The Danish gambit: online access, even during exams

Novel Scandinavian strategy to tackle cheating is 'no soft option'. Sarah Cunnane reports

A Danish university has adopted an unusual strategy to tackle cheating: allowing unfettered internet access, even during examinations.

Lise Petersen, e-learning project coordinator at the University of Southern Denmark, said that all handwritten exams were being revised and transferred to a digital platform wherever possible, with a completion date of January 2012.

She said administering exams via internet software would allow lecturers to create tests that were aligned with course content rather than "trivia" quizzes.

"What you want to test is problem-solving and analytical skills, and ... students' ability to reflect and discuss one particular topic," she said.

Ms Petersen added that, far from being a soft option, using the internet as an academic tool was a challenge for most students because of the sheer volume of information available.

"The skill is discerning between relevant and irrelevant information and then putting it in context," she said.

On the issue of plagiarism and cheating, Ms Petersen said that while there would always be legitimate concerns, online assessment presented a novel solution to the problem.

"One way of preventing cheating is by saying nothing is allowed and giving students a piece of paper and a pen," she said. "The other way is to say everything is allowed except plagiarism.

"So if you allow communication, discussions, searches and so on, you eliminate cheating because it's not cheating any more. That is the way we should think."

Southern Denmark currently uses a plagiarism-detection program called SafeAssign, which is produced by the US software company Blackboard. Papers are checked against databases of source material before being delivered to lecturers for marking.

Ms Petersen said that another benefit of the new web-based system was that a strict limit could be imposed on the length of work submitted by students. This would force them to rethink how they write and prevent them from copying and pasting from other sources, she said.

"We have had situations where students submit many pages and obviously they have been cutting and pasting from their notes," Ms Peterson explained. "That's perfectly legal but ... if they can write only a few pages, they have to reshape and reform their notes to get to the answer."

Ms Petersen also said that the use of online assessment opened up the prospect of creating tests that could be automatically marked and graded, saving academics time.

And that was not the only benefit, she added.

"One of the greatest advantages is that it eliminates some risks that occur when you have physical copies, such as losing a pile of papers," she said.

sarah.cunnane@tsleducation.com.

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