New law aims to validate online learning

The higher-education law signed by President Bush last month (See "Congress: Schools must clamp down on file sharing") demands that colleges authenticate test takers in online courses through the use of sophisticated identification technology or with exam proctors. While some high-ed officials believe the law will help lend greater credibility to online learning, others say the new mandate is largely unnecessary.

The legislation promotes use of the latest monitoring methods, such as web cameras and keystroke recording, to ensure that test takers are, indeed, the students enrolled in an online course. Some campus officials and experts in online learning say distance educators have always taken precautions during exams, and they say the law questions the validity of distance learning itself—implying that online students cheat, while failing to impose strict anti-cheating policies on students in a traditional classroom.

"Having this law imposed on the online school to me is redundant and insulting," said Michael Lambert, executive director of the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that promotes standards for schools that offer online courses. "There are [lawmakers] who do not believe that you can really learn in [online classes]. … The law presumes people cheat and that people aren’t honest. It’s always been a question raised by people who do not understand how we teach."

Officials interviewed by eSchool News expect the federal Education Department to release guidelines for implementing the new law later this year, and they expect it will take effect in the next school year.

Accredited distance-education programs have always carefully monitored students’ test taking, mostly using proctors who watch students take exams and confirm their honesty with the college.

Lambert said the DETC, in its 400-page book of standards, outlines specific procedures for how proctors can ensure academic honesty. Students should recommend potential proctors—they cannot be family members, and DETC suggests librarians and local community leaders—and provide their contact information. DETC or university officials confirm the proctor and mail the person an exam and directions on how to administer the test. Then, the student takes the exam at a specified location.

In recent years, some online learning programs have adopted technological alternatives to proctors, allowing students to take exams from their own computer.

This fall, Alabama’s Troy University is watching about 500 online graduate students with small web cameras, or "remote proctors." The university first piloted the devices last year (see "Web cameras eye online test takers"

The technology also requires students to submit to a fingerprint scan, and it locks down a student’s computer and disables internet and database searches. 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 this 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," Gearhart said.

Ronnie Creel, Troy’s eCampus director of educational technology, said the web cameras have proven overwhelmingly popular with students. In a survey conducted this year, 88 percent of respondents said they preferred the remote proctor over a human proctor, Creel said.

"It gives them the ability to have proctors and do all of their work from home," he said.

The camera used at Troy, made by Massachusetts-based Software Secure, eventually could monitor all of Troy University’s distance learners, campus officials said. And while some might see this kind of test monitoring as intrusive, the new higher-ed law could make such devices commonplace in online learning programs nationwide.

John F. Ebersole, president of Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., a school that specializes in online classes, said legislation requiring greater accountability for distance-education programs has been in lawmakers’ sights for several years. College officials, he said, shouldn’t have been surprised when the legislation was unveiled. 

"No one should be unduly alarmed about this requirement," said Ebersole, who has been near the forefront of internet-based classes since the 1980s. He added that while online programs should solidify their test-verification policies, cutting-edge technology could face fierce opposition among students and university faculty. 

"There are a lot of concerns that come along with [monitoring technology]," he said. "People feel like these systems are rather intrusive, and they raise questions of privacy. … But different institutions are going to have different ways of dealing with this."

Gearhart said such concerns are unfounded, at least in Troy’s experience. "We have not had one issue with anybody concerned about privacy," she said.

Lambert said officials at DETC—which is affiliated with 110 colleges nationwide—were confident the organization already was meeting the new law’s requirements.

"Everybody looked around and said, ‘We’re already doing this,’" he said. "Our students pay their own tuition to go to school. Since you’re paying your own money to get this training, it would be somewhat ludicrous for someone to cheat for you. It’s counterproductive to why you’re enrolling."

Officials at Western Governors University (WGU), an online university based in Salt Lake City, Utah, also said their current proctoring and monitoring policies satisfy those outlined in the law. Diane Johnson, performance evaluation manager at the university—which has 11,000 students, all taking online classes—said strict monitoring of exams was the only way students could prove their college education was equivalent to their on-campus peers.

"We were already there," Johnson said. "We have quite a bit in place to protect integrity, because for us, it’s critical. We have to be sure the individual who is taking the test is who they say they are. … And our university is under incredible scrutiny anyway."

Johnson said WGU has 220 evaluators charged with detecting plagiarism or other forms of cheating. One evaluator, known as the "cheater chaser," was trained on how to find students who have violated school policies—such as buying an essay or term paper from unscrupulous web sites.

WGU officials, Johnson said, are considering purchasing keystroke technology and web cameras that will allow students to take exams from home. But currently, the university has more than 3,000 proctor sites nationwide, usually within 30 miles of a student’s house, she said.

More stringent validation requirements laid out in the new federal legislation could make online degrees more valuable in the workforce, officials from several universities said. If employers know that the government is enforcing stricter measures that prevent cheating among distance learners, they might begin to view online degrees as equivalent to traditional degrees, said Gearhart, Troy University’s eCampus director.

"I think it’ll help make the degrees more acceptable," she said.

Michael A. Jortberg, an executive for Acxiom, an information management company based in Arkansas, said requiring students to have web cameras with them when they do their online coursework introduces a burden that undermines the attraction of distance education for adults who do their work when they find time in a busy daily schedule.

"We believe equipment introduces extra costs, processes, and administration, which curbs distance learning’s flexibility," Jortberg wrote in an eMail message to eSchool News. "This seems counter to the beauty of online flexibility."

Asked if test proctors were as reliable as expensive monitoring equipment that could raise the cost of education, Jortberg said college officials and technology vendors would watch closely as schools adjusted to new requirements.

"Only time will tell," he said.


Excelsior College


Western Governors University

Troy University

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