Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | November 23, 2011

Open book examinations in the Internet age

There is an interesting discussion on the Association for Learning Technology mailing list: shoud student be allowed to use Kindle in open book examinations? It sterted with a question:

 I have been asked whether a student can bring her kindle into an open book exam, as she has e-copies of the relevant set texts. Logically I’d be worried about saying no, as it isn’t unreasonable for a student to buy set books in e versions. However, there are clearly problems in controlling what else might be on the kindle.”

Someone wrote:

Rather than consider how Kindles might affect the present system of open book exams (now about 40 years old) we might consider how Kindles (and, perhaps, Google) might affect how and what we examine. It is possible that an open book exam, under time pressures, might incorporate an internet search as part of its testing, with the requirement to reference findings as appropriate. Limiting the role of technology could be seen as rather like Canute.

In my opinion, the new technology makes obsolete the very concept of standardised and controlled assessment because anything which can be standardised can be much better done by a computer. For example, there is software — easily available on the Internet — which not just solves standard school and undergraduate level algebraic, trigonometric, logarithmic, differential equations, it produces a complete step-by-step verbal write-up of the solution, with a detailed explanation of every step; if the user wishes, more mundane symbolic rearrangements could be kept hidden, or, on the contrary, unrolled.

However, the solution to the challenges of new technology had been known for at least 70 years now, and used in educational establishments working at the cutting edge of technological progress of their time, say, in physics and mathematics university departments involved in training of researchers and engineers for the Manhattan project in the USA, and in similar establishments in Russia. This solution was an open book public oral examination, where a candidate was allowed (and actually encouraged) to consult books and records of his choice, while examiners reserved the right to ask any question — and many, if not most, statements were distinctively non-standard. Also, it was at examiners’ discretion to decide whether the candidate had to answer particular question on the spot or given a couple of hours for thinking. If the Internet existed in 1940-s, it would be instantly and painlessly adopted into the open book examination procedure.

Of course, such examinations are not allowed under the current legal framework which regulates British univerisites. But this is a sign of a real technological change: it does not necessarily fit in the existing legal set-ups.


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