Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Higher Ed: Another (Mini)Scandal at Penn State

Penn saw same sort of accusation:

Online courses can exacerbate this issue:

Meet Jack Jefferson
He is a 19-year-old junior at QuadCity Technical College 6’2", 194 lbs., short brown hair, dark eyes Goalie for the QuadCity Quakers soccer team Sports Medicine major with a 3.6 gpa
Now, Jack is taking a class online...
...or is he?

Student identity verification moves to center stage
by Jim Castagnera
More than 20 percent of American college students took at least one online course during the fall 2007 semester. And from 2002 to 2007 U.S. enrollment in online courses grew 19.7 percent, reports the Sloan Consortium. Online education’s growth rate of 19.7 percent has noticeably outpaced the 1.5-percent growth rate of the total college student population.

Now the issue of student ID verification is on higher education’s front burner. What lessons can the U.S. Department of Education, accreditors and college administrators learn for the benefit of all?
Anonymity changes everything for cheaters   
In his classic 1999 book Code and Other Cyberspace Laws, Professor Larry Lessig explained, “Real-space life… carries with it this mix of authenticating and authenticated credentials. Social life is a constant negotiation between these different credentials. In a small town, in a quieter time, documents as credentials were not terribly necessary. You were known by your face, and your face carried with it a reference… about your character. As life becomes more anonymous, social institutions must construct credentials to authenticate facts about you that in an earlier time, or in a smaller world, would have been authenticated by the knowledge of the community about who you are.”

Lessig’s book focused on the needs of the financial and retail industries, where the vendor and the customer have always shared a strong interest in authenticated identity. A correct identification of the buyer by the seller is now crucial to internet commerce. Online learning, says Michael Jortberg, an Acxiom executive, “poses the exact same problem… only different.”

Jortberg explains that higher education is unique in that a customer may be motivated to mislead the seller about his actual identity. Since our customers may be more interested in buying a credential rather than our principal product – knowledge – a significant percentage of them are likely to cheat.
How serious is the problem of cheating in testing and assessment of learning? A 2008 U.S. News & World Report study reported that 56 percent of graduate business students admitted to cheating at least once. Fifty-four percent of engineering students and 45 percent of law students made the same admission.  Contrast those findings with a study authored in September of this year by three faculty at Friends University titled Point, Click, Cheat: Frequency and Type of Academic Dishonesty in the Virtual Classroom. “Results suggest that the amount of academic misconduct among online students may not be as prevalent as believed.”

If the latter findings are true, perhaps it’s because online educators are taking cheating very seriously. Don Kassner is president of Andrew Jackson University, founded in 1995 as a correspondence school and now 100 percent online. Kassner offers, “We used to proctor every exam.” He adds that such close monitoring produces high costs and student inconvenience. “Students complained that ‘I can do all the course work at my kitchen table, but then I have to go somewhere else to take the tests.’”
Proctoring is at best a stopgap measure
The drawbacks of proctoring are exacerbated when curricula are delivered globally. Larry Dugan, Director of Online Learning at Finger Lakes Community College offers, “We give tests all over the world. Let’s say I needed a proctor for an exam in Tokyo. I’d have to identify and hire that person. If I put the job on the faculty, they wouldn’t do it right. And it would be very expensive.”

Clearly, for online learning to grow and prosper, face-to-face proctoring had to yield to a more modern replacement. Axciom offers one very intriguing solution. When a student sits down at the keyboard to take a test, he is faced with a series of “challenge questions” in quick succession. If he answers correctly, he may proceed with the assessment exercise. The questions come from a database developed and maintained by Mike Jortberg’s unit, which gathers public information from the worldwide web. “Typically we pose three random challenges and give the student two minutes to answer.”

Does it ever happen that your system produces incorrect information, I ask him. “Yes, occasionally,” he allows.  What about legal liability?  Dr. Jeff Bailey, formerly with National American University, says, “We told students up front that challenge questions are a reasonable alternative to proctoring, and they could opt out. No one opted out and we had no complaints.” A click-to-accept agreement includes acquiescence to the “challenge question” component, and it’s a common safeguard used by Jortberg’s client schools.

