Exam system slammed in email cheat row

Critics say the exam system is to blame in an email cheating controversy.

The email cheating row in which 117 undergraduates on Edinburgh University's Computer Science course were accused of cheating in their exams hotted up Tuesday, with the Edinburgh Student Union Association (ESUA) blaming course organisers for the confusion.

In what is thought to be the first case of its type in the UK, the board of examiners at Edinburgh University withdrew the grades of 117 students in July after allegedly finding evidence of cheating in email records. In response the students set up a Web site denying the accusations and threatening to sue the University for defamation.

Graeme McAulay, president of ESUA said course organisers must accept some of the blame. "When 117 students are accused of cheating, there has clearly been confusion in the class over what kind of co-operation between students is allowed. The course organisers must take responsibility for that," he said.

Students involved in the row blamed poor teaching, lack of resources and quality of staff for forcing students to "seek assistance" from each other. They deny cheating.

Robin Bynoe, lawyer with City law firm Charles Russell, believes the use of new technology might need a change in the way coursework is assessed. "In the old days, cheating was almost as hard as doing the work. Maybe a rethink is needed about what constitutes 'collaboration'," he said.

Chris Thatcher, president of the National Association of Head Teachers thinks a sea change in education is necessary to take account of new technology. "One of the problems we have in higher education and exam-level teaching is we haven't incorporated or understood the potential that technology -- email and the World Wide Web -- presents to young people," he said. "Government, school teachers, teacher organisations and student organisations need to raise awareness of the potential of modern technology and it needs to be built into the structure of schools."

Thatcher believes incidents like the Edinburgh 117 will happen more regularly unless changes in exam structure are made soon. "Some of the students [in the case] will be feeling aggrieved at what they thought was completely normal behaviour -- simply sharing information," he said. "The Web means information is readily available to everyone. The exam system will need to reinvent itself, and the assessment of students will be more about the ability to manipulate and interpret information rather than on remembering it," he said.

Thatcher predicts a revolution in education over the next ten years. "In ten years time there will be no need for institutions nine to four. There will be far more moving between sites, learning at home or at hours that suit individuals and an increase in interactive learning and learning via the Internet," he predicts.

The NUS believes the Edinburgh 117 is a major case, but a spokeswoman did not think email was making it easier for students to cheat. "People who want to cheat will always find a way, but email has been around for years and we have never come across a case like this before," she said.

The University of Edinburgh stands by the findings of the board of examiners but refused to comment on the possibility of a lawsuit.

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