The number of students taking courses online is surging, creating a dilemma for educators who want to prevent cheating.

Do you trust students to take an exam on their own computer from home or work, even though it might be easy to sneak a peek at the textbook? Or, do you force them to trek to a proctored test center, detracting from the convenience that drew them to online classes in the first place?

The quandary is one reason many online programs do little testing at all. But new technology that places a camera inside students’ homes might be the way of the future–as long as students (not to mention educators and parents) don’t find it too creepy.

This fall, Troy University in Alabama is scheduled to begin rolling out the new camera technology for many of its approximately 11,000 online students, about a third of whom are at U.S. military installations around the world.

The device, made by Cambridge, Mass.-based Software Secure, is similar in many respects to other test-taking software. It locks down a computer while the test is being taken, preventing students from searching files or the internet. The latest version also includes fingerprint authentication, to help ensure the person taking the test isn’t a ringer.

But the new development is a small web camera and microphone that is set up where a student takes the exam. The camera points into a reflective ball, which allows it to capture a full 360-degree image. (The first prototype was made with a Christmas ornament.)

When the exam begins, the device records audio and video. Its software detects significant noises and motions and flags them in the recording. An instructor can go back and watch only the portions flagged by the software to see if anything untoward is going on–a student making a phone call, for example, or leaving the room–and if there is a sudden surge in performance afterward.

The inventors admit it’s far from a perfect defense against a determined cheater. But a human test proctor isn’t necessarily better. And the camera at least “ensures that those people [who] are taking classes at a distance are on a level playing field,” said Douglas Winneg, Software Secure’s president and CEO.

Troy graduate students are set to start using the device this fall, and undergraduates a year later. Software Secure says it has talked to other distance-education providers, too. A potential future market is the standardized testing industry, which has struggled to find enough secure testing sites to accommodate growing worldwide demand for tests such as the SAT college entrance exam and the GMAT for graduate school.

An estimated 3.2 million students were taking online classes in the fall of 2005, according to the most recent figures from the Sloan Consortium, a group of online learning providers that studies trends in the field, and that figure is almost certainly substantially higher today.

But many distance-education providers do very little testing, including some of the largest, for-profit ones such as the University of Phoenix, Capella University, and Walden University. Officials at all three schools said they rely mostly on student writing assignments. They say that’s the best method to assess their students, most of whom are working adults.

Still, they need to be thinking about assessment. The military, whose tuition assistance programs are a huge source of revenue for online universities, is asking questions about testing to make sure students are earning credible degrees, Winneg said. Distance-education programs also need to keep their accreditation agencies happy, as well as Congress, so that the programs can continue to receive federal financial aid dollars.

At Troy, like at many distance-learing programs, past testing options have been less than ideal. One was to line up a proctor from a list of acceptable exam monitors, such as clergy or commanding officers.

“We just assumed and hoped the proctor would follow the instructions,” said David White, direct of the Southeast region for Troy. “In some cases they did, and probably in some cases, they didn’t.”

Another option was to arrange proctoring with a testing company and have students travel to one of the company’s centers to take an exam. But that was inconvenient for many students–and, of course, impossible for soldiers in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The camera solution will cost Troy students $125, White said.

Richard Garrett, a senior research analyst at Eduventures who closely follows online learning, said he finds the technology promising, particularly for large companies trying to streamline a now-messy part of their operation.

“The great unknown is, ‘Will it be seen as too invasive?'” he said.

Clearly, it won’t be a good idea for everyone. Stephen Flavin, dean of corporate and professional education at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, said his institution is always looking at new technologies, but recording students by camera “would probably be pushing the boundary of our comfort level.”

White predicts some students will find it odd and even threatening, and they might decide to drop out. “I think there will be some people who won’t take any more courses with us, because they feel like during the test they’re being watched,” he said.

But he insists that’s OK, because it will improve the credibility of a Troy degree.

For Sandra Kinney, a state employee from Stockbridge, Ga., pursuing a master’s degree in public administration and one of the students on Troy’s trial run, having a camera in her home was no big deal. It was worth it not to have to drive to an exam center.

“For me in Atlanta, it outweighs sitting in two or three hours of traffic,” she said.

Once, that traffic made her an hour late to an exam.

“At that point,” she said, “I was like, ‘There’s got to be a better way.'”

Links:

Software Secure Inc.

http://www.softwaresecure.com

Troy University eCampus

http://www.troy.edu/ecampus/