Less than two weeks after launch, Microsoft Windows 10 has been installed on an estimated 45 million PCs. For comparison, it took more than three months for its predecessor, Windows 8, to reach that level of use. This is meaningful for many reasons, but the most important to planning and execution of assessments is the system’s Cortana digital assistant.
Cortana, as a tool, is incredibly helpful to users. Powered by Microsoft’s Bing search engine, users can talk to “her” by saying, “Hey Cortana,” followed by a query. Cortana offers tremendous potential — along with myriad challenges for educational institutions and the test administration industry.
Traditional “secure client” model test delivery blocks users from exiting the application to do things like access the Internet and search for answers. With the “Hey Cortana” feature enabled, however, a system with a microphone is always listening for the command words to invoke Cortana. Thus a student taking a math test could say, “Hey Cortana, what’s the square root of 121?” She will audibly reply “11” and show SQRT (121) = 11 on the screen — clearly not a desired interaction during assessments.
Some settings allow administrators to modify Cortana. The response to “Hey Cortana” can be disabled, although the smart student will know that it can be enabled with a simple toggle switch. Cortana can be disabled entirely, which may be the preferred solution on computers used by multiple students. But many states and districts are now offering laptops and iPads to students for their use during the academic year, and every brand of device either features Cortana or a similar virtual assistant. (Cortana is available for both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android devices, while Siri and “OK Google” are the iOS and Google counterpart to Cortana.)
District administrators face a dilemma: disable these assistants entirely, denying students useful tools that they will have in “real-world” scenarios and on all of their other devices — or take on the burden of controlling students’ access to the virtual assistants. (As of this writing, neither Apple nor Google has published public methods to disable access to these services by third-party software developers.)
In the short-term, test administrators need to be aware of the new features rapidly entering the market. “Secure” test clients can block many — but not all — features of an operating system. Furthermore, the features on each operating system that need to be blocked vary not only by platform, but also by version. The takeaway is clear: computing is going to become more personal and more accessible in a rapid fashion. Proactively examining operating system releases as they pertain to assessments is one important aspect that mustn’t be overlooked.