Are Online Exams Right for You? See What Others Are Saying

Paul Hiller, ICML

In mid-July of this year, the International Council for Machinery Lubrication (ICML, www.lubecouncil.org) expanded its longstanding industrial certification exam program into a secure, proctored, online platform. Since then, hundreds of machinery lubrication and oil analysis practitioners have taken advantage of this virtual alternative to the paper format that ICML has provided since 2001.

You may be wondering whether the online exams live up to the hype so far. You may also be wondering if your own private concerns about online exams are shared by others. Anticipating such interest, I have compiled feedback from recent test-takers here, and their responses confirm that ICML is definitely on the right track.

Our mid-July press release noted that ICML had already been considering development of online exams this calendar year. But by March, Covid-19 restrictions had begun negatively impacting our global network of independent training providers, who have regularly provided formal training for thousands of exam candidates each year. They reported that temporary public health policies were making it impossible for them to host physical classes and exam sessions. ICML immediately prioritized completion of its online exam initiative.

“As many industries face logistical and economic challenges related to the worldwide Covid-19 response, ICML remains committed to helping lubrication practitioners and independent training partners succeed in their professional endeavors,” wrote ICML Executive Director Leslie Fish when we first announced our intentions to pursue online exam delivery.

What Do Test-Takers Want?

To make this online exam option a viable reality, ICML partnered with an online testing company called Caveon and a proctoring company called Examity. Every online test-taker registers with ICML to gain access to the Examity platform where he or she can schedule a private, proctored exam session for any time of day or night. Since announcing the new program, we have promoted a value proposition that stresses convenience, ease of use, expedited scoring, and zero travel costs while maintaining exam integrity, data security, and compatibility with an increasing number of online training opportunities.

Naturally, we remain keenly interested to know whether the “user experience” of our first online exam candidates matches what we anticipated. My brief, unscientific survey with these test-takers has found that candidates do, in fact, assign value to the attributes listed above.

 


Figure 1: Examity’s one-click computer assessment tool makes
it easy to confirm system readiness in advance of the online exam.

Covid-19 Convenience and More

With the understanding that Covid-19 restrictions had created a pent-up demand for exam sessions, we fully expected that potential test-takers would not want to wait for the unknown day when physical exam sessions might return to their local markets. Ideally, our online exams would seamlessly provide an immediate and convenient way for candidates to move forward.

It turns out we were correct. Candidates who sat for our online exams in July and August told us they did so because they could conveniently schedule their own dates and times, making it easy to adhere to Covid-19 social restrictions or to coordinate with their busy schedules.

“I live in Trinidad and Tobago,” explains Sanya Mathura, Managing Director and Senior Consultant at Strategic Reliability Solutions Ltd., who recently passed her MLE exam online. “Since that exam launched in 2019, I've wanted to take the exam but the locations and times really conflicted with my schedule.” And then the 2020 Covid-19 restrictions put a halt to the possibility of any practical paper exam sessions at all. “Our borders are still closed due to C-19. I decided on the online option where I had the flexibility of choosing a date and time that worked best for me.”

Being able to do it all from her residence was reassuring, too: “I was also not entirely sure of the availability of a test center in Trinidad and Tobago and did not want to run the risk of being in a location for four hours during these unprecedented times,” she writes.

Describing similar reasoning was Leston Bethelmy, Lead Reliability and PdM Engineer at Trinidad Inspection Services Ltd., who passed his MLA II online. “The online exam option was much more convenient than the paper option due to the Covid situation,” he says.

Dr. Nathan C. Wright, President of Transformational Performance Solutions, concurs. He offers two reasons why he jumped at the opportunity to sit for his MLE exam online: “The ease of taking the exam at home was a big plus, and with the Covid-19 issues it was a safe place to take the exam.”

Easy and Expedient: Nothing to Fear

ICML certainly wants the process to be easy, not burdensome. KNV “Subbu” Subrahmanyam, Technical Head at Singlepeak Lube Technologies, assures us we were successful.

As Subbu recounts his recent MLT II exam: “I appreciate Examity’s efforts for making such a smooth process of taking the online exam. This was my first online exam and I was a little nervous of how it works, but logging into the portal and Examity taking the full control of my computer made me so confident...taking an exam with a proper proctor monitoring me.”

This was also Mathura’s first online exam. “I had a really good experience,” she writes. “The process was very efficient and there were no hiccups along the way.” And then, on test day, she continues: “I was a bit skeptical of letting a stranger look over me for four hours, because not being able to see the proctor was a bit weird at first. But when the exam questions hit, it really didn’t matter as much. The actual format of the exam made the experience really interesting. The four hours felt like an hour, and I was amazed that it had passed so quickly.”

It was important to us at ICML that our online exams mimic our paper exam functionality as closely as possible. We worked with Caveon to ensure that test-takers could write and submit comments, return to unfinished questions, review answers, and even use a calculator (in the online “Tools” section).

Mathura continues: “I loved the ability to navigate to other questions and flag questions that I wasn't sure about. Even the availability of Tools in the virtual room was very helpful. After this experience, I don't think that I want to go back to any paper-based exams in the future!”

The ability to submit comments is important, because it allows a test-taker to justify a debatable answer or to offer suggestions for revision of a dubious question. All comments are manually reviewed, so they must be readable. With this in mind, Bethelmy brought to our attention a bonus with regard to online comments: “With the online option, providing feedback and justification was much more convenient via typing as compared to writing (where penmanship would have been an issue).”

Subbu compared his online MLT II experience with that of his previous paper exams and identified yet another way in which the online format keeps thing easy: only one question is displayed per screen, whereas on a paper exam there are several listed together on each page. Subbu notes that this single-question format helps a candidate to “focus on one question at a time, which gives additional time to clearly understand the question and pick up the answer,” as opposed to a paper exam where a candidate’s “focus [can be] diverted when he is not confident of the answer for any one question.” Like Mathura and Bethelmy above, Subbu cites the flag function and comments field as very helpful in this regard.

