Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Electric Blue Book: An Open Source Proposal

Some thirty years ago, when I was a professor at Tulane Business School, we had a project to develop software for taking exams on computers. It never got completed, but such software now exists, developed later by other people. Our main design objective was to make taking exams easier for students and grading them easier for professors. The main design objective of the current software appears, as best I can tell, to be preventing students from cheating, understandable but depressing.

In a post some years back I discussed the ideas for our software, to be titled "Electric Bluebook," and offered one possible solution to the cheating problem. An alternative  would be to combine our design features with something similar to what the currents software does, mechanisms to lock the user out of both the internet and his own hard drive while taking the exam. How difficult that would be I do not know.

As best I can tell from using the current commercial software, it has none of the features I want, aside from making life easier for students who find typing on a computer easier than writing on paper and solving the problem of reading students' handwriting. A quick look at the producer's web page did not suggest otherwise, but I might be missing something. There are open source programs already in existence for taking exams online, but I have not found any equivalent of Electric Bluebook, software to make taking ordinary exams easier for students and grading them easier for professors. If a reader knows of such software—you can get a picture of what I want from my earlier post—by all means let me know.

The purpose of this post is to see if anyone out there would like to start an open source project to revive Electric Bluebook.

13 Comments:

At 12:15 PM, December 11, 2013, Blogger terry freeman said...

Swapping laptops, etc is a solution in search of a problem. Among other problems, you don't know whether students have Windows, OS X, or some variant of Linux on their laptops - the software would have to cope with all three. Oh, Windows 8 or Windows XP? They're rather different. As a student, I'd hate to let others tinker with my laptop - too much of my life is stored therein; I know too much about computer security to allow random strangers to have physical access. On top of all that, most students have smartphones - an independent channel to the internet. If you jam the phones, they still store quite a lot of information. Better to just make the tests "open book" and test their ability to think, not their memory.

 
At 12:26 PM, December 11, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

jesus, i wasnt even alive 30 years ago. this was really nice post, i dont feel old any more.

 
At 12:33 PM, December 11, 2013, Anonymous martin said...

terry,

Among other problems, you don't know whether students have Windows, OS X, or some variant of Linux on their laptops - the software would have to cope with all three.

Make it a web application. Problem solved.

 
At 1:22 PM, December 11, 2013, Blogger Jon Kalb said...

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At 1:33 PM, December 11, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just took an exam using something called Respondus. To run the program I had to download and install the software onto my computer. There's also a Mac OS version. The program opens up browser that takes me straight to Blackboard and prevents me from visiting any other websites until I close the Respondus program. It also prevents me from accessing other applications on my computer while the locked browser is open.

 
At 5:13 PM, December 11, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

How about a hardware solution rather than a software solution: place the teacher's desk behind the students, rather than in front of them.

 
At 4:55 AM, December 12, 2013, Anonymous Daublin said...

It's hopeless unless you control the hardware, and even then it needs to be hardware designed for the task. Even then, you have to consider alternative ways people can communicate, such as phones and eyewear.

In more detail on the first point, a normal consumer laptop is perfectly able to boot off of external media; losing that ability would make them much less desirable, because much of the appeal of a computer is that it is general purpose. You can swap what software you run on it at your discretion.

Once you boot from external media, you can create a virtual machine that boots whatever software the instructor wanted you to really be booting into. The educational software will have no way to know it is running on a VM, and the user will be able to tab out of the whole VM and thus use web browsers and whatever else on the outer-most layer of the machine.

It's a thorny problem all around. For students who are taking the class primarily to get educated, you don't have to worry about it; they'll take the exams honestly because they see it as a learning vehicle. The hard part is standardized tests and typical college tests, so one partial strategy is to have more of the former kind of test and fewer of the latter.

 
At 5:03 AM, December 12, 2013, Blogger Marcel said...

A web application is far better than an OS-specific one. I consider "but the student can Google the answer" to be a feature, not a bug: make up questions that require them to think, instead of spitting back memorized trivia.

I would work on an open-source project for this - and I'm sure there are many others - but the difficult part (for me at least) would be the specifications. I would need a pretty detailed description of what the end goal is.

Have you thought of contacting the Khan Academy guys? The MOOC sites like Coursera might also have good ideas on the subject.

 
At 5:23 PM, December 12, 2013, Blogger Edward Gilbert said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 5:23 PM, December 12, 2013, Blogger Edward Gilbert said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 5:25 PM, December 12, 2013, Blogger Edward Gilbert said...

I would rather just take a test with paper and pencil than let the school install a program that can block me, the owner of the computer, from accessing the internet or my own files. The problem with a program like this is that is very vulnerable to a backdoor. Of course if it was open source that would be much less of a problem.

The high school I went to had a similar application called synchroneyes that both allowed the teacher to see a screenshot of everyone's computer screen, and administer a test through the computer. While taking a test, the application would take over the entire screen, preventing you from leaving the application at all. I easily got around the application by running it in a virtual machine. The application would lock down the virtual machine, but I didn't really care as I could just minimize the virtual machine and return to my operating system. I imagine you would be able to get around most applications of this type by just running them in a virtual machine. The application would think that it was locking down the computer, but in fact it's just locking down the virtual machine.

 
At 9:40 AM, December 14, 2013, Blogger Benjamin Grant said...

When I was in law school in Canada, we used a program called "Softest", which did prevent you from doing anything other than the exam.

 
At 8:27 PM, December 23, 2013, Blogger Jeffrey Horn said...

I'd be happy to work on something that actually made taking and grading exams/essays easier. But i'm not interested in "solving" the cheating problem. Let me know if you're interested. You can find me on facebook or twitter as "jrhorn424".

 

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