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Law students attempting to cheat on their final exams will find it harder to succeed due to growing use of anti-cheating software at law schools, experts say.
Some law schools such as the University of Houston Law Center have allowed their students to take their exams on computers using specialized software, like SofTest made by ExamSoft, which makes cheating difficult, if not impossible.
"Most students have a laptop and are used to typing, as opposed to handwriting. This allows them to be in a 'comfort zone' for exams," said Susana Aleman, assistant dean for student affairs at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.
Eric Noble, director of information technology for the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, said Hastings was among the first to allow its nearly 1,300 students to use computers to take exams nearly two decades ago.
"Hastings was also the school where the software now known as ExamSoft was developed," Mr. Noble said. "The two founders of the company that started ExamSoft were Hastings alums."
The software and others like it work by restarting a student's computer in a "secure mode" that prevents the student from accessing the Internet or any other word processing program while taking the test, thwarting would-be cheaters.
"It is also easier for the professors to read the exams," said Ms. Aleman, whose students have embraced and have had little problem with Exam4 by Extegrity, another exam software similar to SofTest.
However, some schools have been dissatisfied with the software. Georgetown University Law Center decided to forgo using SofTest software after incidents of computer crashes during exams were reported by some students.
Instead, Georgetown University law students are now asked to sign an "honor pledge" during exams, and extra proctors were added to each exam classroom to allow students to take their exams using an ordinary word processor.
"A finding that a student has violated the exam rules can result in sanctions, which may include lowering the grade in the course, failing the course, a suspension, or expulsion of the student," said Gary Clinton, associate dean for student affairs at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia.
Other schools also rely on honor codes to discourage cheating. "We have rarely encountered cheating at our law school. We have an excellent honor code that the students accept and help enforce," said Shelley Broderick, dean of the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law.
However, Paul M. Kurtz, associate dean for academic and student affairs at the University of Georgia School of Law in Athens, believes the benefits of using SofTest and Exam4 outweigh the risks.
"The slight risk of technological glitches is far outweighed by the ease for students in taking exams and the ease for faculty in reading exams," Mr. Kurtz said.
"The technical glitches are 'few and far in between,' and we have never, during our three years of experience with this, resulted in a lost 'paper.' "
Other law schools, like Rutgers University School of Law in Camden, NJ, permit students to use computers only for particular kinds of exams, said John S. Beckerman, associate dean for academic affairs at Rutgers University School of Law.
"We permit students to take exams on computers if the exams are 'take-homes' or 'sit-down, open-book' exams, by the instructor's choice," said John S. Beckerman, associate dean for academic affairs at Rutgers University School of Law.
However, Yale Law School in New Haven, CT, one of the most prestigious law schools in the country, does not use any type of exam software. "And we don't have any plans to do so in the near future," said Jan Conroy, acting director of public affairs. She added that the school permits tests to be taken on computers, with students subject to an honor code.
Some schools are still considering whether to allow students to take exams with the anti-cheating software. Tom Snee, who handles university relations for the University of Iowa College of Law in Iowa City, said that "it is under consideration, and it's likely a matter of time that it will happen, but right now, it is not allowed."
The University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor began experimenting with Electronic Bluebook by CompuTest about three years ago.
"We were resistant to it, but when it became evident that more and more of our entering students used laptop computers all the time, it seemed sensible to figure out how to make laptop usage on exams possible," said David H. Baum, assistant dean of students at the University of Michigan Law School.
"We had a small number of problems—some serious and some not—when we first started to use the software, but the company has worked with us to improve the software, which we now view as extremely reliable.
"The software has great safety mechanisms built in, so that if something happens to a student's computer during an exam, the exam answers are almost always entirely recoverable," Mr. Baum said.
American University Washington College of Law in Washington, DC, is also among the higher education institutions that use Exam4 software to discourage cheating. But for David Jaffe, associate dean for student affairs, it also has unexpected benefits.
"We feel that beyond eliminating access to external resources, our students are becoming better users of virus-protection software and general good maintenance of their laptops and desktop computers, all of which is critical today," Mr. Jaffe said.
"Finally, as this technology is considered in an increasing number of bar examinations, it will assist our students' preparation for the experience."
An October 2003 survey of 115 law schools indicated about 8.7 percent, or 10 schools, did not allow students to use computers at all for exams. About 10.4 percent, or 12 schools, allowed computers but did not use special software. And 79.1 percent, or 91 schools, used special exam software, according to Mr. Jaffe.
"Moreover, the exams on computer are legible and arguably better organized than a handwritten version, as students may 'cut and paste' within the exam answers," said Mr. Jaffe, who added that students with disabilities also find the exam software beneficial.
But initial reaction to exam software at American University Washington College of Law was mixed.
"Some wanted more time to test run the software, some were fearful that their exam would be lost, and an equal number felt it was 'about time,' " Mr. Jaffe said.
If there were any segment of the population presumed above cheating, it would be aspiring lawyers, given their background in ethics and their professional aspirations to uphold the law, but that is the ideal and not necessarily the reality at any law school.
"Cheating is always a concern at law schools, although no surveys exist to show that it is widespread or prevalent," Mr. Jaffe said.
"However, any time there is a competitive market and a constant focus on grades as a primary source for determining productivity," he noted, "there will be some individuals who—either through poor preparation for, or anxiety about, an exam—will give way to temptation."
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