ED OKs proctors, secure logins for online tests

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.

Denny Carter

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