Gadgets that sniff out the cheats

16th June 2006 at 01:00
Technology can spot plagiarism and alert staff if mobiles are on in exam hall

New technology can now catch pupils who cheat in coursework or take mobile phones into exams.

Exam boards are trialling software which will weed out students who have plagiarised their GCSE and A-level coursework.

And schools are eagerly buying up gadgets that can detect pupils using mobiles in exam halls.

Edexcel is testing a software system, called Turnitin, pioneered for use with undergraduate assignments. This scans the web and a bank of student essays for evidence of cutting and pasting.

The software takes phrases from the pupil's coursework and enters them into a search engine to find if these have featured elsewhere.

If proof of plagiarism is found, a report goes to the school or college, and teachers and pupils are asked for statements before a decision is made on what action to take.

Will Murray, chief executive of Northumbria Learning, which developed the software, said Edexcel had been impressed by it after testing it on coursework which had been copied.

An Edexcel spokeswoman said: "If a student's work is suspected of not being their own, we will use the Turnitin software to look at this. The project will enable us to start to understand plagiarism better."

Last year, a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority inquiry reported widespread cheating by students and parents on coursework. Teachers were also helping, by giving pupils excessive guidance on what to write, it said.

Meanwhile, schools are buying up handheld devices which identify pupils cheating on their mobile phones.

The Mobysafe, launched this year and already a sell-out, can detect calls, text messages and signals emitted by mobiles as they check for their nearest mast.

Of the 4,500 candidates penalised for cheating by the QCA last year, 1,100 had used phones.

Mobysafe, produced by a small Cirencester-based company, has a detection range of up to 10 metres and alerts teachers to the presence of a phone by lighting up bulbs on a signal strength indicator, vibrating or making an alarm sound.

It can pinpoint the location of a mobile phone.

David Spurr, managing director of Mobysafe UK, said the company had temporarily run out of the pound;95 devices because sales had been so high.

"This is the only legal, safe and guaranteed method to completely stop the use of mobile phones in classes and exam halls," Mr Spurr said.

"Until now they have been undetectable unless a full body search was conducted. Although mobile phone jammers are widely available, these are illegal to use in the UK."

A QCA spokesman said: "Some pupils don't realise they still have them in their pockets because they are so wedded to them, but others are attempting to cheat.

"We are always encouraging the exam boards to look into what can be done about this and anything which offers up solutions to reduce these incidents would be welcome."

A conference on student plagiarism is taking place next week at the Sage Centre in Gateshead.

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