Colleges are ramping up strategies to ensure that the student who gets the grade for taking an online course is the same person who does the homework and completes the exams.
The impetus is a federal law, passed in 2008, requiring colleges that are eligible for federal student aid for online programs to take steps to discourage financial aid and academic fraud. Federal regulations require students to have secure log-ins and passwords for online course offerings, but industry experts expect more stringent standards to come.
“We don’t know when and how, but they’re probably going to tighten up,” says David Richardson, CEO of Louisville-based Learning House, founded in 2001 to help schools develop online degree programs and courses.
The growing popularity of free, noncredit online courses available to thousands scattered across the globe also has sparked interest in verifying the identities of students. And it’s a hedge against students who might look for help from companies such as Boost MyGrades.com and Non eedtostudy.com, which offer to take classes for a fee.
More than 6.7 million students took at least one online class in fall 2011, up about 9 percent from the previous fall, says an annual survey released in January by the Babson Survey Research Group. About two-thirds of colleges say online learning is a critical part of their long-term strategy.
A sampling of how colleges are responding:
Webcams. The 17-campus University of North Carolina system this fall will double from five to 10 the number of campuses allowing online students to use remote proctors. Using a webcam mounted on the test-taker’s workstation, monitors watch for suspicious behavior such as drifting eye movements, which could signal that a cheat sheet is outside the camera’s view, or whispering from another person. The average cost to students is $18 for a one-hour test and $25 for a two-hour test, says Maggie O’Hara, director of E-Learning at the University of North Carolina system’s flagship campus in Chapel Hill.
Personal detail. Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., which specializes in educating working adults, will ask online students a series of “challenge questions.”
Keystroke analysis. At Pace University in New York City, researcher Charles Tappert this fall plans to test a verification system based on students’ typing patterns, such as how long they hold down a key and how quickly their fingers move from one key to another.
Many schools combine tools. Athens State University in Alabama, which serves mostly working adults, requires faculty in its 11 online degree programs to use challenge questions for at least two exams in each course. It also uses a remote proctor and a browser that prevents students taking an online test from searching the Internet for answers.
Not all options are high-tech. Learners taking courses offered by EdX, a nonprofit provider of online classes, have two options: They can take a proctored exam at a test center and they can agree to abide by an honor code.
Shana Pribesh, an education professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., allows students to resubmit work until they reach mastery. “If students know that they can try and try again, then the incentive to cheat is diminished,” she says. “The approach I advocate is to make a course that is ... fun.”
© 2013 USA TODAY. All rights reserved.