Rhodri Marsden: Does revising online give an unfair advantage?

Cyberclinic
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The Independent Tech

I remember the horror on the faces of my parents when I informed them that I was allowed to take a calculator into a maths exam. Pretty mild, as teenage revelations go, but they felt that this was about as pointless as sending someone else to the optician to take my eye test. I reassured them that the calculator was merely for number crunching, and it was the non-arithmetical stuff that was important to my development (not that I’ve had to solve a quadratic equation since.)

As the end of the school year approaches and exams hove into view, there’s a similar debate going on surrounding the mass of educational material available online. Websites such as Course Hero and Cramster – both popular in the US – bring together masses of lecture notes, past papers, model answers and in some cases real-time assistance, all in exchange for a small monthly fee. Some educators believe that this provides an invaluable aid to the learning process, but others are critical of the way it allows students to copy, paste, re-organise and repackage information rather than exercise their grey matter a little more vigorously. They see it as akin to playing online Scrabble while using an anagram generator; sure, you come up with the goods, but do you actually learn anything?

Those of us who were at college when Google was just a noise made by a satisfied baby can barely imagine the impact that the internet has had on completing coursework. But last week saw Danish government ministers announce a trial scheme that will even allow internet access in the examination hall; it’s a forward-looking stance, but one that shines a bright spotlight on plagiarism. Some cheating is easy to spot (i.e. the dopey student who pasted in online advertisements as well as all the text he’d lifted) but many educational institutions use software packages such as Turnitin to scan for the more cunning examples, and in the future the reliability of this software could mean the difference between a pass and a fail. This has been recognised by a conference to be held in Spain in September which will announce the results of the first international competition for plagiarism detection – so anyone planning on Googling their way to an A-grade may well find that it’s more effort to cheat than do a bit of good, honest revision.

Email any technology gripes to cyberclinic@independent.co.uk, or join the discussions on the blog at www.independent.co.uk/cyberclinic.

Currently under discussion: I’m becoming swamped with online information – how can I filter it?

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