"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, July 16, 2007

"The students know we are watching them"

With learning in America reduced to test scores, and with test scores the ticket to a degree, and with a degree the ticket, well, you know the rest. The fact is that this kind of epistemological and occupational reductionism has produced a new level of accepted thievery among many degree seekers who think nothing more about cheating on tests than they do about ripping a new DVD that they did not pay for. In fact, cheating on an online test is morally preferable to stealing songs or movies, for at least, the thinking goes, the online course was paid for.

What this kind of remote money exchange called distance learning has bred is more and more sophisticated levels of policing by those whose own odd definition of integrity allows them to construct the type of diploma mill that they now would pretend to protect from corruption. Enter Big Brother as Test Proctor:

Edison College will be rolling out software that will allow a proctor to log into a student’s computer to ensure the student is working on the test and is not searching the Internet for answers, Pribanic said. But, for now, proctors have to monitor students with their eyes, he said.

“The students know we are watching them,” he said.

Florida Virtual School also uses a software program called Turn It In, which is a computer program that can identify plagiarized material in students’ papers. The program can identify both material that was on the Web and material that has been put into the system before.

The program is also used at the University of Florida and Miami Dade College, according to the company’s Web site.

But some schools are taking the technology to the next level. This fall, Troy University in Alabama will begin rolling out new camera technology for many of its approximately 11,000 online students, about a third of whom are at U.S. military installations around the world.

The device, made by Cambridge, Mass.-based Software Secure, is similar in many respects to other test-taking software. It locks down a computer while the test is being taken, preventing students from searching files or the Internet. The latest version also includes fingerprint authentication, to help ensure the person taking the test isn’t a ringer.

But the new development is a small Web cam and microphone that is set up where a student takes the exam. The camera points into a reflective ball, which allows it to capture a full 360-degree image. (The first prototype was made with a Christmas ornament.)

When the exam begins, the device records audio and video. Software detects significant noises and motions and flags them in the recording. An instructor can go back and watch only the portions flagged by the software to see if anything untoward is going on — a student making a phone call, leaving the room — and if there is a sudden surge in performance afterward.

The inventors admit it’s far from a perfect defense against a determined cheater. But a human test proctor isn’t necessarily better. And the camera at least ensures that those people taking classes at a distance are on a level playing field, said Douglas Winneg, Software Secures president and CEO.

Troy graduate students will start using the device this fall, and undergraduates a year later. Software Secure says it has talked to other distance learning providers, too.

A potential future market is the standardized testing industry, which has struggled to find enough secure testing sites to accommodate growing worldwide demand for tests like the SAT college entrance exam and the GMAT for graduate school.

The cost to Troy students will be $125 for the device.

Proponents of the device said it would eliminate many of the testing portions that are less than ideal for students now, including getting a proctor from a list of acceptable exam monitors such as clergy or commanding officers or arranging a proctored exam with a testing company and asking students to travel to one of their centers.

Coppola said she is not sure that a program could be invented to stop cheating completely.

“If students want to do something to get answers to an exam, they will find a way to do it,” she said.

Richard Garrett, a senior research analyst at Eduventures who closely follows online learning, said he finds the technology promising, particularly for large companies trying to streamline a now-messy part of their operation.

“The great unknown is, Will it be seen as too invasive?” he said.

Clearly, it won’t be a good idea for everyone.

Stephen Slavin, dean of corporate and professional education at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, said his institution is always looking at new technologies, but recording students by camera probably would be pushing the boundary of their comfort level.

Imagine the productivity gains that will result when we can hire test policemen in India and China.

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