From Blue Books to Secure Laptops

Some colleges are experimenting with software that turns laptops into digital blue books, which could spell the end of the dreaded exam scribble.
October 8, 2008

The snaking, hours-long add/drop line is a distant memory, the chalkboard is becoming an anachronism and even note-taking is increasingly a task for a keyboard, not a pad of paper. While computers have removed age-old burdens (and added some new ones), one common element of the higher education experience has generally remained stuck solidly in the 20th century: final exams, where the dreaded blue book continues to thrive.

Even today, a class that relies heavily on course management software and PowerPoint slides can end with that familiar downer, a small book of lined notepaper that seems to encourage everyone's worst handwriting -- to the dread of both the students cramming in the margins and the professors who have to read their work.

It was only a matter of time before the proliferation of computer labs and laptops on campus would replace cramped hand with carpal tunnel syndrome, but until recently, concerns about security and the possibility that students could use other programs or the Internet to supplement their preparation have held back widespread adoption of word processing solutions.

Computer-administered testing, made available on students' own laptops, first became a reality for both students with disabilities and for professional graduate programs with intensive testing regimens, such as law school and medical school. In summer 2007, the New York State bar exam made headlines when problems with the software made available to students for their laptops, Securexam, resulted in some test takers having trouble saving or uploading their work. Since then, the problems with that particular software have been resolved.

Occasional mishaps aside, Securexam and similar offerings from companies such as Respondus are trickling down to the undergraduate level. Securexam has some 150 clients -- also including high schools and professional certification programs -- in five countries worldwide, including Seton Hall University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is extending a pilot for the College of Arts & Sciences so that any interested faculty members can use the software in their classes.

The software works by opening a word processor window in students' laptops and simultaneously locking down all other programs, iexams / 08 / 10 / 2008 / News / Home - Inside Higher Edncluding network access. When they are done with their exams, students can save and then upload their files -- which are immediately encrypted and which they can't open again -- to a server accessible only by the instructor. Students can also submit later, if they need to find a working Internet connection, but the laptop remains locked -- even after shutdowns or restarts -- until they do. Licensed institutions pay on a user-per-year basis, ranging from $5 to $25 each.

Although only 26 or 27 UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members use Securexam, there is already something of a movement for wider adoption among those who have to do the scribbling -- at least if the campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, is any indication. "It’s time for the University to implement Securexam across campus, thus eliminating the need for blue books," the paper said in a recent editorial.

"We could go on about the problems with blue books until we’re, well, blue in the face," it later continues, and one of the reasons it would make sense at UNC, the editors write, is the fact that the university, unlike many colleges, requires all students to own laptops.

Proponents also note that everyone stands to win in the end with computer-administered testing -- either through students' own laptops or at proctored testing locations in computer labs.

"Computer-based testing benefits every stakeholder in the academic institution, from the student that's more comfortable typing to the teacher who finds it easier to grade something that's typed to the administration that can support the needs of their students and faculty better," said Doug Winneg, the president of Software Secure, the maker of the Securexam suite of products, which includes a package for distance learning (which authenticates students with fingerprint identification and remote video monitoring feeds) and a browser-based plug-in for course management systems that requires Internet access.

"Our client base, University of [North Carolina at] Chapel Hill, is obviously an institution that has a clear and logical need for our product because every student has a laptop, so in those institutions where technology is widely available, then our software has great value for the student base," he added.

Partly because of that ubiquity, the faculty members using Securexam adopt it for all kinds of written tests and quizzes rather than just final exams, as at other institutions, suggested Zachary Fisher, who works on academic and educational computing at UNC-Chapel Hill's Arts & Sciences Information Services.

"I think it improves their work, and it certainly means that I can grade their papers paying attention to what it is they have to say," said Joseph Wittig, a professor of English and comparative literature at UNC-Chapel Hill, adding that he used to spend significant time deciphering students' handwriting. Would he ever return to blue books? "Oh, no! Death first!"

Wittig, who has used the software for at least five years, said that early on there were some technical issues for students, especially those with Macs or older laptops. But those have mainly been resolved, and although there tend to be at least one or two students each semester who opt out of laptop-administered tests in favor of tried-and-true blue books, he said those numbers were dwindling and that most were older students.

And although cheating isn't usually at the top of his list of worries, Wittig added, "this takes that problem off the table."


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