While online education has come a long way in terms of design and learning assessment, there are still issues related to making sure that the students who enroll in these courses are the ones completing the work. From participation and attendance to cheating and plagiarism, confirming student identity continues to challenge online instructors and administrators.
A recent phone conversation with Amy Hilbelink, an educator and online academic operations consultant, led to a follow-up discussion of not only the need for verification, but also the many new technologies available to ensure student identity at a distance.
Why is online student verification important?
While cheating on exams and plagiarism may be the first concerns to come to mind about student identity, there are other issues and mandates shaping the strategies used by colleges and universities to authenticate students and their work.
- Institutional credibility: Through certificates, diplomas, and transcripts colleges and universities declare that the students named on these documents have completed all academic requirements. The institution’s reputation is at stake if students emerge as graduates, but without new knowledge or skills.
- Federal requirements: The U.S. Department of Education (USDE), as part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (Public Law 110-35) places the responsibility on accrediting agencies to ensure that the schools they accredit have a system in place to authenticate student identity. It’s the USDE that administers the federal student aid programs and determines eligibility to receive these funds through accreditation status.
- Accreditation requirements: Hilbelink shared more about how regional accreditors require institutions to validate students taking online courses. “For example, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Standard 4.8.1 states ‘the institution must demonstrate that the student who registers in a distance or correspondence education course or program is the same student who participates in and completed the course or program and received the credit’.”
- Student achievement: The heart of higher education’s mission is educating students and preparing them for life after graduation. Measuring your achievement often involves, as Hilbelink described, “high stakes” exams and assignments that are administered online. These assessments are designed to determine whether or not you’ve reached specific learning objectives in each course, so it’s important for you and the institution to know where you stand.
How does it all work?
Some of the most basic strategies for identity verification involve issuing each student a unique login and password. However Hilbelink acknowledges that there are “instances where students have purposely given out their login and passwords to another person who takes their exam or posts for them on discussion boards.” There are two primary questions to address:
1) Is the work unique? You may already be aware of plagiarism software (e.g., Turnitin, SafeAssign) and the capability to compare your written work to massive databases of already published materials. You can prepare for written assignments by learning more about copyright and how to cite your sources. Online instructors and course designers may also choose types of assessments that are more difficult to plagiarize, such as group projects, reflective journals, and portfolio creation in which students build on specific themes and topics across assignments.
2) Is the person who will receive credit for the course the one doing the work? Verifying your identification as the student on record may mean taking tests at on-ground testing centers where you have to show ID before being allowed to sit for an exam. Some primarily online institutions have physical locations where testing takes place, and there are also test proctoring centers on traditional campuses and private providers through which online students may be required to schedule test taking.
New start-ups and existing technology platforms alike are putting more effort into online student verification these days. Let’s take a closer look at some of the latest techniques to confirm that the person participating in the course is the student who is enrolled in the course, and limit the options for cheating, especially on tests.
- Challenge Questions: Strayer University is one institution testing the use of software that “randomly poses two multiple choice challenge questions to students when they login to their courses in Blackboard.” The questions are created from information found in a “database of 300 million publicly available records,” and might include things like verifying a prior street address or zip code.
- Video Capture: An alternative to traveling to a physical testing location is the use of video while you are taking an exam on your own computer. Hilbelink mentioned ProctorU as one example of this kind of service, which is partnering with institutions to confirm student identity. As described on the ProctorU site “you will connect with a live proctor … via your web camera … [who] will ask you to show a photo ID,” and also pose a few challenge questions like those mentioned above.
- Biometrics: The Learning House lists some of the most recent techniques to identify students through “fingerprinting, voice recognition, and retinal scans” as ” technically possible, although still not widely used.” However, Hilbelink noted that these systems are on the horizon. As an example, online course management service eduKan recently worked with BioSig-ID to “measure unique behavioral characteristics” of students using devices like a mouse or touchpad.
- Proctoring Software: Some of the newest strategies involve tracking your keystrokes and things taking place in the room where you are working or taking a test. According to Hilbelink, VProctor is one software application that can flag “triggers” such as “opening another browser window, talking on a phone, talking to someone else in the room, or using a book.”
What can online students expect?
You’ll encounter a range of ways in which your school verifies that you are who you say you are, and completing the work in your online classes. Hilbelink added that online students will likely “see more detection software appearing in their courses and programs for everything from high stakes exams and written work to synchronous sessions.” She also indicated that there may be fees associated with downloading any required software and buying a webcam for your computer if you don’t already have one.
Make sure you understand your school’s policies and procedures as they relate to student verification and academic behavior. Review academic guidelines, expectations, and honor codes, and commit to being an active participant in your courses.
I think it’s also important to note that while the current focus is on online students, identity verification is an issue in higher education in general. If you’ve ever enrolled in an introductory “auditorium course” at a traditional institution, you know how easy it can be to get lost, or not recognized, among hundreds of students. These courses may also require students to show ID before taking exams.
The challenge of student authentication is widespread and one that will likely continue as both online and traditional universities offer additional online programs. If you have questions about what is expected of you, start with the instructors and advisors at your institution. Find out how our identity will be verified and understand the steps you have to take to meet the requirements. You can also follow the latest research and initiatives through organizations like WCET and EDUCAUSE.