5) Identity Verification and Cheating

For years, concern about the validity of online education has focused on the potential for cheating. ProctorU, one of the major players in the online proctoring market, documents issues with about 3 percent of all test takers, of which 15 percent to 20 percent involve questions of academic integrity. “These are the numbers when students know we’re proctoring them,” said Kassner. “You have to believe the level of cheating is staggering when the exam is not proctored. It’s like speeding. If you’re on an open road with no cops around, you’re going to drive as fast as you want. If there’s a cop with a radar gun, though, you’re going to be pretty careful.”

But the threat of abuse now extends far beyond the exam room. Recent revelations about massive identity fraud in Title IV programs have refocused attention on the validity of certificates and degrees awarded to students in online programs. If online learning is to take the next step toward widespread acceptance, employers must be satisfied that the students they hire are the same ones who actually did the work—and completed it honestly.

ProctorU hopes that its UCard will help assuage some of these concerns. Released last spring, UCard validates the identity of students through the entire educational process, from the moment they register until they graduate. The identity of each student is confirmed by a keystroke-based behavioral biometric that measures how long the student strikes a key and the amount of time between key strikes. “Institutions can now have a straight-line authentication through the entire course,” said Kassner. “We can verify at the very beginning that it is the correct student. At various points during the course, we can issue a challenge. And then, at the end of the course, we can proctor the exam. It raises the level of certainty that the student is the student.”


6) Auto-grading

The issue of how to assess student performance online at scale rose to prominence with MOOCs. Given the complexity of the subject matter in higher education, multiple-choice tests were simply not a viable solution. In response, the developers of MOOCs created models that, for the most part, emphasized peer assessment. While this approach shows promise in courses where credentials are not awarded, it is unlikely to gain traction among degreed programs.

The need for a scalable grading solution prompted a drive to develop auto-graders that are capable of assessing responses to open-ended questions. These efforts now show signs of paying off. edX, the MOOC partnership between Harvard and MIT, for example, continues to tinker with an essay auto-grader that it released in 2013.

Another player is WebAssign, an online homework and assessment platform that supports STEM disciplines such as math, physics, chemistry, and statistics. While the company doesn’t focus on the MOOC environment, its platform is used in very large courses at some of the biggest universities in the country, including Purdue, Texas A&M, and North Carolina State. At the heart of the platform are approximately 900 textbooks from major educational publishers, most prominently Cengage. To create homework assignments, WebAssign encodes the questions in these books, randomizes them, and makes them open-ended.

“Instead of relying on multiple choice, we actually have students put in a specific equation or specific form of an equation and then we check the validity of the students’ answers,” said Ferralli. “There’s a wide variety of answer entry points such as a graphing tool, a map, or a number line tool.”

To grade a student’s work, WebAssign’s auto-grader runs a series of checks on the answers. “We actually use Mathematica on the back end,” explained Ferralli, referring to the computational software program built on the Wolfram Language. “The computer algebra systems verify that an answer passes all the checks that we’ve programmed in. It allows us to grade answers to differential equations and those sorts of things.”


7) Open, Intuitive Platforms

Educators railed for years about the walled garden that surrounded courses in their schools’ LMSs, which prevented them from taking full advantage of the wealth of content, apps, and services available elsewhere. While many LMS vendors are working to dismantle these walls, new products and platforms (which hook into LMSs via LTI) are actively touting the ease with which users can add content and applications from just about anywhere.

In the eyes of Versal’s Freund, such platforms can help faculty retake control of their courses and put their own stamp on what material is taught and how. “Right now, if you are a teacher and get a course from Pearson, you’re essentially a bystander—you can’t change it any more,” he said. “But one of the really cool things about electronic publishing is how much additional content is available out there. Teachers should be part of deciding what content is appropriate for their students.”

As an example, Freund cites a course on segregation in the United States that describes all the events and timelines in the Deep South. “But if I’m in San Francisco, I also want to teach students what happened in the city because I want to make it locally relevant,” he said. “Faculty might take a course that has pre-built core components, but then enhance it with their own information.”

To make this approach possible, the Versal platform is designed to be intuitive, utilizing drag-and-drop mini apps. “You don’t have to be an instructional designer,” said Freund. “Anybody can build online courses in it, so it’s more like a WordPress or a Power Point for education. The idea is to create a blended set of content out of professionally curated materials and a professor’s own selections and work.”

Andrew Barbour is a contributing editor with eCampus News.

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