Ebooks and ExamSoft

By Sam Brunson

A couple weeks ago, one of my students emailed me. This semester, he bought the ebook for my BizOrg class, and didn’t bother buying a physical copy. And he wanted to know if he could use his ebook on the final.

My finals are all open-book; students can bring in and use the casebook, the statutory supplement, and any notes that they create (on their own or in their study group). So in theory, I’m totally fine with it.

In practice, though, I had to send him to our Dean of Students. Because, like many law schools (and some bar examiners), we use ExamSoft for tests.[fn1] Now. I haven’t personally used ExamSoft since I was in law school (it was fine back then, though it was apparently not Mac compatible back in those days). Basically, when I used it, it was a basic word processor that saved your work every minute and blocked access to the rest of your computer while you took the exam.

Glancing through ExamSoft’s website, it looks much more robust these days. One thing’s the same, though: it blocks access to the rest of your computer for the length of the exam. Which means that my student with an ebook won’t be able to access it during his exam.

And our IT people couldn’t find a workaround. Maybe that’s because they didn’t have enough time, or maybe it’s because one doesn’t exist. (I mean, searching the internet, ExamSoft does have a non-secure mode that allows internet access, but I don’t really want one of my students to have unlimited internet access—I just want him to be able to access his textbook. It’s not that ExamSoft serves no purpose if it’s not blocking the internet. I mean, it still automatically saves the exam on a regular basis. But so does Google Docs.)

When I asked, it turned out that three of the forty-eight students in my BizOrg class didn’t buy a physical casebook, using the ebook exclusively. But I suspect, as ebooks become more accepted and more robust (and, frankly, more heavily emphasized by publishers), that number will go up. I hope ExamSoft has something in the works that will allow students to access their ebooks.

In the meantime, has anybody run into this? And what did you do about it?[fn]

[fn1] Did you know ExamSoft memes were a thing? Me either.

[fn2] To be frank, I’m not entirely convinced that not being able to access the casebook is actually detrimental. I suspect the time it takes to look something up in the book is costlier than what students find is detrimental. That said, just knowing they have the book available probably acts as a security blanket for at least some students. And maybe it provides a substantive benefit.

4 thoughts on “Ebooks and ExamSoft

  1. Consider changing the conditions of your test. My own practice is to allow nothing but the Internal Revenue Code (and any handwritten notes therein). Students who opt only for an electronic version of the Code forfeit the ability to bring anything in, but at least they get to decide.


    1. It’s definitely going to have to be a consideration going forward. I’ve thought about this in the past, but only glancingly, because this is the first time I’ve had a student mention that they only had an ebook.


  2. Greetings, Professor Brunson –

    I happened to see your tweet about ebooks on exams not 10 minutes after discussing it with someone else, so I thought I’d give you an answer.

    Point of reference: I’m the CEO of Extegrity, maker of Exam4, used by many law schools, and a JD (Hastings, 1995). Ebooks on closed exams have definitely been a topic of interest brought to us by a number of law schools over the past several years, but fading back lately since a software solution has not been forthcoming and professors have found alternate approaches.

    The technical problem is not trivial. I see three main possible methods:

    1. Exam software-controlled access to publisher’s ebook application on the laptop during a Closed exam – A student might be able to access not only the book, but all the annotations they have written into the app, which would be an issue for some professors. If the app is proprietary and/or under DRM, interoperability would have to be negotiated with each publisher. Under such an agreement, publishers would have to provide sensitive security information to the exam software developer, and proactively inform them of modifications to the ebook app so the exam software can remain functional. This would have to be worked out and maintained with each publisher separately.
    2. Access to the publisher’s web service or online resource during an Open exam – The same proprietary/DRM issues as above, plus URL-spoofing would allow students to access anything they wanted. Requires reliable connectivity and server uptime.
    3. Access to an exam software company-hosted resource during a Closed exam – This could solve for URL-spoofing, but heightens the proprietary/DRM issues. It also depends on connectivity to a remote server and server uptime.

    You can see a great deal of cooperation would need to occur between the software developer and the publisher, and it would have to be in each publisher’s strong interest to make it happen. A good question to think about is whether this is likely to be something they would want to encourage.

    Further reducing the imperative is the fact that not all students use or prefer ebooks and maybe never will, and at the same time, only a fraction of law professors allow books into exams. Ebooks on exams would be a solution benefiting only a fragment of the user base.

    Finally, as ebooks have progressed, but ebook access on exam software has not, professors have found workarounds. Some professors print out a selection of relevant materials. Others modify their exams to reduce the value of access to outside materials. Basically, everyone adjusts a little to work with what the environment provides. In Exam4, we are aware professors do choose our OPEN exam mode, which allows access to the hard drive (thus notes, PDFs, or an ebook app) and includes the option to block network access. In addition to frequent saves, OPEN mode maintains many other benefits of our CLOSED exam mode: start/stop times logged, uniform formatting, anonymous ID entry, instant collection, post-processing via back-end administrative tools, and so forth. Students type all their exams in the same software, under consistent instructions.

    As you can see, a technical solution would add a lot of complexity to not only the code of the software, but to our business operations and law school exam procedures, whereas Extegrity has built its reputation by focusing on providing very-high-reliability software with minimum bells-and-whistles.

    If you’d like to discuss this further, I would be most pleased to talk with you.

    With my best regards,

    – G

    Greg N. Sarab CEO

    Exam4 exam software


    1. Thanks, Greg. It’s really helpful to me to know that there is are serious technical impediments to allowing access to ebooks; I can let my students know upfront about that, or try to change my exam to make using ebooks feasible.


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