July 2, 2004

Laptops and law school exams.

My law school does not yet allow students to take exams on computers. I chaired a committee many years ago that addressed the question whether to allow them, and we decided against it. For me the deciding factor at the time was the expense: we would need to make students buy laptops, and many students wanted their better, cheaper desktops. A related concern was that students from more affluent backgrounds would be more comfortable with computers and more adept, and that would be daunting to students from less privileged backgrounds who would see the test-taker next to them speed-typing and cutting and pasting with great ease. My committee surveyed the students, and a huge concern was how annoying and possibly unnerving the sound of fast typing would be. Then there was the complicated question of exam software to prevent students from cutting and pasting from their notes: would it work, would students have to keep buying it forever?

These days, laptops are, of course, much cheaper than they were then, keyboards are quieter, and everyone is much more used to them. Most students are going to buy them anyway for taking notes in class and using the internet around campus and around town. And handwriting is becoming worse. Word counts can be imposed to keep speed-typers from producing excessively long answers, and word counts are much more effective than page limits on handwritten exams, because page limits create an incentive for small writing, which exacerbates the bad handwriting problem. And as many faculty members switch to take-home exams to avoid having to read handwriting, a change in the computer policy may be needed to preserve the traditional, in-class, time-pressure, proctored exam.

But what about that software? Presumably, the kinks have been worked out. But what is this I see? "The exam software we use does NOT support Macs." (It's not just one law school: see here and here and here and here and here and here and I'll stop now.) Do these schools have any idea of the feelings of revulsion a statement like that on their websites provokes? If you've been using Macintosh all your computer-life, the idea of being forced to use those other things is really depressing. If I were going to law school today and had a choice of schools, support for Macintosh would be a factor. For your damned exam software, you're going to make everyone who has bonded with Apple give up a central pleasure of daily life? It's hard and intimidating enough to go to law school. To make young people give up their Apples? No! Not acceptable!

Law school websites try so hard to project a friendly and welcoming image to prospective applicants. May I suggest supporting Macintosh and highlighting the fact that, unlike many law schools, you do? I look out on my class full of students and the lit-up Apple icons on the lids of laptops are everywhere. No switch to the use of computers on exams should entail taking this basic happiness away from them.

UPDATE: Some of the exam software requires a floppy drive, and of course Mac laptops haven't had floppy drives in quite a while. (And, when we had them, our discs were never floppy.) But a floppy drive is an add-on option for a Dell laptop, so this feature is falling out of favor even outside of the Mac fold. Be careful new law students! You may receive a memo from your law school telling you the requirements for a laptop to use to take exams that does not bother to tell you that you'll need a floppy drive. I know of at least one prominent law school that is setting up law students for this surprise. Call your school's tech advisor--don't rely on the website or some prepared memo.

1 comment:

Rekha Menon said...
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