Outside Materials: What Should Be Allowed

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One of the main effects of the technology boom over the past few decades has been the ability to store more and more information on smaller and smaller devices. The IBM, GE, Honeywell and UNIVAC mainframes of yore were dinosaurs in every sense of the word — slow, lumbering behemoths that couldn’t retain a great deal of information. And they were only available to large organizations that had hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on nascent technologies like these.

However, these days, handheld devices such as PDAs and Blackberries offer incredible storage capability to individual consumers for professional and personal use. What’s more, it gives users access to e-mail, the Web and real-time communication with other individuals. Although no one would deny that products such as these are extremely beneficial, the implications for testing and training environments can be troubling.

Indeed, there have been a few high-profile cases of technology-aided cheating in recent years. For example, the Associated Press broke the story about 12 University of Maryland students attempting to cheat on an accounting exam using their cell phones. The dirty dozen brought their cell phones into the test with them and contacted friends outside the classroom via text messaging, who then responded with an answer key that had been posted on the Internet by the professor of the course once the exam had begun. Little did the students know that it was a sting: The professor had deliberately posted the wrong answers, and the 12 students who used them were busted. The funny thing was that these students weren’t working with each other — they’d each hatched their plans independently.

If cheating with technology is a problem in the United States, it’s an epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region. Tech savvy students in that part of the world have come up with some schemes that are downright ingenious. Cell phones have long been banned in most classrooms in China, Japan, India and other Asian nations, but that hasn’t stopped test-takers from trying. For instance, several dozen men attempting a military academy entrance exam in Bangkok, Thailand have been caught coming into the test with cell phones taped to their body or concealed in their underwear. (Let’s just hope they weren’t perspiring too heavily.) It gets better: At the University of Lucknow in India, two medical students used a tiny microphone and speaker that were sewn into the cuffs of their shirts and activated with a hidden cell phone. The tool was used to contact a collaborator outside the class, who would supply answers directly from textbooks. Although they were eventually caught by a supervisor, the students got away with this scheme for about two years.

The explosion of information storage and communications devices — and students’ quick realization of their cheating possibilities — should lead IT certification program managers to evaluate their policies on what should and shouldn’t be allowed, if they haven’t already. Program managers responsible for exam environs might be tempted to implement a uniform, sweeping ban of electronics of any kind. But this might be overdoing it, like sawing off someone’s arm because of a gangrenous pinky. The fact is that even if you permitted any and all technology within a testing center, most participants still would not opt to cheat and might be resentful of the policy. So what approach should you take to prevent cheating?

First of all, consider the number of test takers and the setting of the location of the exam. If you have a smaller group, you (or whoever is proctoring the test) will probably be able to monitor them closely enough to prevent almost any cheating — doubly so if the space is small. In these circumstances, you probably won’t need to put any bans into place. However, in larger numbers, you’ll have to employ some limitations on what can or can’t be used during the test and have multiple personnel on hand to observe the candidates as they take it.

Next, consider what tools ought to be verboten based on how they can give test-takers unearned advantages. For instance, cell phones can obviously be used to access the Internet and individuals outside the exam’s location, but they also can capture questions and answers and other aspects of the test via their storage functions. Additionally, cameras and other recording functions in the phones might be employed in hands-on situations like lab exams. To find out more about how technology can be used in the service of cheating, talk to some techies. (As those responsible for development and delivery of IT certification programs, I’m sure you know more than a few.)

Another consideration in determining what tools should be barred is one that has nothing to do with cheating at all. With regards to both training and testing environments, program managers should think first and foremost about the potential intrusiveness of the tool in question. If the novelty, noise level, appearance or other aspect of a particular technology might cause distraction — whether it’s during a class or a test — then it probably needs to be prohibited.

Finally, be sure to be as clear as possible about what is and isn’t allowed and what the penalties are for going against the policies set by your program. If candidates don’t know what your rules are, then you shouldn’t be upset when they break them.

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