Remote Proctoring for the MOOC – an opening for the next wave in privacy excess

For those who herald such things, 2012 was the year of the MOOC – massive open online courses. Most MOOC courses are free, though some providers are attempting to monetize the offerings. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Coursera, the leading provider has exceeded one million students while Udacity is nearing that mark.

The MOOC movement represents a highly disruptive innovation in education. Content is provided for free (or low cost) to the public on a massive scale. While some courses are little more than correspondence programs, others are highly interactive – with student projects, effective feedback, and measurable learning outcomes.

Successful educational institutions will still sell the academic degrees as well as the more intimate experiential learning opportunities. Other universities, struggling financially, tend to see MOOCs as threats to revenue while other critics raise concerns about rigor and engagement.

Ironically, the open access for the MOOC raises concerns about the reliability of the authentication of the test taker. If the certification is valuable, then perhaps one can hire a stand-in to take the course and pass the exam. According to the Washington Post, “security measures suggest that people sometimes cheat in MOOCs, even when there are no course credits or money at stake.”

To expand its business model and improve the reliability of MOOC participation, Coursera has launched a “pilot project to check the identities of its students and offer “verified certificates” of completion, for a fee. A key part of that validation process will involve what Coursera officials call “keystroke biometrics”—analyzing each user’s pattern and rhythm of typing to serve as a kind of fingerprint.”

Keystroke biometrics are recognized for distinguishing between automated computer responses and human responses, so they are quite useful for separating human users from computer bots. They are less commonly used as an identity credential.

The keystroke biometrics are just part of the Coursera approach. It will also use photographs of the student’s ID and of the student taken from the computer to be compared by hand.

The most common way for online courses to be verified is for the student to take the exam at a test center. Such facilities exist throughout the county and sometime universities offer this service to each other as an accommodation for traveling students.

Using ineffective technologies will make a joke out of the credibility for MOOC certification. While the risk of being caught will deter some potential cheaters, it will incentivize others to work around the weak protections and harm the credibility of these programs.

Inevitably, the next step in student monitoring will be to remotely capture photos, video or audio of the students engaged while in the course. Products that remotely control onsite computers such as Apple Remote Desktop, LanSchool, and Net Orbit, can be adapted to the student’s home computer. In 2010, for example, a Philadelphia high school was sued for spying on its students without any prior notification.

Perhaps the use of live biometric voice recognition would improve the reliability and avoid the risk that the system could capture data surreptitiously, but such steps should be taken with caution.

Until the MOOC certificate is part of a college transcript, there is no reason to worry about verification. Schools offering college credit for these courses should extend their academic standards and honor codes to the courses.

Any monitoring of online students should be done in a manner that requires the student to log into the system and complete verification steps. It should not allow the system to reach into the student’s computer or turn on monitoring devices – including keystroke monitors, microphones or cameras. Any system that allows the school to choose when to monitor the student is likely to become intrusive and glean inappropriate information by the school.

There are many effective ways to verify the work of students – computer monitoring should not be one of them.