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BYO laptop: an e-exams pilot project

Unhappy with the status quo, an innovative project is testing open source software, USB drives and AARNet's CloudStor service to bring students a step closer to taking exams using their own laptops.

BYO laptop: an e-exams pilot project

Despite the dominance of computers in our lives today, most exams across Australia are still completed using old-fashioned pen and paper. This can cause fatigue in candidates, see exam-markers expend unnecessary effort deciphering answers, and restrict curricula to topics that can be assessed by hand.  

Unhappy with the status quo, a project relying on open source software, USB drives and AARNet's CloudStor service is bringing students a step closer to taking exams using their own laptops.

Transforming exams

The project - Transforming exams across Australia: Processes and platform for e-exams in high stakes, supervised environments is piloting an exam platform delivered on a USB that they hope will eventually replace pen and paper.

Led by Dr. Mathew Hillier at Monash University, the project is funded by the Office of Teaching and Learning and involves nine Australian universities. The e-exams solution it is piloting was initially developed by Dr Andrew Fluck from the University of Tasmania's Faculty of Education.

Dr Fluck, who has been using the platform for his own classes since 2012, explains why it’s so important for students and lecturers to make the leap to computer-based exams.

“Fatigue is a big problem with hand-written exams, as students tire more easily when hand-writing responses. They also get less done; a small study we carried out in 2011 showed that computer-using students produced 20% more words than their paper-using peers.

“For teachers and lecturers marking exams, typed exam responses save significant time and effort otherwise spent deciphering handwriting.

“Critically, e-exams also have the potential to transform curricula by allowing the introduction of topics that need to be tested using a computer; particularly relevant for subjects such as computer science, mathematics, science and engineering.”

A cost-effective solution

Dr Fluck’s solution sees students bring their laptops to a supervised exam room, where they are provided with a USB. Booting their laptop from the USB loads an Ubuntu-based operating system and the e-exams software, which runs the exam and prevents access to the internet and other drives.

“Because students boot up their laptops using the USB drive, it doesn’t matter what hardware they have — their experience is identical. It’s a much more cost effective solution than providing each student with an institutional computer and operating system,” explains Dr Fluck.

Unlike testing platforms that rely on secured browsers, the e-exam project provides every candidate with a fully operational computer desktop, including a full office suite, multi-media viewers and multi-lingual capabilities.

“This means that assessment items can incorporate design and investigation activities using sophisticated software tools, which leads to richer tasks, more akin to the real world of professional practice,” Dr Fluck said.

The project’s nine partner universities are currently piloting the platform with the aim of all adopting it, either partially or fully, by the end of the three-year project.

Supported by CloudStor

This goal is being supported by AARNet’s Cloudstor. Project partners, spread across Australia, rely on CloudStor to share large files, and students use it to download a practice version of the e-exam platform onto their own USBs.

“Each candidate intending to use the e-exam platform needs to familiarise themselves with a practice version of the system and gain a certificate of competence before the exam,’ Dr Fluck explains.

“This involves making a file containing the practice operating system – which is at least 2.5GB – available to them to download. Previous attempts to achieve this using commercial storage solutions were unsuccessful as download limits were quickly breached or services were prohibitively expensive.

“We’ve been using CloudStor for the last nine months and it’s fantastic because it lets students download the file quickly and easily – and at no cost if they are on almost any university network.”

Because the project is open source, a copy of the e-exams platform is also publically available for download from the AARNet Mirror service.