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Testing: No Longer a Contact Sport?

In about 1984, my wife transferred from Wayne State University to the University of Michigan and also changed majors from Criminal Justice to Exercise Physiology. She's had a great career. It was a good choice. However, the remainder of her undergraduate years contained some grief because, owing to her choice of major, she took a handful of the kinds of classes that were popular, then, with varsity athletes.

I remember times she would come home distressed with frustration from the massive and obvious cheating that would go on in some of those classes during exams. She would describe trying to take an exam with her arms and elbows all over the table and moving her body left and right to try to shield the guys on either side of her from reading what she was writing: kind of like test taking as a contact sport.

So, she was pretty amused at dinner the other night when I read to her from an Ann Arbor News article about the new high tech test center in the Pollock Building  at Penn State University. It won't open until next spring, and when it does, students will enter through a security station where they'll need to have their identification read by a computer and then move through a turnstile. Then they'll check in with a staff person who will give them a workstation assignment and a document with their photograph and list the items the student is permitted to have and use during the examination. They'll be on video the entire time and surrounded by monitors stalking around the space. There are some quite informative images, and more information, available here.

I mentioned above that my wife was amused. She liked the idea of the kinds of guys who used to cheat from her exams having to go through this. He first musing was, of course, whether the varsity athletes would be required to take their tests there. But she was amused at me as well as at the idea of a test-taking fortress.

That's because I wasn't amused at all, and I'm still disturbed that such a high tech center is needed. For one thing, I don't "get" cheating, not in athletics nor in academics. To me it's one of those things, like enjoyment of roller coasters or gambling, that is a human mystery because so many others "get it" that there's obviously something there, but not something tangible to me. I can still close my eyes and remember my outrage back during the Final Four in 1984 when a sportscaster reporting on a basketball game spoke approvingly of a player's "effective use of a foul": Those are the precise words he used while I was sitting at a beige couch in my dark living room at 920 Dewey Street in Ann Arbor. Having grown up during a time when basketball was officially a non-contact sport, I remain outraged!

However, in reading up for this column, I have been somewhat brought up to date on the apparent fact that cheating is a significant and growing problem in higher education. In fact there are places that now study and document cheating, although they tend to use more politically correct--I think political correctness is good, by the way--terms like "academic integrity." In fact there are places like the Center for Academic Integrity, located at Clemson University.

I've been aware of and watching the Internet-induced wave of anti-plagiarism technologies, brought about by software like Turnitin, with its resulting costs and intellectual property issues. It's interesting to note in that regard, that the first thing you currently see on the Turnitin home page is for something called the Digital Assessment Suite, which emphasizes "Improve Student Writing Skills."

In fact, seeing that and thinking about it kind of helps me turn the image I have of this to a slightly more favorable one. That is, this may be just one more aspect of the future in which we simply know so much more about so many more things that we have to change some of the ways we do things and that the tools to prevent "cheating"--oops, I meant the tools that assure "academic integrity"--can also be used to enhance the effectiveness of the learning process.

Last Monday, I and several of my colleagues here at the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) watched an Educause Learning Initiative Web seminar titled "Academic Analytics: A New Tool for a New Era," featuring John Campbell of Purdue University. It is already available as an archive, along with links to more, related information. To boil that event's content into a single sentence: The information we are now collecting from the widespread use of course management systems is becoming useful in unanticipated ways and can also be mashed up with information from other campus data collections in even more interesting and potentially useful ways.

Sure enough, in one of the best newspaper articles about the Penn State test center that I have read, there are more than hints of the relationship between places like this and the technology used and enhanced learning. One expert noted, "It's for faculty who like to give smarter tests, that go beyond paper and pencil." And, "Using computers for tests allows professors to include graphics, animation, and even sound files that aren't possible to include in paper exams." I don't think those are just words, I think they're harbingers of a whole new level of understanding and personalizing the learning process in higher education.

However, I still can't help but think that entering such a test-taking fortresses would feel the same to me as entering one of those convenience stores with iron bars and plexiglass turntables between the clerks and customers that I sometimes end up visiting when traveling. I'll have to work on getting over that, I guess.

About the Author

About the author: Terry Calhoun is Director of Communications and Publications for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). You can contact him through CT's IT Trends forum by clicking here. View more articles by Terry Calhoun.

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