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Friday, May 7, 1999 Published at 18:22 GMT 19:22 UK


Students online: Lying, cheating...

A quarter of the students flirt on the Net (Photos: Bloomsburg)

By Gary Eason

Students at a big American university are using the Internet for their work - partly to cheat - and for visiting sex sites and chat rooms.

Almost all of the 611 students who responded to a survey were using the Net for genuine educational or work purposes and to keep in touch with friends and relatives.

Tim Rumbough - on cheating: "Wake up call"
But many were also dabbling in pornography, racist material and the manufacture and use of illegal drugs and weapons.

The research was done by Dr Tim Rumbough of the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, who attaches a deal of importance to understanding how people are using computers to communicate. His report is in the spring issue of College & University Media Review.

[ image: Getting education-related information is the biggest use of the Net]
Getting education-related information is the biggest use of the Net
Bloomsburg is likely to be fairly typical of campus Net use. It is one of the best 100 public universities in the United States, with about 7,200 students.

It is a recognised leader in technology. Even so, one finding is that a small but significant number of students are not using e-mail, for example.

One lesson from that is that lecturers cannot yet assume that it is a reliable way to reach those on their courses.

"The results suggest that it may be important for colleges and high schools to require all students to obtain basic computer literacy - such as using e-mail and accessing Web pages - as soon as possible to enhance their education," Dr Rumbough said.

But it is the seamier side of the Net that turns up the more surprising findings.


About 15% of the students reported that they had used the Internet to cheat - which might be done for instance by going to Websites set up for the purpose, where they could access other students' essays, download them and hand them in as their own work.

[ image: Educators need to be aware of what their students might be up to]
Educators need to be aware of what their students might be up to
"They could come up with a paper in five minutes," said Dr Rumbough.

"That should be a big concern for teachers, for administrators and even for parents.

"The answer to the problem is making sure the teachers are aware of these same sites. That way they will know what's out there and what to watch out for."

A third of the students had accessed sexually-related material, and 19%, sex chat rooms.

On sex: "Surprising"
"This is quite a diversion for a lot of college kids," he said.

The most surprising aspect of that for Dr Rumbough is that more than two thirds of those taking part in the survey were female - he would have expected the use of sex sites to be more of a male trait.

The students were asked how often they did such things as pretending to be a different person, which 20% did at least sometimes, or using an alias - which 57% had done.

[ image: Tim Rumbough:
Tim Rumbough: "Finding stuff doesn't mean they act on it"
Only 47% said they told the truth "very often". Dr Rumbough says teachers ought to bear this in mind if they are conducting classes online - if the result is to be believed, that is...

Disturbingly, 11% had accessed sites sponsored by racist groups, the same number had found descriptions of how to make or use illegal drugs, and 8% had been reading about making illegal weapons.

On drugs, weapons sites: "Why do they do this?"
"That came as a surprise to me, since a lot of these sites are difficult to get to by accident - they have to search out these sites," Dr Rumbough said.

Some of those visits might have been for legitimate purposes, perhaps to do with a class project, or purely out of curiosity. The acquisition of information does not necessarily show an intent to use it for illicit purposes.

But he still finds it troubling.

"I think that really ought to be looked at further - why are these students going to these sites?"

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