5 ways online education can keep its students honest

The rise of online education may be creating new opportunities for students to learn, but it’s also opening up new opportunities for them to cheat. Offline, instructors can more effortlessly establish the kinds of communities that uphold honor codes and keep an eye on students as they take tests. But online, test-takers can easily Google answers, ask friends for help or even get others to sit for their exams.

For the past several years, more traditional brick and mortar schools have provided parts of their instruction and assessment online – and they’ve increasingly adopted high-tech tools to deter cheating. But in the last year in particular, attention on online education has surged with the growth of new internet-only educational programs like Coursera, Udacity, edX, 2U and others. And as they strengthen ties with traditional universities and raise the stakes with credit-bearing courses, ensuring their courses have integrity is essential.

This week, for example, in announcing that several of its courses will undergo an evaluation to determine whether they should be eligible for college credit, Coursera said it plans to use remote proctoring technologies to verify a student’s identity and help them prove that their coursework is authentic. Udacity and edX have partnered with Pearson’s testing centers so that students can take tests offline in the presence of a proctor, but edX has said it’s also exploring other ways of thwarting online cheating.

No technology is going to be 100 percent foolproof, but here are five high-tech tools digital learning platforms can use to keep their students honest.

Remote live proctoring

Kind of like Skype, but for exam monitoring, services like ProctorCam, ProctorU and Remote Proctor Now (from SoftwareSecure) use basic computer web cams to enable human proctors to watch students remotely as they complete exams. Using the services’ software, part-time proctors (who are sometimes students themselves) can monitor several students at a time using split screens. Proctor-to-student ratios are often higher than they might be in real-world settings because proctors are limited by the size of their computer screens. For now, it’s mostly traditional universities who use these services to prevent cheating on online exams. But this is one option Coursera and other digital-only platforms could turn to bolster the integrity of their courses.

Remote web proctoring

The other flavor of remote proctoring also uses computer webcams, but doesn’t rely on humans. This service, which is offered by McGraw-Hill’s Tegrity division, Kryterion and others, simply uses the webcam to record students during an exam. Professors or others can review the footage later (or only in cases where they suspect cheating). McGraw-Hill said the service isn’t just used by colleges and universities for exams, but also for group projects, quizzes or other exercises, to give professors extra windows into a student’s learning.

Browser lockdowns

For online test takers, it can be tempting to Google an answer or ask a friend for help via IM. But along with webcam monitoring, many schools work with services, such as Respondus, that lock down browsers so that students can only see the screens necessary for completing the test. Once students launch the assessment screen, the program blocks them from switching to other applications and prevents messaging, screen-sharing and other communication programs from running. Students could get around it by looking at other computers or talking to other people nearby, but paired with webcam monitoring many see it as an effective option.

Keystroke pattern recognition software

One of the options edX has said it’s looking into — keystroke monitoring software — observes each student’s typing style to authenticate identity. Researchers at Pace University, for example, said they can accurately confirm the identity of a test taker in 99.5 percent of cases by analyzing patterns of keyboard pressure. As with browser lockdowns, this technology on its own isn’t fail-safe as students could still be receiving answers from people near them or via telephone. But Kryterion, for example, offers this technology as part of a suite of online proctoring tools.

Plagiarism detection software

Many brick and mortar high schools and universities use scanning software to detect content lifted from other sources. But online education platforms are starting to adopt it as well. 2U, which partners with leading universities for high-quality masters degrees and this week announced an undergraduate program with a consortium of institutions, uses Turnitin to monitor student work. And this summer, after dozens of reported plagiarism incidents on its platform, Coursera said it was looking into using plagiarism detection software. Turnitin (from iParadigms), which said it processed more than 60 million academic papers last year, is the leading service in the field. But PlagiarismDetect and VIPER provide similar services.

Image from chalabala via Shutterstock.