Nov 26, 2008

Lifestyle - Students share Exams online

Dan Macsai

Photos. Music. Irrelevant video clips. For years, college students have shared them all on the Internet. Now, they're using the same medium to swap notes, tests, and quizzesa trend that has caught the wary eye of profs whose materials are being uploaded and school officials who worry about cheating.

In recent years, several Web sites have emerged that encourage students to submit their schoolwork for mass consumption. They collect old exams (,, class notes (, study guides ( and all of the above ( Some of the largest sites claim thousands of users around the world and say they're making money.

High-Tech "Test Files"

Students from an earlier generation will recognize the note-sharing sites as a high-tech twist on an old college practice. Fraternities and sororities have long maintained "test files," where younger members study from older members' course work. Non-Greeks, of course, have criticized the practice, saying it gives the frat and sorority members an unfair advantage.

Indeed, Demir Oral, a Web designer living in San Diego, says he launched the Post Your Test site to level the playing field. "This kind of service should be available to anyone, at any time," he says.

Oral supports his site using Google ads, which generate "a decent amount" of revenue, he says. But he's forecasting growth: Since July, the site's member count has more than doubled, to 1,000, and it currently hosts between 600 and 700 exams. A few weeks ago, Oral received his first international submission, from Sultan Qaboos University in Oman. "People are starting to realize the uniqueness of our database," he says. "It's a very exciting time."

Backlash from Teachers and Students

Not everyone is buying into the hype, though. Because professors don't know when their exams are being posted, they could unwittingly re-use a question students have seen online, says Jim Posakony, a biology professor and former chairman of the academic senate at the University of California at San Diego, where teachers have organized to keep their exams off Post Your Test.

Having easy access to quizzes and notes could also reward laziness, says Nichole Mikko-Causby, a senior at the University of Georgia. "The whole trend seems to be more about getting the grade than improving critical thinking skills," she says, noting that she's visited Course Hero but never used it. "It kind of cheapens my degree."

Kasuni Kotelawala, a sophomore at University of California, San Diego, is far more satisfied. Because her biology professor hadn't spent much time discussing the most recent class midterm exam -- let alone distributing a practice test -- Kotelawala wasn't sure how to study. But after reviewing one of her professor's past exams on Post Your Test, she says she knew what to expect. "It definitely helped," she says.

Copyright Issues

But was it legal? Like novels and artwork, exams are intellectual property, meaning they're owned by the universities or the professors who wrote them, and they're protected under copyright laws. Publishing them without permission is treading on "legal thin ice," says Bob Clarida, a copyright lawyer at Cowan, Liebowitz & Latman, in New York.

Faculty members at UCSD raised this concern last August, after representatives from Post Your Test visited campus. To promote the site, the reps had offered Starbucks gift cards in exchange for student exams, a gimmick that left some professors "very unhappy," says Posakony.

With Posakony's help, roughly 150 professors organized. They told Oral to take their old exams off Post Your Test and to reject future submissions bearing their names. He wasn't thrilled, but he obliged. "We always follow the Digital Millennium Copyright Act," Oral says, referencing the law that protects online service providers, like Post Your Test and YouTube, as long as they honor requests to take down unlawful uploads.

Support from Faculty Members

Yet for every UCSD professor who rallied against Post Your Test, there was another who dissented. During the brouhaha, many faculty members came forward saying they had "no problem" with the site, especially if it was helping students review more effectively, says Posakony.

Oral also positions his site as a learning tool for academic professionals. Writing good exam questions can be just as challenging as answering them, he says. On Post Your Test, professors can sift through hundreds of subject-specific tests and quizzes, and alter their own work accordingly.

Other sites sell different strengths. (also known as Einstein's Notes), which exclusively serves the University of Florida, offers class-specific study kits -- including lecture notes, flash cards, practice exams and more -- for roughly $20 per semester. During an exam week, the site can sell between 75 and 100 packets per day, says Torey Greenwald, one of the site's editors.

Course Hero, which bills itself as "the social learning network," uses a Facebook application to connect students who are taking similar classes. Since its January launch, the site says it has amassed more than a million study aids -- including notes, tests, quizzes, and textbook solutions -- and roughly 300,000 fans on Facebook. "We're trying to create an environment where students can learn from each other," says Andrew Grauer, who left Cornell University for a semester to develop Course Hero.

Unfair Advantage?

The sites also raise ethical issues. Many schools' academic honor codes bar the gaining of "unauthorized advantage" in preparing papers and studying for exams. But whether using note- and test-sharing sites violates that code is unclear.

Donald McCabe, a management professor at Rutgers Business School who has done extensive research on academic cheating, says he "doesn't see anything unethical on the part of the students" who use note- and test-sharing sites. Old exams are useful study tools, he says. And in an age where almost anything can wind up online, professors should know better than to re-use questions. "It's a little discouraging, and it might be mean a little more work for us," he says. "But you can't fault the students for it."

That's good news for Grauer, who hopes that all of academia will tolerate -- and eventually embrace -- Course Hero. "The more resources we get, the more useful we'll be," he says. "Students will really benefit from this." And Grauer should know: He'll be one of them through May.

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