Are student-earned certifications a good indication of job-ready skills?
This feature first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Higher education academic programs emphasize equipping their graduates with some practical experience in their field of study through projects, internships, practicums, and so forth, to better prepare them for the job market. Computer Science (CS) and Management Information Systems (MIS) programs, however, have also been increasingly incorporating IT professional certifications into the course and program curricula in order to provide some edge to their graduates in securing internships and employment.
An IT certification is considered an external, objective evidence of one’s knowledge and practical experience in a specific technology or domain. A student, however, may possess only nominal practical experience, if any at all. Consequently, this raises the question of how one should interpret an IT certification earned by a student.
This paper presents a case study that should help an interviewer/recruiter better interpret the relevance and merits of an IT certification held by a newly minted graduate whose academic background is in a Computer Science or Management Information Systems field of study.
The Computer Science and Management Information Systems departments at institutions of higher education employ varied strategies to ensure that their graduates possess readily marketable IT knowledge and skills upon entering the job market (Husinger and Smith, 2008; Rajendran, 2011).
Typically, these strategies include: 1) equipping students with high-demand IT skills (Yew, 2008; Wittman, 2010); and 2) enhancing students’ practical IT knowledge and skills through internships, industry projects, on-campus work projects, or simulated projects (Yew, 2008; Coes and Schotanus, 2009; Janz and Nichols, 2010; Tan and Venables, 2010; Wittman, 2010).
In recent years, however, these programs are increasingly employing another strategy: amplifying student knowledge and skills by integrating IT professional certifications into their curricula (Husinger and Smith, 2008; Hartley, 2008; Rajendran, 2011; Greene, 2015).
An IT certification represents external, objective evidence of an IT professional’s knowledge and competence in a specific technology or area of expertise. As such, it stands to reason that most IT professionals attempt to earn certifications after acquiring some level of practical experience. Some certifications, in fact, require that a candidate have prior work experience before attempting the certification exam.
A typical student, however, may possess only nominal on-the-job experience, if any at all. This consequently raises questions about the proper interpretation and merits of a student’s IT certification. Stackpole (2016) in fact suggests that a student’s IT certification may represent nothing more than book knowledge and, therefore, should be considered with caution in hiring decisions.
Given the significance attached to the IT certifications in the hiring process, it becomes imperative to develop a better understanding of the merits of an IT certification of a student. Unfortunately, there is hardly any research conducted on this specific topic. This research is an attempt to fill this gap and the authors believe that this paper will be useful to any professionals involved in recruiting and evaluating applicants for IT positions.
Relevance of IT certifications in academic programs
The body of IT professional certifications comprises two primary categories. The first category includes certifications that are technology independent and stress general, non-proprietary skills and concepts, such as Project Management Professional (PMP), Certified Usability Analyst (CUA), and Certified E-Commerce Consultant (CEC).
The second category entails certifications that are technology-based and measure knowledge and skills specific to a technology and computing platform, such as Oracle’s PL/ SQL certifications, Microsoft Certified: Azure Administrator Associate, Cisco Certified Network Administrator (CCNA) and so forth.
These certifications may be earned by successfully completing a single exam, or may require the successful completion of multiple exams. In the academic realm, it is usually technology-based, one-exam certifications that are incorporated into a course, typically one whose content closely corresponds to the topics covered on the certification exam.
For example, an Oracle PL/SQL certification might be incorporated into a database course, and a CCNA may be incorporated in a computer networking course.
IT professional certifications hold significant relevance and merit from multiple perspectives. First, leading IT industry corporations, such as Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, and Cisco actively promote professional certification programs designed to gauge the understanding of concepts and skills critical to the effective use of their technologies (Coes and Schotanus, 2009; Wenzel, 2011; Stackpole, 2016; Walrad, 2017; Blomquist, Farashah and Thomas, 2018; White 2018).
Second, professional associations and organizations — including the likes of CompTIA, (ISC)², and ISACA — that support independent certification programs deal with large diverse populations and have access to the latest changes in various information technologies and are, therefore, better equipped than universities to design comprehensive validated tests and keep them current.
Third, prospective employers see an earlier payoff from hiring students from an academic program which employs certification-based coursework, because such a program tends to produce students with current skills who are ready to make immediate contributions to the workplace (Yang and Wang, 2009; Tan and Venables, 2010; Land and Reisman, 2012; Greene, 2015).
Fourth, for the students who earn them, IT certifications provide external and objective validation of their knowledge and expertise in an IT area, which gives them an edge in a competitive job market (Levinson, 2010; Tan and Venables, 2010, Stackpole, 2016; White, 2018).
