I came across a very interesting new post on the Microsoft Learning Born to Learn blog this morning. Entitled “New Microsoft Office Specialist Exams Offer Real World Testing,” it explains how the latest generation of Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) exams has been extensively reworked to more effectively plumb the depth and breadth of an exam-taker’s knowledge of the related Office Applications being tested. For what I’m about to explain, that applies only to MS Office and MS Excel for the time being, but it’s a very interesting and potentially telling change to the exam approach that has ruled until these exams were rolled out recently.
Aside: The Power of the Bottom of the Pyramid
Unlike most other Microsoft certs, however, the MOS program — and the primary MS entry-level technical certs known as the Microsoft Technology Associate, or MTA — is not directly under Microsoft’s control. The company has delegated these programs (which significantly outnumber the remaining credentials under direct MS control) to Certiport, a Pearson VUE company. Their MOS page indicates that “…more than 1 million MOS exams are taken every year in over 140 countries…” and I suspect the number of MTA exams is probably in the one-quarter to one-half million range yearly as well, and growing quickly now that these credentials have been opened up to the general public through Prometric (another Pearson VUE arm). In fact, Certiport shines at the bottom of many certification ladders (which are really best thought of as pyramids or ziggurats, since those solid shapes effectively represent the notion that the higher you climb, the fewer exams are taken and certifications conferred) and also offers entry-level HP, Adobe, Autodesk, Intuit, IC3, and even CompTIA fundamentals credentials.
So What’s New with the Word and Excel 2013 Exams?
In a word: coherence. MOS exams have long been action oriented where test takers are presented with formatted chunks of text and asked to create the same thing inside an input window, with all the usual menus and keyboard controls associated with the application(s) being tested at their disposal. This time around, that principal informs the entire exam, as this longish quote from the afore-cited Born to Learn blog post indicates:
“…the new format for the Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) exams is a complete departure from anything that’s been used before. You are given a blank document, and shown a picture of sample document, and must reproduce that document exactly (and I mean exactly) using the program being tested (only Word and Excel are available right now). You get 50 minutes. If you produce the document exactly, you pass; if not, you fail. They don’t care how you arrive at the results; it’s the results that count.”
The idea is to present exam-takers with something challenging but also something that represents a typical workaday task for those who make these productivity tools stand up and bark for a living. And of course, that also means the curriculum and training materials to prepare candidates for these exams have adapted to follow suit. Professor James G. Lengel of Hunter College (the author of the blog post, and an early trainer for the new-format exams) explains these changes as follows:
“If we want our curriculum to mesh well with the approach taken in the exams, we’ll have to provide more real-world, from scratch, problem solving tasks, and we’ll have to provide plenty of practice in reproducing sample documents exactly. And focus on the new tools available in Office 2013 — if you try to build the document in the exam the old way, you’ll never have time to complete it.”
This is a great way to help motivate students to really learn these applications, and to tackle and master the many powerful tools that they make available to their users. Like Dr. Lengel, I see this change to the MOS approach as very positive and ultimately, as empowering for those who acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to pass such exams. Not only will they be ready to use these tools in the workplace, they will have gained some true-to-life experience in performing the kinds of tasks that the workplace will demand of them, day in and day out.