None of the Acxiom clients I talked to reported any legal hassles with the “challenge question” approach, but some are not satisfied with exclusive reliance on this methodology. Don Kassner says, “We combined the Axciom product with webcam.” In fact, he tells me, Andrew Jackson combines three techniques to monitor midterms and final exams, which are the only assessment tools for most of the university’s courses.

First, the faculty member administering the exam is able to see and hear the student. A photo is on record for comparison purposes.

Second, the student must answer the challenge questions.
Third, the teacher is able to see what the student is seeing on the computer screen. The student can’t bounce to Google and look up an answer.

Andrew Jackson’s one-two-three punch may be the state-of-the-art in online higher education verification at this writing, but the next generation of identification technologies are already in use in the financial and retail sectors. Observes Dr. Tim McGee, a faculty-development specialist, “We’re still in a medieval structure. We’re not using 21st century technologies.” He cites a simple example. “At my local grocery store, employees punch in and out by palm identification.”

Big Brother is watching . . . and expects compliance
 Even if the online education industry were not unveiling better student-verification methods, Uncle Sam would insist upon them. According to Mike Jortberg, “The issue of identity involves Title IV dollars. How do we know the taxpayers’ money is going to the people it’s supposed to?” The Higher Education Opportunity Act addresses this federal concern. By next summer, says the Department of Education, accreditors need to have figured out how their client institutions will address the issue.
But, complains Jortberg, in the negotiated rulemaking process, “the industry convinced ED that a user ID and password were sufficient.” He specifically points his finger at the Instructional Technology Council. ITC’s “Best Practice Strategies to Promote Academic Integrity in Online Education” seems to support his claim. The seventh of its seven guidelines on “Institutional Context and Commitment” is “Secure student logins and password to access online courses and related resources, discussions, assignments and assessments.” However, under the “Assessment and Evaluation” portion of the document, a nod is given to “Use [of] proctored test sites where appropriate.”

Whether or not the trade association exercised the influence that Jortberg ascribes to it, ED’s March 2009 “Proposed Regulatory Language” does state, “Accrediting agencies must require institutions that offer distance education or correspondence education to have processes in place to establish that the student who registers for a distance education or correspondence course or program is the same student who participates in and completes the program and receives the academic credit. … the expectation is that institutions have security mechanisms in place, such as identification numbers, or other pass code information, that are used each time student participates in class time or coursework online.”

Yet, in the same breath, the ED document adds that “… as new identification technologies are developed, and become more sophisticated and less expensive, the conferees anticipate that agencies and institutions will consider their use in the future.”

Iris recognition and voice recognition move onstage
Iris recognition may be a promising prospect for online student identification. One vendor, LG Electronics, touts, “Of all the biometric technologies used for human authentication today, it is generally conceded that iris recognition is the most accurate. Iris recognition has also shown itself to be exceedingly versatile and suited for large population applications.” European banks and the U.S. military in the Middle East are using iris recognition today. lists eight iris-recognition vendors, while LG Electronics boasts dozens of clients, including the Harvard Medical School.

Voice recognition is another solution using currently available technology. A firm named csIDentity, a serious player in the commercial identity theft business, has licensed its voice recognition system to TeamEDU for distribution in the higher education marketplace.

When students enroll where csIDentity VoiceVerified is used, a voice print is made and stored. Later, the system randomly telephones students when they submit an electronic test or other assignment to the school’s learning management system. The student will be asked to repeat a random set of numbers displayed on his screen. The system compares the new voiceprint to the stored sample. “The entire verification takes less than 20 seconds. It is user-friendly and non-invasive,” says Steve Cooper, CEO of TeamEDU. The average price for a typical course with 25-30 authentications is about $20.00 per student per year. No extra equipment is needed beyond the student’s computer and a landline phone or cell telephone.

Cooper believes that cost matters. A former policeman and military security officer before launching a higher education service company, Cooper discovered a biometric pen that had been developed for military use. He piloted it at several colleges successfully, but despite its ease of use and accuracy, the $200 price point was prohibitive.

ED seems to expect technologies to evolve, and places the burden on institutions and accrediting organizations to find solutions, rather than rigidly prescribing the solution. Meanwhile, Jeff Bailey shrugs and says, “People who cheat will always cheat.” Consequently, the best method, he suggests is “multiple assessment points.” An online course should avoid a “big final that encourages cheating by its high stakes.” 

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