Assessing Computer Users: “Easy” May Not Always Equal “Best”

5-year-old kid sitting at his computer desk.
Ayan Qureshi: the 5-year-old kid who passed the Microsoft Certified Professional exam.

This 5-year-old passed the Microsoft Certified Professional exam. Granted that the kid may be special, but, seriously, what does that say about the Microsoft Certified Professional exam?

I’ve taken the Microsoft Office Specialist exams for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and they were pretty dang easy. I wonder how much of a true measure of a computer user’s ability these tests are. I mean, the instructions are all there. The test instructions say stuff like, “insert a photo,” “make the text bold and red,” “move slide 1 to become slide 5,” and so on. So, the tests may accurately asses IF a user can do a specific given task using the software, but my main concern is that, in a real world situation, there is nobody around to tell a user WHAT to do, or WHICH tool to use WHEN. In the real world, a computer worker is told to “create a flyer.” Maybe the boss will bring in a flyer that they saw in the mall and say, “make it look like this.” But the boss is not sitting there next to you saying, “merge and center cells A1:D1, and format using the Title style.”

Such assessment — of a user’s ability of HOW to use a software tool — may be easy to implement, but I am skeptical of its ability to  accurately assess a different and more important dimension of computer users’ abilities: WHEN to use WHICH tool to solve various real-world problems.

In my BTS 165 Excel classes, the final project assignment is to use Excel to solve a real-world problem. Students must find a problem  to solve, then use Excel to solve it. It doesn’t have to be a huge problem, but the application of the tool to the problem must be theirs. While assessing the student’s success is a considerable challenge — especially in the amount of time it takes to work with students to understand their decisions and reasoning at several key points in the weeks-long process — and even then, perhaps open to some amount of subjective interpretation on the teacher’s part, I feel that this project is a much more accurate assessment of a student’s understanding not only of how to use Excel’s various tools and features, but WHICH tools and features to use WHEN.

Sometimes “easy” does not equal “best.”

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