Lastly, for teaching faculty, a certification test provides an externally validated measure of the quality and depth of material covered within a course and student mastery of that material (Greene, 2015). Thus, professional IT certifications possess considerable significance from employer, student, and faculty perspectives.
Analysis of student performance on a certification test: A case study
The authors of this paper are faculty in the College of Business at a medium-sized public university and have had IT certifications incorporated into their respective courses over several semesters. As such, they have compiled extensive data on students’ in-class performance during the semester, as well as their performance on the various IT certification exams incorporated into the courses taught.
This data was analyzed to determine the relationship between in-class performance and certification exam performance, in order to gain an understanding of student performance on certification exams. In other words, given nominal practical experience with the technology covered by a certification exam, what does a student’s performance on the exam tell an interviewer or a recruiter about that student’s competence in that technology? This section briefly presents this analysis and its findings.
The MS/MIS coursework at this university includes two database courses: Fundamentals of Database Design and Development, and Advanced Database Applications Development. In both of these courses, Oracle is employed as the underlying database management system software.
The first course covers database theory and fundamental SQL (Structured Query Language) programming, and the second course covers advanced SQL, as well as PL/SQL programming. The students in the advanced course take an Oracle PL/SQL certification exam, which counts for 10 percent of the overall course grade. All topics included on the PL/SQL certification are covered at least two weeks prior to the exam due date.
The passing rate is approximately 80 percent over several semesters. Interestingly, however, we discovered that some students who otherwise fared poorly in the course, performed outstandingly on the certification exam; in fact, one semester, three students scored higher than 90 percent on the certification test, who were otherwise failing the course.
This was, of course, somewhat puzzling. After some research, however, we learned of certification “brain dump” sites where the students could purchase banks of questions used in previous certification exams, and simply memorize the answers to the questions — instead of mastering the underlying concepts and material.
To discourage students from using such brain dump sites, faculty emphasized that a technical job interview would undoubtedly reveal the factual depth of a student’s knowledge and competence. A certification accompanied by a positive impression of student knowledge and competence will strengthen hiring prospects; whereas a certification accompanied by a negative impression of knowledge and competence will raise questions about how the student was able to pass the exam and, thereby, critically undermine the likelihood of securing employment (Bort, 2011).
The final exam in the course primarily covered PL/SQL coding questions. Using Minitab 8, we examined the relationship between the certification exam scores and the final exam scores. The analysis results suggest a very weak correlation between the final exam and the certification exam performance, with an R2 value of about 13 percent. This result did not make sense, given that both of the tests covered PL/ SQL. However, on a closer look, the similarities between the two tests ended just there. Two significant factors likely resulted in this weak relationship. First, the class test is primarily a coding test, whereas the certification test is an objective test with primarily multiple-choice or true/false questions, with the correct answer listed among the options.
A student could therefore possibly arrive at the correct answer through process of elimination, but that is not a possibility with the coding questions. Secondly, while a student has to be familiar with the PL/SQL language syntax to perform well on both types of tests, the coding questions require the ability to correctly analyze the problem, outline the solution, and write the code, thus employing additional competencies.
These findings were also supported by other courses that had incorporated Java and C# certifications into course requirements. Consequently, in the case of a student with nominal practical experience, a programming IT certification may simply reflect the extent of the student’s syntactical knowledge, but not his ability to develop programs in that language.
Institutions of higher education make concerted efforts to prepare their students for their intended job market through traditional mechanisms such as projects, internships, practicums, and so forth. Computer Science and Management Information Systems programs have also been integrating IT professional certifications into the course requirements, as these certifications offer an external, objective assessment of one’s knowledge and practical competence in one or more information technologies.
The expectation is that the achievement of an IT professional certification will provide an edge to the students in the job market. Typically, an IT professional gains practical experience prior to taking a related certification test, and therefore passing the test validates the professional’s knowledge and practical competence.
A student, however, who attempts a certification test may have nominal practical experience; therefore, in this case, a certification will not have the same connotation as it will in the case of an IT professional, and this research bears this out.
Based on extensive data on student performance in a course during the semester and performance on a related certification exam, this research suggests that, in the case of any student, an IT certification may reflect conceptual and syntactical knowledge, but not practical competence. Therefore, it might be prudent for an interviewer or recruiter to employ other mechanisms such as a technical interview involving coding problems, or pair-programming, to gauge a student candidate’s practical competence.
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