20 August 2008

Accountability for Student Identity

Online education's challenge. The summer is ending with a swirl of commentary about a passage in the new Higher Education Act requiring that institutions assure that online students are doing their own work. Another market for educational services? Indeed. Already underway.

Electronic monitoring in the lead. If online programs aim to provide a completely off-campus course of study, then vetting the student must have an online strategy. (One alternative would be to require proctored in-person exams but then the program is no longer fully online, of course.) Among the potential strategies to employ:

1. Web cameras can capture an image of the student and the environment around the computer or work area.

2. User-centric software can create a profile of the student's computer, report on student's use of online resources during an exam, and even report on the student's speed of typing.

3. Even more sophisticated security can provide access to a testing computer via fingerprint, eye scan, etc.

Such strategies are possible today and the marketplace is now filling with companies ready to pitch their products and services to higher ed.

If you are a faculty member, you are already wondering who will monitor such hardware and software. (You are hoping it's not you or your teaching assistant.)

If you are an administrator, you are already calculating how you will pay for the hardware and software...and the work force to monitor them.

If you are a campus marketer your thoughts are racing ahead to (a) explaining the student fees that may be imposed to fund the monitoring, (b) recruiting students for a program that suggests students are cheaters, and (c) peddling harder to find new students if the market contracts.

The challenges are no less for the companies seeking to sell security services. Even though we marvel at estimates of tens of thousands of dollars to support a semester's worth of security for an online program, we know the companies are in a developing market with unknown final costs and presumably unknown prospects. Yes, distance learning must live up to a high standard of accountabilty for student identity—but the standards are not well defined. Is there a prospect of a big market? Yes. But there's also the prospect of changing market segments.

Which institutions can afford to be accountable? A long time ago (that would be in the 1990s), distance learning pioneers wondered out loud if smaller institutions could compete in online offerings. As technology advanced on campuses, it became clear that the cost of distance learning was not a barrier and, in fact, smaller schools could shore up their enrollments by rolling out online courses and degrees. (A more threatening argument also emerged: if a small school wanted to maintain market share, it must include online choices.) Today, as security tools emerge, smaller institutions will once again have to answer whether they can "afford" to run a distance program.

© 2008 Mary Bold, PhD, CFLE. The content of this blog or related web sites created by Mary Bold (www.marybold.com, www.boldproductions.com, College Intern Blog) is not under any circumstances to be regarded as legal or professional advice. Bold is the co-author of Reflections: Preparing for your Practicum or Internship, geared to college interns in the child, education, and family fields. She is a consultant and speaker on assessment, distance learning, and technology.

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