Web-based college programs won’t have to buy pricey monitoring gadgets like cameras and fingerprint or eye scanners to satisfy the requirements of a section in the recently reauthorized Higher Education Act, federal officials say. Instead, they say, exam proctors and secure logins will suffice to ensure honest test taking.

Higher-education policy makers and IT directors had worried that the latest version of the Higher Education Act, which Congress enacted last fall, might require web-based programs to spend millions annually for advanced 360-degree cameras and other surveillance technology that would watch students take tests on their computers. Their concerns stemmed from a section of the law mandating that providers of online education validate the identity of students taking online courses and exams–a practice referred to as “validated learning.”

University budgets and endowments have been hit hard by the current recession, and such a demand from the federal government would have been impossible for many schools–forcing them to trim back on classes, increase tuition, or shut down completely–if they had been required to implement new technology, many school officials said.

Campus IT officials say guidance on implementing the new validated-learning requirement, unveiled by the federal government not long ago, came as a relief for most colleges with online programs. Assigning college faculty and staff to proctor exams taken on computers at off-campus learning centers has always been a reliable method, many said.

“To provide that kind of equipment would have been very cost prohibitive,” said Thomas Peterman, vice president for distance learning at Park University in Missouri, which launched its online program in 1996. “And we didn’t feel it would provide a better service than we already have. There’s nothing more efficient than to have someone there watching a student take an exam.”

Peterman said scheduling proctors for tens of thousands of students who take an online test every semester has proven “cumbersome,” but “I haven’t found any other way that does the job any better.”

John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., said online schools like Excelsior were largely pleased with the Education Department’s validated learning requirements. Mandating surveillance equipment, he said, could have made distance learning unaffordable for many students after campuses allocated declining funds to cameras and fingerprint scanners.

“This is a win for students, financially,” he said, adding that Excelsior nominated a negotiator to work with ED officials in creating the final set of validated learning rules for web-based learning. “At the end of the day, we felt like the Department of Education was responsive to the concerns we raised.”

Higher-education representatives who negotiated with federal policy makers on the details of the Higher Education Act argued against use of the phrase “widely used technology” in determining what schools should use to verify student identification, according to ED documents.

Federal negotiators had “reason[ed] that a technology or practice would not become widely accepted and used unless it was affordable,” but the phrase was ultimately left out of the final validated learning guidelines.

“The Department originally proposed specifying that institutions should not use or rely on technologies that interfere with student privacy,” according to ED documentation of the negotiations, but some college representatives lobbied for the “rephrasing [of] the language to present the concept more positively.”

While many college officials were relieved that their IT departments would not have to purchase hundreds or thousands of cameras this year, some campuses are experimenting with monitoring technology. Troy University in Alabama is watching about 500 online graduate students with small web cameras, or “remote proctors.” The university first piloted the devices last year.

The technology requires students to submit to a fingerprint scan, and it locks down a student’s computer and disables internet and database searches to prevent cheating. The camera is pointed into a small, reflective ball, so a professor can have a 360-degree view of the test taker’s surroundings, making sure he or she isn’t taking a peak into a notebook or textbook.

The remote proctors cost $150, and Troy officials said students can sell them to their peers once they no longer need the device. Officials said the university might help facilitate sell-backs in the coming years.

Troy University, along with other schools that specialize in online degree programs, has been in talks with remote proctor vendors for several years, well before the College Opportunity and Affordability Act was passed last summer, said Deb Gearhart, Troy’s eCampus director.

“Distance education has always had to jump to higher standards than they do in the regular classroom,” said Gearhart, who added that Troy had no documented student complaints about test-monitoring privacy violations. “We have not had one issue with anybody concerned about privacy.”

Officials at Western Governors University, an online university based in Utah, said web-based exam validation can be two-pronged–combining advanced technology with traditional human monitors. WGU recently spent about $45,000 for web cameras with facial recognition capabilities, meaning students’ faces would have to match previous pictures taken by the camera. A test proctor also would compare student pictures each time they take a test.

“We know the technology can’t pick up on every aberrant behavior, and the human eyes are very important,” said Randall Case, the university’s manager of objective assessment development. Case added that WGU would continue to buy web cams for its 14,000-student population.

But many higher-ed officials said they are pleased to see the use of such technology is optional, not required. Leaving the use of more stringent, expensive exam-monitoring measures out of the validated-learning guidelines, campus IT officials said, could be taken as a sign that online learning is gaining acceptance among federal officials.

“I think you have the same kind of responsibility in face-to-face learning,” said Peterman from Park University. “You have to make sure you validate that the person who is taking the test is the person who is getting the grade. … To validate [exams] takes some work either way.”

Links:

Troy University

Higher Education Opportunity Act

Excelsior College