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Handhelds beat shirt cuffs in cheating stakes

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Mobile phones can replace anything these days: diary, address book, TV, and radio, and now they are substituting for the scrawled notes on the inside of the cuff which have been so important to a generation of students.

A new study commissioned by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and carried out by Nottingham Trent University, remains ambivalent as to whether cheating is actually increasing, but does identify the methods students are using, and what might be done about it.

For course work (essays and projects submitted during the course) plagiarism is still the most popular way to higher marks. But where submissions are electronic, specialist software can be used to cross-reference internet sources, as well as previously submitted work, to check for unreasonable similarities.

In exam situations the low-tech exists alongside the latest SMS and WAP utilisation - copying from the person next door, looking over the shoulder of the person in front, or arranging for someone else to sit the exam for you, all remain popular. New developments include using SMS to communicate with other students sitting the same exam, or with someone on the outside with access to reference material. Direct access to the internet has also been cited as a problem, though the cheater will need to exercise discretion given the quality of information found there.

Various techniques have been considered for addressing these problems, including mandatory fingerprinting of all students, and encasing exam rooms in Faraday cages - both rejected on cost and logistical grounds. The use of mobile phone detectors is also mooted, and the report suggests these can cost as little as £100, though one teacher known to El Reg already uses a £5 phone-detecting-pen-top to achieve the same result.

But Faraday cages and phone jamming only help if a connection is being used, and the majority of cheating is just loading up notes onto the phone for reference during the exam - the modern version of the upturned cuff. Stopping that requires smaller exam groups, and greater effort by invigilators, both of which are costly.

The report concludes that clear guidance on acceptable behaviour must be made available, and that fear of reprisal should be used to prevent cheating, as well as basic security to make it non-trivial to cheat.

A recent survey, quoted in the report, places cheating among UK students between four per cent and seven per cent. Phones and PDAs make life easier for the cheater, but they add nothing new to an age-old problem. ®

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