When Italy's lockdown means... Windows-only exams


Just a little University-in-lockdown story.

This is my own summary of a request of help, made on a Linux Facebook group, by a student of software engineering in an italian university, whom I will call Giuseppe. The discussion was much longer than here, and I have grouped every sub-thread, or group of answers as one answer, to make it more readable.

Giuseppe: Hello all! Due to the lockdown, I have to sit an exam from home, using a special software called Safe Exam Browser, that only runs on Windows or OSX. Since I only use Linux, this would force me to (at least) buy a Windows or Mac license just for those few minutes of the exam. Is this right, in your opinion, and above all: is it legal? If not, please let me know, because I would like to file a formal complaint about this.

When Italy's lockdown means... Windows-only exams /img/safe-exam-browser-screenshot.jpg

Answer 1, to “Is this legal?”

If there are no alternatives with the same guarantees and features, yes, and this is one of those cases: these “remote exam” solutions [are necessary because they] actually lock down a computer to avoid cheating, and do not run on Linux. So, it is completely legal to force you to use Windows in this case.

Answer 2: “What are you complaining about, cheapskate?”

Even if your university cannot get a free license for you from Microsoft, Windows 10 basic version, with some options disabled, is free, so there’s little to cry about money. So just bite the bullet, install Windows, even temporarily. Buy a cheap hard drive just for that purpose, if you need to, or run a Windows live system off a cheap USB pen drive. Or just buy a second-hand Windows computer, or borrow one from a friend! It’s almost painless

Answer 3: “A Linux user who doesn’t know how to set up a VIRTUAL Windows machine? In my times…”

Just install a virtual Windows machine in your Linux system for the duration of the exam.

And these are Giuseppe’s counter-answers, in no particular order:

  • That software can detect if it is being launched inside a virtual machine, and in such a case it will refuse to run. Yes, one can find how to bypass that feature online, but I am not going to risk being expelled from an exam on some hack found online
  • Installing on my drive? It’s already full, I have no spare ones, and no extra money for new ones, right now.
  • Painless, this is not. In general, at least. I may be able to do all of this myself, but what if one needs (maybe paid) technical support? What if one has just a Chromebook? Even having extra drives, and enough skills, does one really have to turn her whole computer upside down, just for the few minutes of an exam? What if this becomes the rule, and I cannot use my preferred computer environment, or just one computer, until I graduate?
  • I pay the same university taxes as every other student, why should I be discriminated? Especially considering that, just because I am studying ICT, I cannot afford to not study and use Linux? In my opinion, this is madness.

Conclusion? I don’t know

I do not know if “Giuseppe” successfully passed that exam or not, or how he managed to solve the “Windows-only” requirement. He never came back to report. But this is how he lived this problem, that is very concrete and very important in principle, even if not so blocking in practice; and this is the kind of support he got, as an ICT student in a Linux group. Make of it what you will, and let me know in the comments. Me, I only want to conclude with a minor, but not negligible critique to one of the answer that Giuseppe received:

“Buy a cheap hard drive just for that purpose…”

In general, yes. In those exact days, it was not so easy, as you can read in my coronavirus reports. Going out to a physical store (assuming you could find one open) meant risking non-negligible fines (if you came across a policeman just a bit too nervous), and contagion in any case. Buying online, you say? One reason I got so interested in Giuseppe’s problem is that a few days before reading it I had ordered a new hard drive online. In that moment, when everybody had just started to work from home with their own computers, it took me a couple of days to find someone who could ship, at acceptable prices… in less than three weeks. Then, when the drive arrived, it was broken. So I had to go out anyway to ship it back, and the seller sent me a refund, because he had no other equivalent drives left in stock.


(This post was drafted in May 2020, but only put online in August, because… my coronavirus reports, of course)

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