The Real World: Advantages of Practical Knowledge

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Shortly after the dawn of the IT certification era, these new methods of assessing technology skills were dogged by charges of insufficient reliability and security. With regards to the former, critics maintained that anyone could get a certification if they were good at taking tests and had the right study materials, regardless of their actual technical expertise. As for the second line of reasoning, it was held that the exam environments were too easily infiltrated for dastardly purposes, and that brain dumps — Web sites that post the questions and answers to exams — made it easy for no-nothing candidates to pass.

Putting the veracity of those arguments aside, one of the more welcome developments for many IT certifications in the past few years has been the introduction of hands-on components that simulate real-world environments. This move has helped address some of the frequent knocks on credentialing programs, such as the notion that they don’t do anything except assess candidates’ test-taking abilities or only measure their capabilities in best-case scenarios or, worst of all, can give undeserving individuals an unearned credential through cheating.

More than just refuting alleged shortcomings, though, the labs and simulations that comprise performance-based testing further demonstrate that participants’ knowledge of the subject matter will indeed translate to effectiveness on the job. They also offer a greater rationale for using hands-on methods to learn about various technologies and how they work. One of the best ways to learn is by doing, and if the assessments are performance-based, then it stands to reason that a good part of the preparation will be too.

What’s more, training and testing experiences that simulate actual working environments have facilitated certification’s upward expansion into more advanced technical realms. To be sure, there is a place for foundation-level certifications that rely mostly or completely on multiple-choice, text-based exams, and many IT professionals have used them very effectively in their career progression. However, rather than topping out in their professional development via IT credentials that can only go so far, sophisticated performance-based courses and exams allow them to push themselves further along into levels of depth and complexity associated with four-year undergraduate and even postgraduate degrees found at colleges and universities.

Another aspect of the performance-based movement has been increasing activity around apprenticeships and internships. In these circumstances, certification programs will line up actual work experiences for the candidates, intended to give them hands-on training and a look at how the concepts and procedures that underpin technology are applied on the job. One notable example of this is the National IT Apprenticeship System (NITAS) program, which was developed by CompTIA and the U.S. Department of Labor. NITAS combines IT certification and apprenticeships into a single development roadmap that serves as a guide for professionals getting started in the technology industry. To ensure knowledge transfer has taken place, CompTIA also tracks skill levels of participants.

To be sure, the performance-based methodologies rolled out by certification programs such as Cisco, Microsoft, Novell, the SANS Institute and many others are not a development panacea. There are just too many different kinds of technologies, companies, situations and problems to be accounted for in a single credential, no matter how much experience is incorporated into it. And criticisms around relevancy and security, while perhaps somewhat diminished, remain. Yet these attempts to replicate real-world conditions are undoubtedly a boon to those who value effectual testing and training. The certification programs that have included experiential learning in their curricula deserve commendation for raising the standards of IT credentials by making them more applicable to the industry.

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