Millions of students worldwide have signed up in the last year for MOOCs, short for massive open online courses — those free, Web-based classes available to one and all and taught by professors at Harvard, Duke, M.I.T. and other universities.
But when those students take the final exam in calculus or genetics, how will their professors know that the test-takers on their distant laptops are doing their own work, and not asking Mr. Google for help?
The issue of online cheating concerns many educators, particularly as more students take MOOCs for college credit, and not just for personal enrichment. Already, five classes from Coursera, a major MOOC provider, offer the possibility of credit, and many more are expected.
One option is for students to travel to regional testing centers at exam time. But reaching such centers is next to impossible for many students, whether working adults who can’t take time off to travel, or others in far-flung places who can’t afford the trip.
But now eavesdropping technologies worthy of the C.I.A. can remotely track every mouse click and keystroke of test-taking students. Squads of eagle-eyed humans at computers can monitor faraway students via webcams, screen sharing and high-speed Internet connections, checking out their photo IDs, signatures and even their typing styles to be sure the test-taker is the student who registered for the class.
The developing technology for remote proctoring may end up being as good — or even better — than the live proctoring at bricks-and-mortar universities, said Douglas H. Fisher, a computer science and computer engineering professor at Vanderbilt University who was co-chairman of a recent workshop that included MOOC-related topics. “Having a camera watch you, and software keep track of your mouse clicks, that does smack of Big Brother,” he said. “But it doesn’t seem any worse than an instructor at the front constantly looking at you, and it may even be more efficient.”