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Finished With Your Exam? Good. Now Share It.

June 10, 2008

Friday was the last day of classes at the University of California at San Diego, where students faced a weekend of studying before finals began on Monday. If any of them ventured to a nearby La Jolla shopping center, they might have encountered representatives from a new Web site there to make their pitch: Give us a test -- any old test -- and we'll give you a $5 Starbucks coffee card.

If that sounds like a surprisingly blunt quid pro quo, it's consistent with the purpose of the site, called PostYourTest.com, which encourages students to upload tests and exams from their courses -- anonymously, if they want -- for others to find and download. The concept has already aroused suspicion and concern among some faculty members at UCSD, where many of the posted tests originated, and seems to run afoul of both traditionally accepted norms of academic integrity and, potentially, copyright law.

The PostYourTest event on Friday, at which students could electronically scan old tests for a coffee card on the spot, is part of a campaign to raise awareness and collect materials for the site. Its creator, Demir Oral, is from San Diego and is initially focusing his efforts there. Among the 500 or so exams currently available (by Oral's reckoning), those not from UCSD are mainly from other institutions in the area, such as Palomar Community College.

"I'm sure I will get a lot of questions about the morality of PostYourTest.com," Oral writes on the site. "I want people to understand that this website is not a tool for cheating, and I do not advocate cheating in any way. However I know that in this time anonymity is appreciated, and I am always thinking a step ahead, so to create and download tests you do not have to have a user account."

As a mechanism for protecting professors who do not want their exams -- which are, by law, copyrighted material -- posted to the site, it has an option allowing faculty members to add their names to a "ban list" that blocks uploaded materials from any of their classes. That presumes, however, that professors know that the site exists and are aware that their tests could appear on it. At UCSD, the chairman of the Academic Senate, James Posakony, raised the issue at a recent meeting.

Rebecca Klatch, a professor of sociology and representative to the academic body who heard the discussion, said she e-mailed the department after the meeting to spread the word. "If I wanted them to have the questions ahead of time, I’d just hand them out," she said of making tests freely available to her students. She added, as well, that it was difficult enough to write exams in the social sciences that are "meaningful," with the implication that creating new tests every semester would be an unwieldy and unnecessary task.

"Why did the site owner not approach UCSD (and other universities) with a request to partner, to be the provider of a central exam database?" asked Tricia Bertram Gallant, UCSD's academic integrity coordinator who initially brought the site to the attention of the Academic Senate. "Why is anonymity important if this site is on the ethical side of the teaching and learning equation? There were multiple alternative courses of action the owner could have taken to start the website and some can clearly be identified as more ethical (i.e., transparent and honest) than others."

Not all faculty feel the same way. "I’ve had faculty tell me it’s their solemn duty to make old exams keys available," Posakony said, to allow their students to adequately prepare for finals, for example.

That view is shared by the site's creator, who explains the site's mission as one that promotes equality and fairness, not cheating. "I never liked that some students had access to exams, and some would have to even purchase them from school organizations," Oral said in an e-mail. "I thought a service like this should be free and accessible to anyone day or night." The site displays Google ads to collect revenue.

To be sure, the traditional model of exam-sharing goes back to old-fashioned photo-copying or the fraternity house stash. In Oral's view, and that of some professors, that privileges some students over others, and the solution is to offer the material to everyone to level the playing field. Gallant agrees with Oral in that sense, that "by giving everyone equal access to old exams, students are not afforded unfair advantage by their 'status' in the university (e.g., as a member of a Greek house)," she wrote in an e-mail.

"However," she continued, "... the prevalent use of unauthorized exams may undermine the teaching and learning process and change that which a professor is evaluating. The way in which the exams are being obtained can also undermine the teaching and learning process because it undermines the trust between a professor and her students."

To solve the problem of potential academic integrity violations without undermining professors' varied opinions on the matter, Posakony said the university decided on an "educational" approach that offered a choice to opt out of the site -- essentially simplifying and automating the existing ban list functionality. Professors were given the opportunity to fill out a custom-made Web form that would then create a list of courses and faculty members that would be passed on to the site's creators to be added to the ban list, with their cooperation, he said. The result is that the list, published on the site, has dozens of professors and lecturers, mostly from UCSD.

Beyond integrity issues, the site has also raised copyright concerns. "I realize that there may be a diversity of faculty opinion with regard to this website, but I for one find it unacceptable that this organization makes a practice of posting old exams for classes without first asking permission from the professors to do so," said Ethan Bier, a biology professor, in an e-mail. "In my view this is violation of copyrights that are implicit for materials posted on class websites unless specified otherwise. I do not know what the legality of this practice is, but if it is not illegal, I believe that it should be."

The site actually does ask for permission -- from the students. But that practice seems to be at odds with a common understanding of copyright law, substituting a third party's assent for the person who actually holds the copyright.

"Having a student assert that permission was granted," said Chris Armour, a biology lecturer at UCSD, is indefensible. "It is obvious that the operators of the website know this because they allow the posting students to remain anonymous. They may find themselves up against some pretty aggressive legal challenges when they post some material from a large publishing house's 'text bank' that is used (with permission) by a faculty member as part of an exam," he continued, in an e-mail.

"It’s very clear that they have a very murky understanding, or a nonexistent understanding” of copyright law, Posakony said.

The potential for exams to contain other copyrighted material is real. At the same time, some of the posted documents are exam keys, rather than blank, presumably from faculty members who handed them out after they were graded.

But Oral defends the site's policies. "Because the site does not actually sell the exams or charge for anything, and due to the quick response of ban requests, we are not worried about any potential copyright infringement," he said.

He continued that PostYourTest.com has even partnered with another San Diego-area institution, John Paul the Great Catholic University, which will use the site essentially as a course management system, to post notes and assignments and to facilitate class discussions.

Posakony worries that the idea of posting course materials online without permission could spread beyond exams to other copyrighted components such as texts or notes. But for his part, Oral said he was working to expand the site's reach nationally, and beyond.

 

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