Are They Doing Their Own Work?


At the beginning of an online course, I normally click on the list of students, scrolling through to see if I recognize any of the names or ID photos. Sometimes I spot a familiar one but most of the students are a mystery to me and — outside of our discussion forums and written work — will remain that way.

Lack of a close personal connection between teacher and student is a long-recognized peril of online instruction. Now, however, some colleges are taking stronger steps to ensure that students enrolled in an online course are the ones actually doing the work. And online instructors are being asked to play a bigger role in the security effort.

That’s already happened on my campus. I am an English instructor at Northwestern State University, which offers Louisiana’s first and largest electronic campus. We have 39 online degree programs, plus certification programs and many other online course offerings. Being at the forefront of online education means confronting emerging problems, and “identity confirmation” is one of them.

In 2008, Congress enacted the Higher Education Opportunity Act that, according to this 2014 report, requires institutions “receiving Title IV funding to verify the identities of distance education students enrolled at an institution using at least one of three methods: (1) a secure login and password (for example, through a Learning Management System); (2) proctored examinations; (3) other technologies and practices which are effective in verifying student identification.” Most universities, the report notes, comply by using Option No. 1.

While a login/password system is effective in some instances, it is by no means foolproof. Students can — and do — share their information with others, who then log in and complete the coursework. As long as the quality of the work does not change drastically, faculty may not notice. Even if the instructor suspects foul play, it can be hard to prove it.

Last year, in an effort to combat that problem, my university adopted a campuswide policy creating a second layer of security to confirm student identity in coursework. The policy required tests in every online course to be proctored. Departments could adapt the policy (if, for example, they relied on writing more than tests) to meet their unique needs, and I was on the committee that modified the policy for my own department of English, foreign languages, and cultural studies.

Our departmental policy to protect “the integrity of electronic learning courses” took effect this past spring, and recommends that professors “require a minimum of two assignments through which student identity can be confirmed during assessment.” We intentionally left the details of how to do that vague, to account for the wide range of courses we offer. However, our policy does list some possible approaches, such as proctors to oversee exams, alternative assignments, synchronous online meetings, and use of plagiarism detection services such as Turnitin.

Those are only suggestions, not yet requirements, and some of them wouldn’t work for my own courses. For example, I don’t give tests in my technical-writing course so I wouldn’t have any use for proctors (and I don’t like requiring proctored exams anyway because of the associated cost for online students to use ProctorU or an off-campus testing center). I also don’t use Turnitin, as my technical-writing assignments use the same basic scenarios, so the software would likely show plagiarized results that were, in fact, caused by the nature of the work. Turnitin is also problematic because, regardless of the results, student ID is not verified, only the originality of the work.

So what security measures have I tried in my own classroom? In the spring 2017 semester, I experimented with a couple of identity-confirming assignments in an online, 3000-level, technical-writing course I teach that is built around project-based assessment.

Getting-to-know-you videos. I opened the course’s online discussion forum with my usual written introductions, but, in addition, I required students to submit a one-minute video of themselves answering basic questions about their major and future career plans, and including one fun fact. The results were interesting.

The videos helped me satisfy the new policy requirement because I was able (in most cases) to match students’ faces to their ID photos (supplied by the university and shown beside many of their names in my Moodle course shell).

More important, for the first time in nine years of online instruction, I saw and heard my students. The online student population is unique, with many older students and/or those who face challenges that their face-to-face counterparts do not. It was one thing to read that students were parents, but quite another to see them holding a newborn as they discussed their career goals. Several were photobombed by toddlers or pets, or shot their videos at work around their busy schedules. It gave me pause and made me more sympathetic to their struggles throughout the course — a very welcome side benefit of the new assignment.

One-on-one project meetings. The second change I instituted was to require students to “meet” with me — via a WebEx video conference — about their final project in the course. Students had a one-week period within which to have a conference meeting with me. I offered a variety of times throughout the week to accommodate their needs. By the end of the week, I had met with all 17 students but the approach revealed both pros and cons.

On the down side:

  • The complex appointment schedules. I drafted an appointment calendar, penciling in days and times for the meetings, only to erase them as students emailed and called about conflicts. I also experienced a few scheduling conflicts of my own.
  • As meetings started, I had to change locations frequently, going from my regular grading area to an area with good lighting and background.
  • Some students experienced Internet connection issues, which were resolved when they changed locations, sometimes necessitating another appointment. Others had problems navigating WebEx. A few had to rely on borrowed equipment.

On the plus side:

  • One of the most positive developments was the number of questions. Students are often hesitant to ask questions in an online class, but they quickly became comfortable in our video conferences. I opened with a few casual remarks about their progress and began to ask them about things that were important to their understanding the assignment. They seemed to believe my sincerity about wanting to help once they could see and hear me.
  • The other pro was, again, being able to verify student identity visually and through discussion about the major project. All students were able to discuss the project in detail, giving me some level of certainty that the same student was engaged throughout the course.

While the pros were substantial, unfortunately, the cons won the day for this particular assignment. The amount of time involved in the video conferences — and the difficulty involved in scheduling them — will not work for me going forward. I had only 17 students this time but my class size is rarely that small. Most of my courses have an enrollment of 20 to 25. Teaching a four-course load, I cannot see this as a viable option. I plan to look into other alternatives — such as offering several online synchronous group meetings with students attending the one that best fits their schedule. Thankfully, the new departmental policy allows teachers room to experiment.

Certainly our new departmental policy will not resolve all student-identity issues but it’s a solid first step. As online programs gain in popularity — and students become savvier about ways to work around the system — I expect campus online-security policies to expand and become more complex, spreading the burden to individual faculty members, as has happened at my university.

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