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Open book exams are exams that are taken in a classroom, with a limited amount of time, but where the student can consult notes, textbooks, and any kind of written material. They are usually meant to test problem-solving abilities and the capacity to apply the existing theory rather than memorization.

It seems natural to allow the use of e-books in these tests as well as their dead-tree equivalents, since a student should be able to use their preferred medium to study and may have bought the e-book version rather than the paper one. Also, ecology and save the forests.

However, many modern e-book readers have 3G or Wi-Fi networking, and this would make it easy to cheat by getting external help (which is, of course, not allowed). It is not simple to make sure that this connectivity stays off during the exam: you can't just remove the SIM card and everything is ok.

Is there a solution other than "live with the cheating" and "forbid e-book readers overall"?

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    Between the smartwatches, ebooks and google glass, it may not be that long before we need examination rooms without any connectivity... (or perhaps we can just restructure examinations to allow such tools, more closely mirroring professional life) – Jasper Feb 19 '15 at 14:02
  • Are the relevant books readily available in the library? If so, forbidding electronic readers does not post a disadvantage. Also, if you clearly announce at the start of the course (maybe earlier, on its website) that only paper copies are admissible in the exam, one might think that's fair enough. – Raphael Feb 19 '15 at 15:43
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I'm of the opinion that internet access should be absolutely forbidden or impossible during exams. It's a can of worms that is best left tightly sealed.

Every modern tablet computer, and most e-readers, have Wi-Fi capability – therefore internet access. Really, it only makes sense to allow these if it is non-trivial to access the internet and if you have sufficient deterrents in place for the more determined cheaters.

  • If the exams are held in a lecture block that is isolated from any offices or research labs, it should be feasible to request that the Wi-Fi network is turned off for the duration of the exam.

  • Some tablets and e-readers have cellular network capabilities. For an exam with many students, this might be difficult to police. But if you check the model of each tablet or e-reader on entry to the exam and remove the SIM cards, that will remove their internet access. Unless the student puts a fake, inactive one in the device and keeps their active card in their pocket, that is.

  • The Kindle 3G e-ink readers (perhaps others, too) do not have user-accessible SIM cards. Sure, web browsing on them is a pain and limited to 50MB / month – but you can still have email or webchat conversations with a friend on their computer at home who is telling you the answers. You cannot reasonably ban Kindle 3G readers but allow iPads.

  • Anything with Wi-Fi capability can connect to an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network that someone created with their cellphone hidden in their bag that they left at the front of the room. This is absurdly easy to set up, though it is also possible to detect hidden SSIDs which would alert you to a possible cheater.

As the years pass, although it does seem increasingly unreasonable to disallow e-readers into an open book exam, allowing networked devices owned and controlled by the students will make cheating easier. All we can do is make it hard enough to deter casual offending. A determined cheater will always find a way.

Other than locking everyone inside a Faraday cage, you simply cannot stop people who have their own devices from accessing the internet. You do your best to find them, though!

Other mitigation strategies might be:

  • Increased presence of invigilators. If the exam is held either in a room with individual desks, or in a lecture hall with every second row empty, it is easier for the invigilators to see up close what everyone is doing. If there were 6 to 10 invigilators in an exam hall of 100 students, as opposed to the usual 2, that might be a sufficient deterrent.

  • Use electronic surveillance / prevention, such as a PocketHound.

  • Ban all electronic devices, but have enough copies of the course textbook in the library so that anyone who does not have one can borrow a copy. This might get expensive for a large class!

  • Hand out university-provided e-readers to everyone without a paper copy. If the network capabilities are locked down under a password, this should be safe. Again, not a cheap or easy option.

  • Only allow one or several pages of handwritten notes into the exam. In most subjects, spending too much time flipping through a textbook during the exam is a waste of time and an indication of a lack of study. The time spent in carefully curating a "cheat sheet" is usually worth far more in the exam than the cheat sheet itself. Is a full open book policy really necessary? If every question needs the student to refer to a textbook, perhaps the exam isn't asking the right sort of questions.

  • Depending on the laws for where you are, you may be able to use a wifi/3g jammer device that will prevent any connections being made - if not, typically a room can be designed such that no signal passes through it (and of course disable any wired access going into it for the test). Most laws deal with the issue of being unable to call the police/etc. in the event of an emergency, with the typical loophole of it being acceptable if there is a working wired phone that can be used instead. – user2813274 Feb 19 '15 at 15:04
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    @user2813274 The "cage" solution does not prevent student devices from communication among each other. – Raphael Feb 19 '15 at 15:44
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    +1 for your final point. Creating cheat sheets is part of the learning process. I often do open-note and not open-book exams exactly for this point. – earthling Feb 20 '15 at 7:24
  • @earthling +1 for reading the entire answer :p – Moriarty Feb 20 '15 at 9:18
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Cheating happens with e-book or not. Many students cheated when they go to bathroom, and there is really nothing you can do about that; or they just looked at other's answer even without e-book, and you don't even have evidence to catch them. It is impossible to avoid cheating, but you can increase their difficulties of cheating by having more eyes on them.

So if you allow the student the use of e-book, given it may be easier for those who want to cheat, you can have more tutors to invigilate so they would worry about being caught which may hinder them from cheating.

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I would recommend allowing ebook readers based on E-ink, but not tablets or smartphones. It is technically possible to browse on the Internet with those, but it is painstaking and difficult. You would probably see a person typing slowly and for a long time, so it's easier to spot.
You can maybe try yourself with a Kindle or a Kobo.

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    So students who read ebooks on readers without e-ink must buy a new device or live at a disadvantage against other students who happened to choose different technology? – earthling Feb 19 '15 at 11:43
  • I for one would never take an e-ink reader to an open-book exam. It is way too slow for the amount of page flipping required. For me whether not having the book available (assuming the students study hard before the exam, and be reasonable and copy down vital formula in their own notes) is a disadvantage compared to having a e-ink reader is debatable. – Willie Wong Feb 19 '15 at 13:44
  • Typing isn't allowed? how am I supposed to search for a key term? and why would I use a slow device? (scanning large PDF's on a crippled device will take forever) – user2813274 Feb 19 '15 at 15:06
  • @WillieWong There is a tradeoff -- on e-ink, page flipping is slower, but searching is faster. Don't underestimate the power of Ctrl+F. – Federico Poloni Feb 19 '15 at 15:09
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    @earthling: you are probably against this other policy too, but do note that many schools/classes/high-stake exams have policies for "acceptable calculators" that can be used. And at the artificially inflated prices of the brand name graphing calculators, the prices for those guys are amazingly comparable to cheap e-book readers. (Just trying to say that there is a precedent for allowing some, but not all, electronic devices, even though they have similar functions.) – Willie Wong Feb 19 '15 at 16:21

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