LPI: Certification for the Open-Source Community

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Sometime in the next few months, the Linux Professional Institute (LPI) will deliver its 100,000th certification exam. Not bad for a program that’s only in its sixth year of operation, at a time when analysts have indicated that most IT certifications are decreasing, not increasing in number. In fact, the last time LPI was covered in this space, in the May 2004 issue, the number of exams delivered had just surpassed 45,000.

LPI currently offers two levels of certification for system administrators using the Linux operating system. The reasons for LPI’s success are fairly straightforward and certainly no secret. They can be summed up simply in the three characteristics that describe the LPI program: trusted, accessible and independent.

The Importance of Trustworthiness
LPI does not use certification as a tool to sell books, training courses or software upgrades. Its whole reputation rests on the quality, relevance and effectiveness of the certification programs and their exams. Fortunately, by its very design, LPI is well-equipped to provide this type of service.

The relevance of the LPI program is ensured by its heavy reliance on broad-based community input. Much as Linux itself could not exist without its legions of paid and voluntary skilled developers, LPI also has a worldwide network of professionals who not only take the exams, but also contribute to LPI in a variety of other ways.

Unlike certifications that are created by technology vendors for those IT professionals who use their products, LPI was created by Linux professionals for Linux professionals. Its peer-review method of developing exams and objectives resembles the techniques used by the legal, medical and engineering fields. LPI’s status as a nonprofit organization helps to ensure that the emphasis remains on quality.

LPI’s schedule of item-writing workshops serves multiple purposes. Introduced in 2004, these events bring together local Linux experts in many communities, many of whom volunteer their time to lend their skills to the development of new exam items. These workshops, which have been held in St. Louis, Mo., Beijing, Heidelberg, Tokyo and most recently, in Johannesburg, have been extremely successful in improving the quality, relevance and security of exams while reinforcing the importance of LPI’s community component.

Of course, LPI uses the same psychometric development techniques used by other high-quality programs, but because LPI was created to serve the community and public interest, it does not stop there. Its procedures and policies can be brought forth by the community, and LPI is making efforts to ensure that its operations are even more open and transparent than before.

It is because of this commitment that LPI’s Level 1 program became the first IT certification program to receive accreditation by the National Organization of Competency Assurance (NOCA). The NOCA program evaluates certifications for both high quality and public interest.

Accessibility: Addressing the Global Linux Phenomenon
Just as Linux has developed globally since its creation by Finnish student Linus Torvalds, LPI also has a strong international character. Its exams are delivered in seven languages in almost every country in the world. In order to cope with the almost 20 languages used on the organization’s Web site, LPI had to write is own translation management system (open source, of course).

In order to ensure that the LPI program is relevant to this global community, LPI has undertaken some other unique initiatives. A network of international nonprofit affiliate organizations that share LPI’s goals ensures that the Linux skills program meets local needs, as well as the big picture. For instance, LPI is closely following the Asian Linux specification “Asianux” to determine if existing programs will be compliant, or whether a specialized distribution-specific education program may be required.

Within the past few years, LPI has established relationships with groups in Japan, Germany, the United States, China, the United Kingdom and South Africa. In addition, a number of regional affiliate groups have provided a presence for LPI throughout Latin America and in countries where French is a major language.

These connections, combined with the participation of major international corporate sponsors such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Novell, do more than just promote LPI around the world. They also ensure that the LPI certificate is recognized anywhere Linux is used. The community partners also are responsible in part for the increasing recognition and endorsement of LPI by governments and public agencies.

Because of its global mandate, LPI is involved in many economic situations where people cannot afford the cost of the conventional computer-based exams. This is clearly apparent in developing economies, including some in which the conventional cost of a single LPI exam can be a month’s salary for an IT worker. However, even in wealthier countries, people who are unemployed or switching careers—people who look at certification as a way to prove their qualifications—are often strapped for cash. There are many instances in which cost may prevent qualified people from becoming certified.

To address these circumstances, LPI adopted a policy of providing exam labs to reduce the price of its exams. These labs have been held in many countries by a growing network of specially trained exam proctors. In 2005, LPI proposed to hold exam labs at every LinuxWorld Expo event worldwide, in cooperation with the conference organizers.

When Vendor-Neutral Isn’t Enough
Your doctor’s medical degree doesn’t come from a drug company. Nor does it come from a consortium of drug companies. In most fields of professional endeavor, it’s important to maintain a level of independence between practitioners and those who sell the products they use. LPI seeks to bring this approach to Linux IT system administrators, and perhaps to other areas within the open-source world.

LPI was created specifically to address community concerns with the state of IT certification. To accomplish its goals, LPI adopted a core policy of strict vendor-independence and distribution neutrality. Linux vendors certainly have a part to play in the development of certifications—even IBM is a member of the community.

However, there are a number of characteristics that distinguish LPI:

 

 

  • Training is completely separated from testing: There is not, and never will be, “official” LPI courseware, books or training (though there is an optional, non-exclusive approval process for publishers who want third-party verification for their materials). Certification is a skills standard, and it is important that students can prepare to achieve that standard through a broad variety of means. Instead of relying on one set of authorized training materials, LPI works with the entire community to produce a broad variety of materials and methods for training, which has resulted in diverse and innovative approaches. E-learning and online tutorials are available, in addition to conventional courseware from many sources, including some that are distributed and developed using open-source techniques and licenses.
  • Training is not required: Due to the very nature of Linux, there are many people with the skills to administer a Linux network who are self-taught. To expect these individuals to pay for formal training just so they can take a certification test is unreasonable. LPI certification tests are only concerned with determining the applicant’s skills. It doesn’t matter if they took a college course, went through a boot camp at a training center or downloaded a Linux system and taught themselves through trial and error.
  • Instructors may not administer LPI exams to their own students: This promotes fairness and reduces the potential for c
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