Widening wisdom with the Web

Students may soon be paying private companies to take tests and quizzes.

Publishing companies are offering more Web-assisted learning programs similar to WebCT to be used with textbooks.

Some companies, such as Prentice Hall and its OneKey system, offer to lighten professors’ loads by providing online tests, quizzes, reviews and exercises for classroom readings.

These systems raise the price of the class for student but are designed to enhance the learning experience.

Robert Benedict, professor of political science, signed on to use OneKey in his 1100-level course on American Government.

“The state Legislature wants to make sure students are learning, and this is a way to monitor that,” he explained. “I used to do pretest and post-test, but 25 multiple choice questions isn’t effective.”

With OneKey, Benedict is supposed to have access to test scores-graded for him-that allow him to check the progression of his students throughout the semester.

“Online testing may be the wave of future. I’m trying this as an experiment to see if it works,” he said.

So far, it doesn’t. Almost halfway through the semester, Benedict still hasn’t been able to get the system to work. Busy grading student papers, he hasn’t had time to fuss with it, he said.

“Personally, I don’t care,” said Amanda Rufener, an undecided freshman. The class hasn’t been hurt by it, but she did have to buy an expensive textbook at $105 that included the software, she said.

People frequently ask when it will be working, but no one complains, said Stuart Moffat, freshman in disaster management.

Concern has been raised over whether students who buy the texts used or from Amazon.com will have equal access to the system. The expensive “bundles” offered by the bookstore include access codes. Without them, students can’t take the tests or quizzes.

Benedict said Prentice Hall has made it possible to purchase an access code for about $16, but Rufener said some of her classmates were upset when they learned of the catch.

Shane Girton, associate director of the U Bookstore, said he thinks this may be a strategy to deter students from buying cheaper copies of the text.

“I imagine Prentice Hall is using that as an incentive to have books bought new from the bookstore rather than used books from the bookstore or via online,” he said. “They want to minimize books sold between students.”

McGraw-Hill has a similar system, but failed to return messages.

Alison Regan, of the Technology Assisted Curriculum Center, said that while her office trains and supports faculty using WebCT, it probably can’t provide the same level of support as the private companies. But WebCT is better suited for students, she said.

“None of the systems has as much functionality as WebCT,” she said. “The real drawback is that, although a student might use a system tied to a textbook for a single class, he or she wouldn’t use them for all (his or her) classes.”

David Hakensen, spokesman for Pearson Education, Inc., the company that owns Prentice Hall, said he sympathizes with students who pay the extra money but don’t get the benefits.

When the system is used properly by instructors, “students get digitized content that goes above and beyond the textbook,” he said.

For economics, the system has charting and graphing that is more interactive than a textbook. For the physical sciences, there are features such as video clips. In any class, the system offers students opportunities to do exercises and practice tests to prepare for exams.

“This stuff is only as good as the instructor makes the students aware of it,” he said.

As of now, only a handful of instructors use the privatized Web services on campus, Hakensen said.

Girton said he wouldn’t be surprised if the number increases because the services do reduce the workload for professors.