`Cheating on Net' inquiry at university

AT THE end of their first year at Edinburgh University, students were meant to demonstrate their understanding of computers. But not, as some apparently did, by using e-mail and the Internet to produce identical work.

Sadly for the class of "Computer Science 1h", they appear to have proved themselves too adept with their keyboards. At least 90 of 200 students in the class had their grades withheld after exam markers discovered remarkable similarities between their scripts.

"They seem to have been chatting about what they would write," said one university insider. "Unfortunately, it wasn't over coffee. It was using websites, so everyone seems to have come up with the same answer."

Nor was it difficult to find that answer. One website "chat" page offers "a completed Practical 3 program for Computer Science 1h", which can be obtained by e-mail. The author of the crib sheet warns readers, however, that "it's too risky to put on the Web. Remember, don't copy it exactly - only use it as a guide! Power to the people!"

What seems to have happened is that too few took the advice and the examiners caught on. University examination boards know it is all too easy now for students to fake knowledge. No longer do you have to ply your contemporaries with drink or plead hard luck tales of having writer's block or a nervous breakdown.

The market has produced the answer to the idle student's dilemma. Many companies now sell help in cutting corners for tutorials and at exam time.

Cyberessays.com has a free database with thousands of essays that can be used again and again to fob off unsuspecting tutors. The bank is constantly refreshed as hardworking students show solidarity with their slacking peers by posting new essays on the site.

Another site - called 12000papers.com - will use its vast stock of material to write an essay specially customised for you and then fax, e-mail or hand deliver it, depending on the urgency of the situation. A dozen people are employed full-time to meet the demand.

Yesterday, Edinburgh University was remaining po-faced over the class that apparently used a little too much initiative in what a spokesman called its "problem-solving tasks".

"Queries were raised by the examiners in relation to 90 students in the first year of computing science," said the spokesman. "Marks for those students have been withheld until this matter is resolved.

"All the students have been contacted so the examiners can reach a final decision. If the queries are substantiated the the appropriate action will be taken."

That action may be rustication for the students involved. But for the rest of the university population this outbreak of computer cribbing could lead to a shift from continuous assessement and all the temptations that offers. It could, one Edinburgh academic said, mean a return to the great fear of the idle student - more invigilated exams.