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PCs in the classroom & open book exams

Ubiquity, Volume 2005 Issue March | BY Evan Golub 


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What are the motivations behind giving an open-book/open-notes exam? Does giving free access to all of the resources of the Internet conflict with these motivations?


Today's student has a variety of technology available for use in the classroom. Hardware devices (such as laptops, in-room PCs, or palmtops) in conjunction with software (such as word processors and outliners) and eText resources (such as eBooks and WebBooks) offer students the ability to become more paper-free in their studies. Some devices (such as the TabletPC platform or Sony's Vaio U750P) and related software (such as Journal, GoBinder, or OneNote) would seem to aspire to replace the paper notebook. Faculty can encourage the use of computers in general by posting notes on-line and selecting on-line text books for the required readings.

As more students come to own devices such as these, one would hope that more faculty would take steps to enabling their use in class. There are a variety of questions tangentially related to this goal. For example, if you encourage electronic note-taking, do you also encourage the electronic submission of work? There are issues regarding uniform access as well as compatibility to consider, but I think we can look back (to the transition from handwritten papers to typed papers being required) as well as forward (XML, PDF, etc.) for solutions to this. The issue which this article asks you to consider in this setting is; how do we as faculty support the use of computers for note-taking and reading course material while still allowing for the option of an open-book/open-notes exam?

While students are not typically requested to put away their laptops during class, it is very common for students to be asked to do so during an exam. With wireless Internet access coming into our classrooms this request is even more prevalent. This is not an unreasonable request. As a single anecdote, in the Fall of 2002 at the University of Maryland, twelve students were caught cheating on a business class exam using SMS on their cell phones. However, in the case of an open-book or open-notes exam, requiring students to put away their computer would place them at a severe disadvantage since for them the exam would become a closed-book exam.

Securing the Exam Environment

The first question I put forth is this; how do we allow students to keep their computer during an open-book/open-notes exam without opening the door to wide-spread cheating through the improper use of the Web, e-mail, IM, or other communications technologies?

At one extreme, the "obvious" solution is to tell the students to simply print out their materials for the exam. However, this is both potentially unrealistic and potentially disadvantageous. It is not a realistic request to have students print an online textbook. This is compounded if the student makes use of a search engine such as Google to find useful documents rather than restricting themselves to a single resource. Additionally, if a student has a system of folders or tabs that allows them to quickly find documents, or makes use of on-computer search to find documents, that ability is fully removed when they print their notes, and they would need to construct a new strategy for efficiently finding their own notes during the exam.

The other extreme is to place complete faith in the honesty of our students. Although I would extend this trust to some of my students, there are many to whom it would not extend. Restricting certain students from using a computer during the exam would be tantamount to accusing them of being a cheater before they even had the opportunity to cheat. Giving all students equal computing access would in many regards reward the dishonest student which certainly is not our end goal.

It would seem that the best solution would to be able to allow all students to use their computer if they so desired, but be able to influence their usage to make sure that they are not accessing unauthorized materials. In a building without Internet access this seems like it would be a simple matter since they will need to have downloaded all of their documents in advance, and this is very similar to being able to print documents to bring to class. This would, however, make it easier for students to have easy access to a far larger set of documents during the exam. Faculty who enforce a policy of limited open-book exams (e.g.: one text book only) would have no way to readily enforce this with the computer users.

For Internet-ready classrooms, there would seem to be two directions for a solution; monitoring and filtering. If a student's computer has a wireless card built in, or needs to have access to online resources via a wired connection, we could require them to run an application that would allow us to influence their usage.

In the solution of monitoring, the application could allow faculty to either monitor student Internet traffic, or allow faculty to view the contents of student screens at any time. Existing applications such as VNC or Ethereal might be sufficient, or a set of special purpose applications might be built for the task. This monitoring solution could mean that exam proctoring would now include sitting at a computer at the front of the room and watching the computer usage for infractions. However, this could be an unacceptable burden in many situations. This burden might be reduced or mitigated by creative software-based monitoring and logging, and would be worth exploring.

In the solution of filtering, the application could restrict the computer's Internet access to specific domains and/or protocols. Though this would seem the better solution due to its simplicity and the passive role for faculty, it also seems that there would be too many ways around this solution.

If either of the previous two solutions were pursued, it would be necessary to somehow establish that anyone in the class that was using the Internet would be required to be running the specified application. The enforcement of this requirement is then a challenge to pursue. It is also important that it is "impossible" for the student's computer to transmit a false screen image.

Redefining the Open Exam

The second question I put forth is this; should the realm of the open-book/open-notes exam change? What are the motivations behind giving an open-book/open-notes exam? Does giving free access to all of the resources of the Internet conflict with these motivations?

If the motivation for giving an open-book/open-notes exam is to encourage/require a student to support their answer with solid examples, what does an open-Internet exam provide that is undesirable? If the motivation is to remove an unrealistic scenario such as being required to memorize a long list of formulae, then how could the resources of the Internet give more assistance than a formula sheet with a quick example with each formula? If the motivation is to dedicate more exam time to the application of the information conveyed during the semester rather than the recall of that information, is there some harm to having even more information readily available to apply to a given question?

One possible answer to questions such as these is "their friends". While the student could use the Internet to find support for their self-actualized idea, it is also possible that the student could contact (via a communication channel such as instant messaging or e-mail) a friend who took the course previously and ask for their friend's ideas to then use as their own on the exam. If they are unable to determine which formula to use or how to use it, they could again contact a friend to ask which formula to use and/or how to make use of it.

Another possible answer to questions such as these is that question-generation becomes a larger issue. Students could spend their time searching for a pre-built answer to the solution rather than search for material from which to build their own answer. The exam would shift from being about the synthesis of concepts they had learned and held in their minds into an Internet scavenger hunt for solutions to the questions we pose. In trying to prevent the students from being able to find any such existing solution, the questions might become more complex or obfuscated than would be desirable.

Closing Thoughts

As more and more students come to class with computers, I think we will see this issue quickly rise in its visibility. We should be asking ourselves how we can create a "preemptive solution" to this question in the possibly short time we have before it becomes a common dilemma. We should also be proactive and work with students to seek out what they see as solutions to these questions.


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