October 2007, Volume 8, Number 10
Authenticating and Assessing Distance Education Students:
Innovations in Technology
How do you know your students are who they say they are? Questions regarding identity can be easily answered in a regular classroom situation where the student is a known entity, or where a proctor might ask a student to show some form of identification like a driver’s license or a student ID prior to taking an exam. However, it’s a little more difficult when the examinee is a distance education student and rather than taking an exam or quiz in person, the student is taking it on a computer or laptop at home or at work.
In the current iteration of the Higher Education Act, now before Congress, an accrediting body “requires that an institution that offers distance education programs to have processes by which it establishes that the student who registers in a distance education course or program is the same student who participates, completes academic work, and receives academic credit” (Part H, Section 495). Higher education institutions must now actively authenticate student identity. How is this accomplished without sacrificing one of the biggest benefits to distance learning—convenience? Many colleges require that tests be administered on campus either in the classroom, at a designated testing center, or in a find-your-own-proctor location like a library or another school. Though all of these options usually work to establish identity, they are certainly not the most convenient option for a student studying at a distance. Arguably, convenience is one of the main reasons a person chooses distance education programs over the traditional classroom model, however, convenience without security can damage both the reputation and the quality of the program.
Can your distance education students test securely where they learn? Are you using affordable, reliable and nonintrusive technologies that would (1) authenticate the student’s identity, (2) deter and detect cheating, and (3) make sure test questions are safe?
Authentication technologies are available, but their cost and abilities vary. They range from expensive facial or voice recognition programs to digital fingerprint readers and keyboard dynamics software. Short of biosamples and retinal scans, there are affordable technologies that significantly improve certainty when it comes to identity. For example, USB compatible devices, such as webcam or even fingerprint readers, are available for under $50.
Until recently, locking down a browser was the extent of online testing security. Today, this is just the first step to ensure your students are not tempted to use unauthorized materials or devices to cheat on an exam. Students can be monitored in real time and online via webcam, and technologies like Real-Time Data Forensics™ can detect irregularities in test behavior (latency in answering or discrepancies in typing patterns) and alert online proctors to aberrant patterns. All this information can be stored and reviewed later, or a proctor can take immediate action. For example, a test could be paused or stopped based on the rules established by the institution.
Technology can also assist in ensuring that your test questions do not end up on a brain dump site, thereby accessible to anyone with internet access. A large item pool can minimize exposure of your questions, items can be encrypted, and technologies that would digitally watermark questions are in development.
The competition for quality distance education is high. Differentiating your programs from all the available choices is important, but you must also maintain or raise standards of integrity in assessing and authenticating students. With the emphasis on measuring outcomes, is online secure testing an option for your assessment arsenal?
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