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Brief Thoughts About Computer Use In Exams

As I've mentioned before, Columbia uses ExamSoft in its in-class exams, in order to make sure that we cunning law students don't cheat by copying all of Glannon into our Civil Procedure Exams. Or something. Anyway, ExamSoft doesn't seem to play well with Macintosh, which proved a pain in the neck for some 1Ls last year. I think CLS was better about instructing student to buy PCs this year, but I'm sure there's some Macintosh irredentists about who come December will be scrambling for a notebook.

In the meantime, I've been given two old notebook computers by fellow students who were pleased that I'd helped them with data recovery. (I may get a third soon.) They're old, they're clunky, and they may not work perfectly, but I've got them. So what I'm doing--probably towards the end of November--is stripping them of all their data, putting a nice fresh copy of a Windows OS on them, and installing nothing but a copy of ExamSoft.

So if you're a Macintoshy 1L looking for a loaner computer come December, I can't promise anything, but it might be worth you tossing me an email as exams approach. I'll let you take the thing home and test it--make sure it stays running, etc.--and you can return it once you're done.

In the meantime, if anyone has any spare (LEGAL) copies of Windows XP that they don't use anymore and wouldn't mind donating to a good cause, send a thought this way. I've got a bundle of old copies of 98SE that I can use--relics of computers long since gone to dust--but I find XP easier to administer, and wouldn't mind upgrading these old clunkers.

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Did you know that they administer the California Bar Exam on Examsoft? I just about fell out of my chair...will it never end?
As one of the macintosh irredentists about whom you write, I'd choose to criticize the administration of any law school using examsoft on different grounds than you do. Rather than criticizing them for not providing sufficient "instructions" to students to "buy PCs this year," I'd prefer to criticize their decision to choose software that only runs on Windows. Law schools like CLS and MLS that choose to rely on examsoft are doing their students a disservice. Microsoft, however, should be grateful. Perhaps the schools could persuade Bill Gates to kick back a bit of the revenue from sales of Windows to law students?
Carey, while I take your point here, I do think organizations have a right to say, "We will only support a certain type of technology." If one is supplying software and having to support it in time-intensive scenarios, it's unrealistic to expect an organization to supply support for every given hardware environment students might want. (Especially if proctors aren't computer specialists.) I'm not sure if that's the reason CLS chose it's policy, but it's not indefensible: I'm perfectly happy to say that a law school can choose the technologies it chooses to support,or allow into exams (where support is necessary).
I'll agree with you that law schools ought to be able to choose which technologies to support. But I'm skeptical that the decision to limit support to Windows is one that's compelled by limited resources. I suppose it's an empirical question. How much additional money would the school have to spend to support an exam software product that ran on a macintosh as well? I suspect it's not much, at least when compared with the additional money that students with computers running OSX have to spend, collectively, for a computer running Windows. There's a distributional question here, too. Regardless of the decision, someone incurs costs. Should these costs be borne exclusively by the students who own macintosh computers? Or should the school make the reasonable decision to use a different software product and distribute the costs of supporting both technologies among all the students? Die-hard Windows users would of course prefer the former solution. Mac users, and those who want the freedom to change operating systems in law school, would prefer the latter. I'm in this group, of course. :)
Carey: Given the rather limited technical support that one gets at CLS, you may be skeptical, but I think you should see the facts on the ground before guessing. Even if we don't look at the big picture of the school in general, I think you miss an important point in the 'limited resources' question. It would be difficult to put a skilled tech in each exam room for every exam, certainly not a tech who is conversant with the difficulties that any of three OS groups (why not Linux, while we're at it?) may have one startup with a piece of software that expressly disables some key OS elements. The solution is to provide some basic training in 'quick and dirty' solutions to the problem, use software that's relatively redundant in its data-storage mechanisms, and minimize the problems you have. (And as anyone who's set an exam with Examsoft knows, someone has problems each time.) This is much more difficult with multiple operating systems, because you have to train your proctors to deal with the troubles that arise with each OS. Many of your proctors will not have seen another OS before. Empirically, the trouble isn't the cost of the software, but supporting its use in exams: you've probably doubled, if not more, the complexity involved by increasing OS types. As for the distributional question, as you might guess my heart simply doesn't bleed for you here, Carey. Macintosh users do have the freedom to change operating systems, or use whatever OS they want: they just have to handwrite exams or borrow a PC notebook. Now, I object if this policy isn't clearly stated up-front, so that someone sinks a few grand into a brick that they can't take exams on. But if one is horribly disappointed by a law-school's technical policy, they're free to go to more Mac-friendly law schools. As for the resource issue, if you're going $150K into debt already, an extra $2.5K for a computer--assuming you weren't going to buy a new one for 1L year anyway--doesn't seem too rough. Given the relative rarity of Mac users anyway, 'spreading the costs' over the rest of the school for the sake of some 'freedom' which is merely support for a personal choice doesn't strike me as worthwhile. Or, if you want to put it in your terms, the cost of one person's "freedom" becomes a cost to everyone else in supporting a needless iconoclasm. Now, getting rid of ExamSoft altogether, and just letting people work on the honor system, would actually solve both problems. Heck, a die-hard open-sourcer could run Linux and OpenOffice and still hand in nicely-formatted, MS Word-compatible documents. But that doesn't seem to be in the cards.
Now here's something we agree on: letting law students take exams under an honor system. After we graduate, our clients won't be able to rely on technological solutions to keep us honest and ethical. But they'll have to trust us anyway. If the law schools are going to send us forth and ask the public to trust the new lawyers they've trained, they ought to demonstrate by the way they treat their students that we are trustworthy people.

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