College students communicate with text messages clicked out on cell phones. They take class notes on their laptops. Yet, when they take an American history exam, they do what students a generation earlier did:
They scribble in a blue book, pausing only to grimace and shake a cramping hand.
The blue book is widely loathed by students, who must write coherently without the benefit of a backspace key, and by professors, who must fight through a jungle of bad cursive. But no technology has managed to displace it.
Now UNCChapel Hill is trying to relegate the venerable school supply to the academic dustbin with a computer program.
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So far, the blue book retains the upper hand.
A couple of dozen UNC professors are using word-processing software called Securexam, which locks all other applications on a student's computer so there's no way to cheat. Each exam is encrypted and cannot be reopened once the student completes it, unless the professor OKs it.
“They can't surf the Web,” said Andy Lang, director of information services in UNC's College of Arts and Sciences. “All wired and wireless connections are shut off.”
The college is spending about $30,000 a year on the software, and last semester about 1,000 students took exams with it, Lang said.
Joseph Wittig, who teaches medieval British literature at UNC, is using the software and loves it.
“I can read and grade 40 exams in one full day,” he said, adding that with blue books that task takes two to three times as long. “At a certain point, you'd start skimming because you're worn out. It's a huge advantage for students and teachers.”
The software was cheered recently by an editorial in the Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper, that read in part: “This isn't 1860. We don't have to scrawl out long-winded treatises by hand anymore. We have these things called computers that allow you to type fast enough to keep up with your thoughts.”
But, like the cockroach, the blue book persists.
Only about 25 to 30 UNC professors use the new software. That's a small percentage of the faculty, though Lang said the product is gaining popularity.
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Professors say blue books are still here because, well, they've always been here. But most would readily move to a new technology if the transition were easy, said Ed Neal, the retired former director for faculty development programs with UNC's Center for Faculty Excellence.
If nothing else, the blue book is simple. No log-ins or passwords.
At one blue book manufacturer, demand for the product is actually increasing. Comet School Supplies of Palestine, Texas, keeps churning out the blue books, said Don Howard, the company's operations director.
Neither automated multiple-choice tests nor the Internet's vast stores of information have dented his trade, Howard said.