Page last updated at 07:55 GMT, Friday, 1 May 2009 08:55 UK

Norway tests laptop exam scheme

School exam, PA
The trial of the laptop system involved 6,000 pupils

About 6,000 students in Norway are doing exams on their laptops in a trial that could soon be rolled out across the country.

Every 16-19 year-old in Nord-Trondelag county in Norway has been trying out the laptop-based system.

The secondary students are given a laptop by the government when they turn 16 to help them with schoolwork.

During exams the specially-tailored software springs into life to block and record any attempt at cheating.

Applications

The laptops issued to the students are used for everyday schoolwork and come with standard software, such as word processors, spreadsheets and calculators installed, as well as subject specific applications for particular courses.

For instance, said Bjorg Helland, project manager for digital literacy at Nord-Trondelag county council, media students would have their machines fitted with Adobe Photoshop.

Although Norway has used computers for exams before now, Ms Helland said the decision to move to laptops was taken to ensure that, in the exam hall, students used equipment with which they were familiar.

"This is used both during their final exams before going to college or university but also during tests when the teacher wants to have a test with the class," she said.

Key to rolling out the laptop exams was a monitoring system, called MAS from UK firm 3ami, that ensured students did not cheat while taking a test or exam, said Ms Helland.

When an exam starts, students go to a website to download the papers for their particular test. However, said Ms Helland, in some schools answers were completed on computer from paper-based questions.

"That's also why we have to monitor the laptops during the exams, because they are not supposed to have internet access and not supposed to communicate with other students," she added.

Screengrab of MAS screen, 3ami
The software can warn if pupils are looking for help

"The program works as a keylogger and takes screenshots and we can very easily get a graphic of what the students have used or have done."

"Exactly what we are looking for may vary depending on what exam it is," said Terje Ronning, a spokesman for computer firm XO Expect More, which has worked with Nord-Trondelag to get the system working.

Although students could turn to spellcheckers to help proofread their answers, the use of anything more sophisticated was banned, said Mr Ronning.

"One of the students was using a translation program and wrote with it: 'If you can see me, stop me now,'" said Ms Helland. "We did see her and we did stop her."

Just as with paper-based exams, those caught cheating fail the test.

National project

Mr Ronning said that so far there had been little talk about ways to beat the monitoring software on hacker boards. The questions that were posed were about ways to trick the software into thinking it was working but gave students access to notes or the net.

He added that, although the blocking software was on the laptop all the time it was only activated during exams and tests.

"Students do not have access to this tool so they cannot sit down and configure it," he said. "To look at it they would have to actually do it during exam time and waste their time."

"We have made a huge effort to make the students aware that we can actually see what they are doing so the program works as a deterrent," said Ms Helland. "It prevents the students from trying to cheat.

"Students are irritated by the fact that some students cheat on the tests. This way they can make sure it is fair for everybody.

"The software has an upside for the students. It's not just that they can be caught cheating it - can also get them off the hook. They can prove that the work is actually their own."

The success of the trials has led to Norway considering whether to use it across the country from the new school year, which begins in September.

Trine Oskarsen, a spokesperson for the Norwegian directorate for education and training, said schools were currently being asked if they wanted to move to computer-based exams.

Moving to laptops would help speed up the gathering of results as completed papers could be e-mailed rather than posted to markers.

Eventually, she said, Norway hoped to move to a completely computer-based system for its exams. Results from Norwegian schools that are early adopters of the system would be used to guide the national roll-out, she said.



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