What About Security & Integrity?

“Easy” does not mean these exams are anything but professionally presented and processed. It was a priority for ICML to ensure that our online exams would be just as solid as our proctored paper exams. Is this important to our candidates? Claudio Figueroa seems to think so. As Latin America Business Development Manager with Lubrication Engineers, he sat for his MLT I and MLA I exams in July and found that “the protocol is rigorous and is consistent with the professionalism that one expects. I absolutely recommend this modality.”

The proctor actually controls each exam session. By monitoring audio and video in real time, as well as tracking the test-taker’s computer screen, the proctor is in a position to halt any exam that fails to meet ICML’s rigorous criteria for reason of faulty technology or suspicious activity. On a related note, minimum computer specs must be met in order for the online session to function at all. These specs are listed on the very first application page on our website (www.lubecouncil.org/apply/) and are repeated to the candidate several times during the registration and preparation process. Examity offers a very easy-to-use link that will scan the test-taker’s system and ensure internet speed and audio/video capabilities are sufficient.

 


Figure 2: Desks must be made clear for online exams before proctors will allow test-takers to proceed. ICML explains these requirements in the "Live Proctoring Test-Taker Guide,” which is provided to every online applicant.

Enhancing Your Control

Sometimes the ease-of-use comes by virtue of the fact that an online candidate does not have to deal with various challenges of in-person testing. In fact, online candidates have considerable control over their testing environments.

Wright recalls some paper exam experiences that were, unfortunately, beyond his control: “I took my previous exams at the local community college. The college was in session and parking was an issue. Additionally, the proctor was geared to young college students, not used to dealing with older professionals. They were lax and did not maintain a quiet environment.”

Dealing with travel and tight schedules is bad enough for an anxious test-taker without their anxiety being compounded by unpredictable test environments, right? Perhaps that is why Khashayar Hajiahmad, Area Manager of Industrial Division & MRO at Mineral Circles Bearings, fully expected a more relaxed environment this time. After having sat for four paper ICML exams in previous years, he chose an online MLT II exam in July and was not disappointed. “Comparing to previous exam experiences in classrooms, this is what I was expecting,” he writes. “I would say 100% that the online exam is much more relaxed for the exam taker than paper-based.”

Our online exam candidates receive specific instructions regarding what qualifies as a suitable testing environment: clear desk, private room, no phones, etc. Like the minimum computer specs, we list these requirements several times during the registration and preparation process, and we even provide sample photos on our application page.

Bethelmy also appreciate the quick scoring turnaround made possible now because online exams submitted from far-flung locations no longer have to rely on that amalgamated behemoth of infrastructure that is beyond everyone’s control- the postal service! Instead, raw test data is transmitted electronically to our USA office. “I do love the fact that you can take the exam anywhere, once the setting is private via online,” he writes. “The paper procedure is extremely tedious in my opinion due to the invigilation cost, the planning, and courier uncertainty after the exam is completed. I was comforted knowing that my exam would not have gotten lost in the mailing process, and I really appreciate the rapid turnaround time for receiving results.”

To be fair, ICML does caution candidates that their results can take up to a week because every exam session’s recording is reviewed by the proctoring staff. Sometimes results can be ready before that week is over. In fact, Bethelmy and Subbu were both excited to receive their results within a matter of days-an impossibility with paper exams.

The “Live Proctoring Test-Taker Guide” Makes It Even Easier

Even though our new online process eliminates the potential for postal delivery woes, it is not immune to other technical glitches or communication errors. For instance, some respondents indicated that remote proctors have been easy to understand and talk to, while others have had difficulty understanding various accents. (Currently, proctors speak only in English.) To mitigate such issues, ICML provides every exam candidate with a “Live Proctoring Test-Taker Guide.” Along with instructions for using the Examity exam portal on the selected exam day, this guide also includes a summary of the proctor’s script. By reading the guide in advance, any test-taker can know what the proctor is going to say, making it easier to follow along during the exam check-in process even if the proctor’s speaking voice is not quite understandable. Additionally, if accents are still a challenge, there is a chat option available for typing messages to the proctor.

Figueroa confirms the guide certainly helped him out when he faced a challenging accent combined with faulty audio. “There was a connection problem that seemed to be just for my proctor at the time he read me the instructions,” he explains. “It didn’t really affect me since I knew the instructions that ICML previously sent. And then when the audio worked-the truth was that my proctor’s English had a very strange accent and I didn’t understand him at all.” Thank goodness for ICML’s test-taker guide!

As a supplement to the guide, ICML has placed a helpful, annotated walk-through video on our YouTube channel (youtu.be/RGYGWH3N4XQ) that provides an advance look at a proctor’s scripted engagement with a test-taker.

Online Exams Are Here to Stay

ICML’s online certification exams were a long time coming, and now their time is here. We are glad to have been able to develop this program and maintain industry support during restrictive Covid-19 directives. This article’s collection of responses certainly suggests that ICML is on the right track with our online exams, providing beneficial features that test-takers actually want and appreciate.

Hopefully, you have read something here that assures you that an online certification exam may be the right way for you to overcome your own set of circumstantial challenges. If not, just know that ICML still offers paper exams for individuals or groups, too.

I will wrap this up with a final observation from Mathura: “I'm extremely pleased that the ICML has taken this forward-thinking step in rolling out online exams! In the past, there were always additional expenses of airfare, accommodation, the hassle of travelling, and now those hassles went out the window with this electronic exam. We can literally study for the exam and write it from the same desk that we use every day. I hope that the online exams are a permanent fixture!”

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