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TechCrunch explains how software keeps online learners honest

Beth Porter is the vice president of product at edX.

People often express worry that the relative anonymity of online learning environments and the disconnected nature of being in a MOOC (massive online open course) leads to more opportunities for academic dishonesty and outright cheating.

However, emerging and improving technologies may prove to offer more — not less — protection from would-be cheaters.

All online learning environments collect data — copious amounts — about their learners, and software is especially good at revealing patterns that may signal that cheating is happening. Knowing that you might get caught can be a powerful deterrent. Likewise, several new technologies seek to prevent cheating from the outset. These include virtual proctoring, identity verification and problem randomization — all of which we explore in this article.

Online Education And MOOCs Are About Access To Learning

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Online education, and MOOCs in particular, promote access. For students in remote locations, with little or no access to residential experiences, online learning provides opportunities for academic and professional advancement that would never be available otherwise. For non-traditional students pursuing an education later in life, online learning provides flexibility and convenience and a chance to pursue or complete a degree without having to show up in a classroom.

In online courses that allow learners to work at their own pace and follow their own interests, the impetus for cheating is already quite low and, in general, instances of academic cheating are fewer in low-pressure environments. Online courses may be no less rigorous, but they are often more self-directed experiences that require students to keep their own academic discipline and demonstrate mastery in multiple ways.

However, as online learning becomes more primary and less supplemental, and MOOCs move from single courses for academic enrichment to high-stakes offerings — credits and degrees (e.g., see this TechCrunch article) — technology is paving the way for credible monitoring of student behavior online.

Student Monitoring Can Be Done At Different Levels of Stringency

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Online test proctoring. The most ironclad method for preventing cheating online is virtual proctoring. Whether a test taker is fully recorded and then asynchronously examined for anomalies, or fully monitored with people watching test takers in real time, or something in between, there are numerous ways to integrate virtual proctoring into online testing.

With MOOCs, each learner is asked to take a test in full view of a webcam and each testing session is recorded. Each recording is then analyzed by visual recognition software and human proctors review each suspected instance of a violation.

Critics of new modes of learning are often skeptical of anything that lies outside the teacher/classroom model.

One example of this software is Remote Proctor Now (RPNow) by Software Secure. EdX recently collaborated with Software Secure to incorporate secure online examination delivery and identity verification into Global Freshman Academy, the new offering from edX and Arizona State University (ASU). RPNow offers a completely scalable platform — into the thousands of users — that allows students to take a proctored exam entirely online. All that’s needed is a standard computer webcam and an Internet connection.

Software of this kind typically flags 2-3 percent of test sessions as containing irregularities, and the vast majority of cases reveal no cheating, but actual anomalies — pets entering the webcam frame, the student coughing, sneezing or fidgeting, or people coming into the student’s room unwittingly. These results support general findings that instances of test manipulation in online courses are actually quite rare.

In the case of most online learning environments used by institutions to facilitate remote learners, virtual monitors prevail over live proctoring sessions to mimic the classroom experience. Though remote students may enjoy the comfort of their personal learning environment, they are no less subject to scrutiny, and sessions are even recorded as a back-up measure if test data reveals something out of character for that learner.

Identity verification. Most online learning systems require validation of IDs to ensure that the individual enrolled in the course, completing the assignments and taking the tests is in fact who they say they are. Identity verification is a common method of keeping people honest, and there is little incentive to pose as someone else. Even in situations where people offer to take courses online for someone else (for a fee), the value of a single course certificate simply may not warrant the risk, particularly when all of the learner’s activity data is captured for potential future analysis.

Thus, although identity verification does not monitor activity per se, it nonetheless serves as a strong deterrent to cheating. This deterrent argument suggests that identity verification can be equally effective whether executed before graded tests or even at the end of a course during certificate issuance.

Randomized problems on tests. Increasingly, instructors are coming to realize that they themselves hold some power and responsibility for keeping cheating at bay. In MOOCs, instructors can automate the task of offering completely customized versions of the same test to each learner, using banks of questions and test-question randomization. Even if two learners are working side-by-side in a remote location, they will be unable to share answers. In some online courses, instructors also have elected to make all assessments open and allow students to take them as many times as they want.

In that case, the learner has little incentive to cheat, and can work toward mastery at a pace that they can handle. In other cases, instructors have designed assignments and assessments to be even more personalized, taking advantage of adaptive algorithms to vary the difficulty and subject matter presented to each learner.

Anti-plagiarism software. For the written portions of assignments and tests, anti-plagiarism software can be used to detect whether a student’s writing matches or closely mimics someone else’s work. Each piece of writing is compared to databases of scanned web content, which now includes almost every written word ever published. While this will not prevent a learner from asking a friend to write an assignment for them, it will prevent the learner from representing any published content as their own, one of the most prevalent forms of cheating on college campuses. The software also can detect when written work is copied from another student in the same course, further narrowing avenues for cheating.

Lots Of Cheating Already Happens In Schools; Online May Prove Better At Deterrence

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Cheating in American high schools appears to be prevalent. In the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics 2012 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, 32 percent of students surveyed copied an Internet document for a classroom assignment, more than 50 percent cheated on a test at school and 74 percent copied another student’s homework. Despite a whopping 98 percent of those surveyed characterizing themselves as “having good moral character,” 64 percent reported that people sometimes have to lie or cheat in order to be successful.

Emerging and improving technologies may prove to offer more — not less — protection from would-be cheaters.

Critics of new modes of learning are often skeptical of anything that lies outside the teacher/classroom model, even those who have nominally embraced online learning as a useful supplement to in-person instruction. However, even skeptics should appreciate the power that new technologies offer, particularly for providing insight into student behaviors online, automating and personalizing test delivery and potentially deterring would be cheaters, rare though they may be.

The inclusion of new technologies for monitoring learners and customizing assessments will improve online learning as a whole, while continuing to level the academic playing field for learners globally.


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