Marshall U Tries Locking Down Browsers During Exams

By Linda L. Briggs

Curbing attempts at digital cheating during exams is a growing issue when online computers are used for testing, as they often are through course management systems like Blackboard and WebCT. Issues can arise when students have access to an online system’s full complement of powers during testing, including the ability to search the Internet and to send and receive messages.

Marshall University, a 16,000-student university with a central campus in Huntington, West Virginia, is using a product from Respondus in some classrooms to control the student experience online during test-taking.

Respondus LockDown Browser works with Blackboard Learning System 6.2 or higher, WebCT CE 4.0 or higher, and WebCT Vista 3.0 or higher. Marshall, which is using the product with WebCT Vista, hasn’t issued a full-scale classroom implementation yet, but based on its initial use, will probably do so soon, according to Matthew Christian, the director of the Center for Instructional Technology at Marshall.

The school is also running Respondus itself, a tool for creating and managing exams, which can

then be printed to paper or published directly to online learning systems such as Blackboard, WebCT, eCollege, ANGEL, or others.

That use of Respondus at Marshall played into its decision, as did the fact that the browser lockdown tool works well with WebCT Vista, Christian says. The school looked at products with similar functions, he says, but “once we did a demo and did the download” of Respondus, they were sold. “I don’t want to knock [the other products], but for us, the integration with Vista, how easy it is to change settings in Vista to use LockDown Browser, [was key].”

At Marshall, the product automatically starts at Marshall’s login page for WebCT Vista. Once an assessment has been set up for use with Respondus, Respondus LockDown Browser appears as a standard browser, but blocks most browser functions, including printing, copying, visiting another Web site, or accessing applications outside the course management environment. Once an exam is completed and submitted, the system returns to conventional capabilities.

The product works by providing a custom interface for the Microsoft Internet Explorer that is already installed on the computer. Rather than modifying IE, it installs a separate program that displayed the custom Respondus interface, using the same security features and service packs currently installed for Internet Explorer.

While Respondus is running, assessments are displayed full-screen and can’t be minimized or exited until the exam is complete. Along with printing and copying, the right-click menu feature is disabled, as are function keys, the typical browser menu, and toolbar options except Back, Forward, Refresh, and Stop. Also, pages from the exam aren’t cached or stored in Internet Explorer’s history listing, so they can’t be referred to later.

According to Respondus, the product also blocks over 250 other applications that a student might typically run, including those for screen capture, messaging, screen-sharing and network monitoring. In addition, the user can’t enter a new URL. However, external links that are incorporated as part of the exam will work, without compromising the “locked” environment.

Marshall’s current license with Respondus allows anyone at Marshall to access the product through the Respondus Web site. The site contains a version of Respondus LockDown Browser that Christian’s department has specially tailored for Marshall’s use. Although Marshall has a growing number of online students, Christian says the jury is still out on whether the Respondus product will be used for online courses or not.

Annual licensing fees for higher education for Respondus LockDown Browser are based on full-time enrollment. As an example, an institution with 15,000 students FTE would pay $3,745 yearly. A free two-month trial is available for institutions using the Blackboard Learning System version 6.2 or higher, WebCT CE version 4.0 or higher, or WebCT Vista version 3.0 or higher. Details are here.

Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif.

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