Using Technology to Fight Cheating In Online Education

Monday, May 6, 2013

While Jennifer Clay was at home taking an online exam for her business law class, a proctor a few hundred miles away was watching her every move.

Using a webcam mounted in Clay's Los Angeles apartment, the monitor in Phoenix tracked how frequently her eyes shifted from the computer screen and listened for the telltale sounds of a possible helper in the room.

Her computer browser was locked — remotely — to prevent Internet searches, and her typing pattern was analyzed to make sure she was who she said she was: Did she enter her password with the same rhythm as she had in the past? Or was she slowing down?

In the battle against cheating, this is the cutting edge — and a key to bolstering integrity in the booming field of online education.

Only with solid safeguards against cheating, experts say, can Internet universities show that their exams and diplomas are valid — that students haven't just Googled their way to an "A+" or gotten the right answers texted to their smartphones.

"I think it gives credibility to the entire system, to the institution and to online education in general," said Clay, 31, who is studying accounting at Western Governors University, a nonprofit institution that enrolls many working adults like her.

But defeating the ingenuity of computer-savvy students is a huge challenge that has attracted much investment and attention in the last year. The whole system can be corrupted with something as low-tech as a cheat sheet tucked out of camera sight.

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