting time, lost productivity, or even the need for an overnight hotel stay. (In a major hub like Atlanta, there are testing centers galore, but we have to fight bumper-to-bumper traffic to get there.) You may be too busy with your day job to get the time off, or you might want enough time to fit in a last-minute cram session. You may experience test anxiety that negatively affects your performance, especially when testing in an impersonal, sterile environment.

Enter online proctoring.

Message not recommended. Online proctors might not appreciate the humor.

The glorious promise of an online proctored exam is the ability to take a certification exam wherever you are at the time of your choice, without travel or stressful interactions. And except for a few caveats, the dream is reality. But you need to really consider those caveats. The whirlwind home-alone experience isn’t for everyone!

Josh’s Excellent Proctored-Exam-At-Home Adventure

First: equipment. You need a decent PC with a camera and microphone and high-speed Internet bandwidth. Every online proctor will have a pre-flight checklist that will verify your hardware is up to snuff. Don’t wait until minutes before taking the exam to ensure your equipment will pass. Run the check as soon as possible, and leave yourself time to borrow, purchase, or overnight yourself any missing components.

Next: scheduling. You read that right – even though you have more flexibility than a testing center’s hours, including the ability to take your exam late at night or very early in the morning, a live proctor still has to be present on the other end of the connection to observe you take the exam. For this reason, some time slots may be unavailable – the proctor might already have too many test takers to keep track of. (Or maybe they actually sleep.)

Finally: location. From my personal experience, you need to find a room or an enclosed space in a room that will be quiet and isolated (where no one can here you scream). This is actually required to prevent accusations of cheating, so close all of your windows  and make sure no one is in the same room with you. If you don’t have access to a private room in your home, check your local public library – most have study rooms that can be reserved for periods of up to two hours. Other options would be a hotel conference room or an unused cubicle or office in your workplace.

If you’re testing in your own home, secure any pets away from the exam area and make sure that children won’t enter the area. I chose my dining room (finally getting some use out of it!), because I would have at least three walls around me. I locked up my cats  for the duration, especially after my first unsuccessful attempt when my cat Norio attempted to lie across my hands during the exam (the proctor had to pick himself off the floor laughing, but was gracious enough to allow me to continue). I also silenced my cellphone and let everyone, especially my wife, know that I would be completely unavailable and unresponsive for the duration.

No pet time for you – I have a test to take!

Additional considerations for at-home online examinations

Here are a few other tips I’ve learned from online proctored experiences:

  • Do not install any updates or new software on the same day as your exam appointment. Murphy’s law in action here. I’ve had to cancel at least one exam after installing an update to Visual Studio on the machine I was using for the exam. It took over an hour, and finished installing just in time for the proctor to tell me that my test time was up.
  • If you’re using a laptop, make sure you’re plugged into a power source. Especially if you have some ridiculous 42-inch super AMOLED screens which will run dry after 5 minutes of operation.

This thing is for an online test, not a gaming rig!

  • Empty your pockets of everything (and make sure you wear pants, too).  Some test centers require this and will make you display your empty pockets to the camera. And you’ll have to spin around (so you may want to hold off of on the antihistamines for a bit).
  • Clean up the table or desk where you are testing. You can’t have any loose papers or computer equipment lying around. You’ll have to pick up your laptop (or attached camera) and rotate it around the work space to demonstrate that no cheating materials are nearby, so make sure there’s nothing embarrassing lying around.
  • You cannot have bags, purses, boxes, or any other items on the floor next to your chair.
  • You must take off all bracelets and watches. This I forget all of the time, but the proctor won’t. Save yourself some testing time and do this beforehand.
  • Make sure you can roll up long sleeves to display that you don’t have notes written on your skin.
  • Do not bring any food, drinks or gum into the test environment. It’s not allowed. Well, at least don’t open your mouth too wide or smack too loud.
  • Be nice to your proctor. It’s at their discretion if and when you get bathroom breaks!

If you have wearable medical devices (such as insulin pumps or medical alert bracelets) that should not be removed, or if your personal beliefs don’t allow you to comply with certain regulations (such as displaying bare arms), be sure to ask the vendor to specify IN WRITING whether exemptions are allowed in general, and to approve yours in particular, to avoid disappointment at test time.

“You keep using that word – I do not think it means what you think it means”

Different vendors have different terminology. When you’re searching for an exam you can take from home, be sure you’re searching for online proctored exams. For example, Oracle refers to exams taken online as “non-proctored” and exams taken in person at Oracle University testing centers as “proctored.” Here is more information on online proctored exams with Oracle.

Sold! Where do I sign up?

Due to security considerations, not every vendor offers an online exam experience. Project Management Institute, for example, only allows people to sit the PMP exam at approved testing centers.

At this time of writing, Cisco allows certain of its exams to be scheduled through Pearson Vue for an at-home exam experience.

EC Council, for popular security certifications like CEH, delivers their exams through ProctorU.

CompTIA’s online exam program is called the Anywhere Proctored program, but the available information seems to be geared toward test providers, not test takers. At this time of writing, I could not definitely find a CompTIA exam that could be taken online outside of a boot camp or other training course.

Microsoft has a robust online proctored exam environment, called “online proctored exam delivery.” You can read their full list of policies here.

According to Pearson Vue, VMware offers all VCA exams in a 24/7 online format. There is a full FAQ available.

Online proctoring exam service PeopleCert offers online proctored exams for a variety of vendors, including ITIL®, PRINCE2®, MSP®, P3O®, MoV®, DevOpsLean ITLean Six Sigma,ACCESSIBILITY PASS and ISO.

However you choose to take your exam, as always, we wish you good luck and happy testing!

~Josh aka codeguru

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