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Technology used to target UAE's cheating students

DUBAI // Cheating has been around as long as universities themselves – from the age-old habit of sneaking notes into exams to more modern methods of deception.

But technological advances are helping to keep students on the straight and narrow rather than aiding their deceit.

Academics in the country’s universities are noticing a gradual decline in the practice.

A realisation of how easy it is to be caught out by a computer, along with a shift away from crunch time exams and towards coursework in some curricula are being credited.

Dr Hamdi Al Sheibani, head of the office of academic integrity at Abu Dhabi University, said when it came to coursework at least, there is little chance of getting away with submitting work that has been lifted from the internet or plagiarised from books.

Students are asked to submit their work to Turnitin.com before they finish, to learn as they go, in their early days, what counts as plagiarism.

“There will always be new technology to overtake the old,” said Dr Al Sheibani, but from eight cases in the autumn term compared to around 30 cases five years ago, he said the numbers speak for themselves.

“Awareness is the main challenge. Many people don’t realise what they’re doing is cheating and our role is to change those attitudes.”

One of the key challenges is tackling bad habits as soon as students arrive.

“There are certain schools that I have found in my own research, which create that culture,” he said.

“Those that put pressure on students with exams and encourage memorisation usually turn out as the students inclined to cheat.

“Those students from schools like the IB curriculum, which teach that exams aren’t everything tend to be much less likely to cheat.”

Zeenath Khan, academic at the University of Wollongong Dubai, has researched cheating and worked on a study of more than 1,000 students nationwide.

In the first stage of her research, which began in 2005, she found technology made cheating easier.

But she said the most startling part of her latest research is technology is now helping discourage it. A previous study found 80 per cent of students in the UAE admitted to some form of cheating.

“We were saying technology helps students cheat, now, we’d say it’s helping them understand unethical behaviour better than ever,” she said.

Programmes such as those which alert students to copy and paste within their work, reminding them to reference and insert quotation marks, Mrs Khan said, are helping many students unaware of accurate referencing.

When it comes to “contract cheating”, when a student buys an original essay online for as little as Dh200, there is little technology can do to catch them.

But a good teacher will realise if the content does not reflect what has been taught, or lacks the student’s “soul”, Mrs Khan said.

Dr Ammar Kakka, head of the Dubai campus of the UK’s Heriot-Watt University, was less hopeful and cheating, worldwide, remains a “major, major problem”.

“It’s much easier to detect plagiarism now with things like Turnitin.com but now, in the first year of study, we actually use it as training for students to understand what plagiarism is,” he said.

“In later years, it’s then used to detect plagiarism. It’s the issue of students paying for more major pieces of work to be produced, that’s much harder to detect and requires much closer attention of the faculty to notice if work is in line with a student’s performance.”

Advances in technology, and perhaps a realisation that cheating it will bring few benefits, appears to be filtering through.

One undergraduate student in Dubai said: “”For some students, they will always find a way to cheat. It’s pretty easy to find companies or individuals to write papers for you … these companies will drop ads in forums, in Facebook feeds, so it’s impossible to not know it’s there, but really, how much does it help you in the long run?”

“When you go to work, people will soon realise your strengths and weaknesses.”

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