By JUSTIN POPE, AP Education Writer
The number of college students taking courses online is surging,
creating a tough dilemma for educators who want to prevent cheating.
Do you trust students to take an exam on their own computer from home
or work, even though it may be easy to sneak a peek at the textbook?
Or do you force them to trek to a proctored test center, detracting
from the convenience that drew them to online classes in the first
The dilemma is one reason many online programs do little testing at
all. But some new technology that places a camera inside students'
homes may be the way of the future -- as long as students don't find
it too creepy.
This fall, Troy University in Alabama will begin rolling out the new
camera technology for many of its approximately 11,000 online
students, about a third of whom are at U.S. military installations
around the world.
The device, made by Cambridge, Mass.-based Software Secure, is similar
in many respects to other test-taking software. It locks down a
computer while the test is being taken, preventing students from
searching files or the Internet. The latest version also includes
fingerprint authentication, to help ensure the person taking the test
isn't a ringer.
But the new development is a small Web cam and microphone that is set
up where a student takes the exam. The camera points into a reflective
ball, which allows it to capture a full 360-degree image. (The first
prototype was made with a Christmas ornament.)
When the exam begins, the device records audio and video. Software
detects significant noises and motions and flags them in the
recording. An instructor can go back and watch only the portions
flagged by the software to see if anything untoward is going on -- a
student making a phone call, leaving the room -- and if there is a
sudden surge in performance afterward.
The inventors admit it's far from a perfect defense against a
determined cheater. But a human test proctor isn't necessarily
better. And the camera at least "ensures that those people that are
taking classes at a distance are on a level playing field," said
Douglas Winneg, Software Secure's president and CEO.
Troy graduate students will start using the device starting this fall,
and undergraduates a year later. Software Secure says it has talked to
other distance learning providers, too. A potential future market is
the standardized testing industry, which has struggled to find enough
secure testing sites to accommodate growing worldwide demand for tests
like the SAT college entrance exam and the GMAT for graduate school.
An estimated 3.2 million students were taking online classes in the
fall of 2005, according to the most recent figures from the Sloan
Consortium, a group of online learning providers that studies trends
in the field, and that figure is almost certainly substantially higher
But many distance learning providers do very little testing, including
some of the largest, for-profit ones such as the University of
Phoenix, Capella University and Walden University. Officials at all
three schools said they rely mostly on student writing
assignments. They say that's the best method to assess their students,
most of whom are working adults.
Still, they need to be thinking about assessment. The military, whose
tuition assistance programs are a huge source of revenue for online
universities, is asking questions about testing to make sure students
are earning credible degrees, Winneg said. Distance learning programs
also need to keep their accreditation agencies happy, as well as
Congress, so that the programs can continue to receive federal
financial aid dollars.
At Troy, like at many distance learning programs, past testing options
have been less than ideal. One was to line up a proctor from a list of
acceptable exam monitors such as clergy or commanding officers.
"We just assumed and hoped the proctor would follow the instructions,"
said David White, direct of the Southeast region for Troy. "In some
cases they did, and probably in some cases they didn't."
The other was to arrange proctoring with a testing company and travel
to one of their centers. But that was inconvenient for many students
and, of course, impossible for soldiers in places such as Iraq and
The device will cost Troy students $125, White said.
Richard Garrett, a senior research analyst at Eduventures who closely
follows online learning, said he finds the technology promising,
particularly for large companies trying to streamline a now-messy part
of their operation.
"The great unknown is, 'Will it be seen as too invasive?'" he said.
Clearly, it won't be a good idea for everyone. Stephen Flavin, dean of
corporate and professional education at Worcester Polytechnic
Institute in Massachusetts, said his institution is always looking at
new technologies, but recording students by camera "would be probably
pushing the boundary of our comfort level."
White predicts some students will find it odd and even threatening,
and may decide to drop out. "I think there will be some people who
won't take any more courses with us because they feel like during the
test they're being watched," he said.
But he insists that's OK because it will improve the credibility of a
For Sandra Kinney, a state employee from Stockbridge, Ga., pursuing a
master's in public administration and one of the students on Troy's
trial run, having a camera in her home was no big deal. It was worth
it not to have to drive to an exam center.
"For me in Atlanta, it outweighs sitting in two or three hours of
traffic," she said.
Once, that traffic made her an hour late to an exam.
"At that point I was like, there's got to be a better way.'"
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Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.
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