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The Certification Game - AvNetwork.com

The Certification Game

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When it comes to continuing education, more is better.

One of my New Year's resolutions is to pick up one or perhaps two technology certifications for myself and get "certified." One of those will likely be InfoComm's Certified Technology Specialist (CTS). I've thought for the past couple years that it would be a good thing to

Steve Cunningham


add to my CV, and, based on current economic conditions, I'm more convinced of that than ever. It also gives me an opportunity to observe certification programs and processes in general.

This past month I made my annual pilgrimage to Silicon Valley, where I underwent re-training on one of the software packages that I teach each semester. Like most media-editing software programs, this one is improved, altered, and otherwise upgraded several times each year. Instructors are required to be re-certified for each major version change. That's fine with me, as it is important that I stay abreast of the current state-of-the-art if I am to provide my students with a relevant experience.

The company assists the re-certification process by covering the cost of hotel accommodations and providing breakfast and lunch daily. They also host one reasonably extravagant group dinner, held at one of those Asian-fusion restaurants with small portions of foods whose names I cannot pronounce. Attendees pay for transportation and a few meals, so the cost is reasonable.

These training sessions also provide me a chance to connect with some of the 100- plus educators who attend, to trade notes, and to share techniques. For example, last year's gathering resulted in a chance meeting with an educator who also manages a computer lab. More importantly, he just happened to be dealing with the issue of authenticating Macintosh clients to Apple's OS X Server via Window's Active Directory services. Wrangling an OS X Server so it plays nicely with Active Directory is only somewhat easier than getting a stimulus package through Congress. In the end, I learned more from him than I did from the training sessions.

OPERATOR OR EXPERT?
Users and instructors are certified at one of two levels - Operator or Expert. Each of these designations has specialties within it designed to handle the needs of specific market segments. Students choose to take classes on one track or the other depending upon which side of the street they wish to work, so to speak. Instructors who teach the courses are to be certified at a level commensurate with the level of the material being taught.

Most of the company's education partners are private training centers that teach in a compressed time frame - four to five eight-hour days of hands-on training in a well-equipped computer lab provides sufficient time to cover the entirety of a training level. A second solid week readies the student to take the exam and become a certified Operator. These compressed classes are not inexpensive, and an Operator certification can cost the student as much as $5,000.

GETTING CERTIFIED
Certification exams are entirely an online affair, using some very slick custom software. The questions are all multiple choice that includes lots of screen shots with callouts for the student to identify. Most exams consist of 50 or so questions that must be answered within one hour, and no breaks are allowed. Questions appear one at a time onscreen, and the order of questions and responses are randomized. Despite the fact that it's online, the company insists that a proctor be present for exams, so students end up taking them at the training center. The exams are increasingly difficult, and the bar is high - students must get 90 percent correct to pass.

The company publishes a series of textbooks that are required for use in these compressed classes, and the exam questions are taken directly from these texts. While the introductory text carries a typical textbook price, the more advanced texts are self-published by, and only available, through the company, and run about $120 per copy.

For education partners that are colleges or universities, the compressed format presents some pedagogical problems, since we all have created our own syllabus and texts whose structure is markedly different. But the company still requires every student purchase their textbooks, so a student who goes through our program and wants to take the exam may spend an additional $1,000 for textbooks. Our exams are also different, and are scaled and graded more like traditional practical examinations. Students take them in weeks where exams are normally scheduled, and take them in class with other students rather than online.

As a result, students come through our program with the same set of skills and proficiency as students who attend classes with private training centers, but without the certification that usually follows. If one of our students wants to become certified, we can and do administer the official online examinations. Most students are satisfied to have the skills, and graduates have had no difficulty finding jobs outside despite not having the certification.

Nevertheless, the four days I spent in a large conference room as company representatives took us through the new feature set using nothing but standard projectors and screens had value. I understand as well as anyone the difficulty and costs of providing a hands-on training environment. I also understand the fundamental difference between educating those the company hopes will become advocates for the product and educating students who will hit the marketplace looking for a job, hoping that they have the skill set required to perform.

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