ED OKs proctors, secure logins for online tests

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.”

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