E-books and Open Book Exams

By: Emilie Menzel, Jane Bahnson

The advent of ChatGPT has left many faculty members uneasy with allowing student access to the internet while taking law exams and many are considering switching back to in-person timed exams. Considering the in-person administration of state bar exams, a switch back to the traditional methods may be a pedagogically sound choice, regardless of the new text writing programs. But what does this mean for open-book exams, and for the many students who have switched, at the urging of publishers, to e-casebooks?

Publishers offer a varying menu of formatting options for purchasing textbooks. Some students will prefer e-books solely for the convenience of transporting them. This is not insignificant, considering the sheer weight of a typical constitutional law, torts, civil procedure, or contracts casebook. Publishers of 1L casebooks such as Aspen Publishing, Foundation Press, and West Academic actively promote e-book editions of their casebooks, although older editions are often not available electronically. Format options can include connected e-book or connected e-book plus print, often with an extra charge for including the print copy.

For those opting to purchase electronic access only, it is important to understand the type of access being purchased. The digital preservation is another question, as this may limit long-term access. For example, Aspen’s Learning Library offers a collection of digital study aids through an institutional subscription, which can be accessed by students through an application of the same name. However, these files will only stay on a device for 120 days.

There are often limitations when it comes to downloading electronic casebooks, due to restrictions imposed by publishers and by copyright laws. Aspen’s Casebook Connect does not allow downloading by students and only 30% of the book can be printed. However, those books published by Aspen that can be purchased through the VitalSource eReader can be downloaded and accessed offline. CasebookPlus, the West Academic and Foundation Press e-book platform, allows titles to be downloaded, and it also comes with a print copy. If you opt out of the print copy, you can print up to 10 pages at a time. However, a “learning library” accompanying a purchase includes study aids that cannot be downloaded, and access expires after 12 months.

So, what should faculty members consider when assigning casebooks? If an open book exam is contemplated, assigning a book available through a platform that allows downloading and use offline will avoid problems for students who purchase e-books. At a minimum, students should be aware of the issue upfront before they purchase their course textbook so they can choose a format that can be used in an open book exam. If assigning an older casebook with electronic versions that have limited downloading options, consider asking colleagues or former students to loan spare print copies for the open book exam. Alternatively, when selecting a textbook, consider some of the free and low-cost casebooks available on a variety of legal topics, and choose ones that can be used offline or printed out for exam use: https://law.duke.edu/lib/faculty/course-materials/.



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