But as online education grows, even small vulnerabilities could become big problems, academics fear.
The “size and scale [of MOOC courses] make it a bigger issue,” said Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education.
The council announced in February that it considers four MOOC courses from Mountain View, Calif.-based Coursera worthy of college credit when they include webcams and monitoring of typing patterns.
“The [security] standard we want to see is something equal to or better than a large lecture class at a university,” Sandeen said.
Aside from the web cameras, a host of other high-tech methods are becoming increasingly popular. Among them are programs that check students’ identities using obscure biographical information (such as: “Which of these three telephone numbers was once yours?”).
Programs can generate unique exams by drawing on a large inventory of questions and can identify possible cheaters by analyzing whether difficult test questions are answered at the same speed as easy ones. As in many campus classes, term papers are scanned against massive internet data banks for plagiarism.
At Salt Lake City-based Western Governors University, nearly all 39,000 students have been supplied with Kryterion webcams to monitor tests and scan the room for visitors or cheat sheets.
If the proctor senses something suspicious, the test can be interrupted or canceled, according to the school’s provost, David Leasure. A webcam detected the presence of a Los Angeles Times photographer in Clay’s apartment before the student could proceed with the exam, which she passed.
StraighterLine, a Baltimore company that offers online courses accepted for credit at some colleges, switched in November from optional test proctoring to mandatory use of webcams. That added $10 to students’ cost per course.