Colleges try to verify online attendance

Colleges are ramping up strategies to ensure that the student who gets the grade for taking an online course is the same person who does the homework and completes the exams, The Durango Herald reports.

The impetus is a federal law, passed in 2008, requiring colleges that are eligible for federal student aid for online programs to take steps to discourage financial aid and academic fraud. Federal regulations require students to have secure log-ins and passwords for online course offerings, but industry experts expect more stringent standards to come.

“We don’t know when and how, but they’re probably going to tighten up,” says David Richardson, CEO of Louisville-based Learning House, founded in 2001 to help schools develop online degree programs and courses.

The growing popularity of free, noncredit online courses available to thousands scattered across the globe also has sparked interest in verifying the identities of students. And it’s a hedge against students who might look for help from companies such as Boost and Non, which offer to take classes for a fee.

More than 6.7 million students took at least one online class in fall 2011, up about 9 percent from the previous fall, says an annual survey released in January by the Babson Survey Research Group. About two-thirds of colleges say online learning is a critical part of their long-term strategy.

A sampling of how colleges are responding:

Webcams. The 17-campus University of North Carolina system this fall will double from five to 10 the number of campuses allowing online students to use remote proctors. Using a webcam mounted on the test-taker’s workstation, monitors watch for suspicious behavior such as drifting eye movements, which could signal that a cheat sheet is outside the camera’s view, or whispering from another person.

The average cost to students is $18 for a one-hour test and $25 for a two-hour test, says Maggie O’Hara, director of E-Learning at the University of North Carolina system’s flagship campus in Chapel Hill.

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