December 3, 2005

Rant Against ExamSoft

My school, like many law schools and many state bars, requires you to install SofTest onto a windows laptop, register it, and bring it to the exam pre-registered, if you want to take your exam on a computer.

First year, this irked me because I primarily used linux as my operating system of choice. But, back then, it wasn't really a problem, because my laptop dual booted, so I installed the software on the not-so-often used windows partition and took my exams with it. Then, one day during my second set of finals, my old laptop died. I couldn't prove it, but suspected that at least part of its death was attributable to the terrible exam software that eviscerates Windows whenever it reboots into "secure mode" and then tries to go back in and tie up the entrails after each secure mode use.

So, when I got my dream laptop, I fearfully installed the exam software. I've taken three sets of exams on it, and the exam software seemed to work okay. Not great. But not disastrous. There's always a fearful minute or 10 while all the laptops in the exam room reboot into "secure mode." We're all hoping that we won't be the one whose laptop fails to play nicely on the day of the exam. There's usually at least one person in every exam.

Really, law school is all about the little things: the nice little added fun of computer russian roullette on exam day, for example.

Recently, I upgraded to the most recent version of the softest. Since doing so, I've bluescreen twice in 24 hours. I do not think this is a coincidence. I've installed no other new drivers recently and the stop code points to:

Typically due to a bad driver, or faulty or incompatible hardware or software. Use the General Troubleshooting of STOP Messages checklist above. Technically, this error condition means that a kernel-mode process or driver tried to access a memory location to which it did not have permission, or at a kernel Interrupt ReQuest Level (IRQL) that was too high. (A kernel-mode process can access only other processes that have an IRQL lower than, or equal to, its own.)

I know that softest does its job by sloppily replacing a bunch of REALLY important windows system files with its own versions. Additionally, it would not surprise me if the act of installing and running Softtest breached the Windows license that most of us have on our laptops. If so, the irony of many state Bars and law schools requiring students and would-be lawyers to commit copyright infringement in order to take an exam is too precious.

Honestly, I'm not too upset about the forced possible copyright infringement. I'm sure I accidentally breach the terms of my Windows license on accident all the time -- that thing is pretty limiting, and possibly not enforceable in all aspects, but that's another discussion entirely (not to mention that who wants to sue microsoft?).

I am upset that in order to take exams on a computer, I have to permit my computer to be injured. But, because I'd hate hand-writing for 4 hours (I'm not even certain I could do it, at this point) I do it. I'm mainly frustrated because I'm certain that the educational and bar administrators who contract with Examsoft have no idea to what they are subjecting their students' and bar-exam-takers' computers. This latest rash of blue-screens has me reconsidering my decision -- perhaps I should just remove the software and hand-write. I'd hate to lose an outline during the study period -- perhaps I'd hate the loss more than handwriting my exams? Who knows.

I'm also offended for people like Transmogriflaw who have to keep a separate "exam computer" just for the privilege of taking exams on a computer (although, if I had a junker, I'd consider it, just to keep softtest away from my computer).

While I understand the concerns about cheating, I have to assume there is an easier way to solve this problem in software at the application level (for example by disabling cut and paste from external sources? keeping a timer of when the app is in the foreground and maximized? Grabbing a copy of the message queue during the entire time the application is running and attaching it to the file when the exam is saved?). Add a good application level solution with warning to people that they will be caught, they are on their honor to report anyone they see in a different application, etc. etc. and you've got a halfway decent, cheaper, and less invidious solution. Also, open-internet exams would be a cinch... enable cut-and-paste and don't attach the log file or check the message queue.

[/rant concluded]

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