Online universities have become common as more students seek convenient, flexible ways to earn degrees. They are particularly popular among nontraditional students, like new parents who need to take classes at their own pace or full-time professionals who need to take evening courses to advance their careers.
Western Governors University (WGU), a nonprofit online university based in Salt Lake City, was founded in 1997 by 19 governors of western U.S. states to create a skilled workforce. The university now serves those who need to take online classes, grading them with a competency-based system that requires them to demonstrate they have learned the required materials.
But how do educators ensure students are not cheating their ways to degrees if all classes and assessments are conducted remotely? Maureen O’Brien, WGU’s director of evaluation administration, recently told PYMNTS how the university verifies its students and how it balances the need for authentication with ease of use.
Trust, But Verify
One of the biggest forms of education-related fraud is as simple as it is prevalent: students sending someone else to take tests for them. This type of fraud played a significant role in this year’s widely publicized college admission scandal. Wealthy parents took advantage of lax authentication processes and paid surrogates up to $75,000 to take college admission tests for their children. This problem is exacerbated in an online environment, where identification methods cannot be physically checked by personnel.
WGU utilizes several methods to ensure test-takers are who they say they are.
“To get into the testing, they log in with their sign-on credentials, [including] their unique user ID and password,” O’Brien said. “They have to show a government-issued photo ID [to a proctor on a webcam], and the name has to match the name in the student account.”
Students can easily provide that information to accomplices, however, meaning further verification measures are necessary. WGU used to rely on keystroke biometrics, which verify users by analyzing typing patterns and cross-referencing them with students’ collected data. O’Brien stated that this program had many flaws and did not suit the university’s needs, resulting in its termination.
“We got a lot of false positives, because it turned out people typing when they’re not stressed [exhibit] different behavior from when they’re stressed,” she said.
The university began utilizing a webcam-based system in 2015. WGU students are issued an external webcam that they are required to use instead of their laptops’ built-in cameras. The cameras meet certain dimensions and specifications, enabling proctors to monitor test-takers, verify their identities and ensure they are not cheating.
“We believe the external webcam gives us the best view of the testing environment,” O’Brien said. “First, the proctor greets the student. Then, they do a 360-degree scan of the environment, so the students can’t have notes posted up on the wall.”
The camera’s audio is also important in the prevention of cheating. Proctors can listen to what is happening in the test-taker’s environment and ensure that the student doesn’t have an off-screen accomplice telling them the answers.
“The proctor can hear what’s going on in the room,” O’Brien said. “If there’s some disturbance or anything, the proctor can always halt the exam and inquire with the student or do an additional scan.”
Authentication precautions like these may lead to more secure assessments, but they can also make already stressful situations even more taxing.
“We don’t want it to be intrusive or stressful,” O’Brien said. “We’re always … [making] sure that it’s a seamless and pleasant experience for the students. As pleasant as it can be, anyway, because they’re really vulnerable while they’re being tested.”
WGU’s Take a Break program, which earned a Nonprofit Innovation Award from the U.S. Distance Learning Association, reduces pressure on students by allowing them to take one 10-minute break every hour without compromising security. Students in need of a break click a button that alerts the proctor, which blocks access to the exam for the next 10 minutes and prevents them from accessing questions they already answered or skipped.
“You can’t go off, take a break, study, go back and answer a question,” O’Brien explained. “[The program] originally came out of an accessibility requirement, but all of our students benefit from it.”
Verification Through Stylometry
WGU is looking into a number of technologies to balance verification with ease of use, a priority for the university. Facial and voice recognition would go a long way toward providing seamless verification processes, but O’Brien believes the ultimate goal is verification via the test materials.
“Some type of stylometry analysis would be fabulous – to be able to know that, yes, this is totally consistent with how this student has been writing,” O’Brien said. “Obviously, you would expect by the end of their degree program they would be improved from how they started out, but there would probably be still a certain basic style that you could say, yes, that’s actually them.”
Individual stylometry analysis is still just a dream, but as technology grows more advanced, it might be the key to seamless user verification in online education.