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Testing Integrity in Online Courses: Big Brother Has Arrived

Manfred F. Meine and Thomas P. Dunn

The universally maligned “Big Brother” has entered public administration education in the online environment; but, in this instance, “Big Brother” is an invited guest. Since its inception, online education has been challenged by detractors, with legitimate concerns about academic integrity having emerged as their marquee and most credible issue. While Internet-based education has obviously, and by necessity, been dominated by technological concerns the medium has, more importantly, been viewed with skepticism for perceived weaknesses in ensuring course integrity, particularly in the testing process. It is clear that for online learning to be a viable pedagogy, it must be affordable, efficient and user friendly, but to be fully accepted, course integrity is a critical element. Efforts to ensure the advantages of asynchronous learning have been hampered by the resource intensive efforts to ensure verified human test proctoring–proctoring which is obviously not consistent with the anytime, anywhere attraction of online delivery. With increasing pressure from both federal authorities and accrediting bodies to ensure that the student enrolled in the course and the one being tested is in fact the person they claim to be, it became clear that for the undeniable advantages of online learning to be realized, secure testing solutions other than verified human proctoring were needed. With the rapid expansion of online course offerings and the explosion of online enrollment numbers, Troy University looked for a technological solution to the issue.

Recognizing the need for a new methodology compatible with the online testing environment the University partnered with The Securexam® Corporation to develop an innovative technological solution, but a solution that resulted in bringing what could easily be called the academic version of “Big Brother” into the online course environment.

Enter the Remote Proctor
The result of the developmental partnership between TROY and Securexam® was a remote proctoring device designed to make the human proctor unnecessary. The Remote Proctor eliminates the need for students to arrange for an approved proctor by incorporating a web-camera, a biometric scanner and a microphone into a single one device. The Remote Proctor is purchased by students enrolling in online coursework for about the cost of a single textbook, and can be used as long as the student is enrolled at the University. Upon purchase, students register the device using a photograph of their identification documents and scanning a fingerprint. When used for testing, the Remote Proctor is connected to a USB port of a computer and using software, it allows students to complete exams anywhere, anytime after successfully completing the authentication process. That process compares a fingerprint scan and a photo identification such as the student’s drivers license to the same biometrics gathered during initial registration of the unit. Upon successful authentication, Securexam® launches the test and locks down the computer until test completion. During the exam, the Remote Proctor records changes in sound or motion and streams them to a secure server. Potentially suspicious recordings are highlighted for faculty member review. An optional feature to allow random fingerprint scan requirements during the exam is also available (Troy University Website, 2009).

While online programs allow students to access coursework anytime, anywhere, the Remote Proctor’s recording of sounds and the taping of movements during the taking of an exam serves to bring the “Big Brother” technology into the student’s home. Clearly for academic integrity in online testing to be maintained on a global scale in an anytime, anywhere setting, a device like the Remote Proctor was needed, but, from the outset it was anticipated that ethical and/or legal concerns in connection with requiring students to accept the surrender of a significant degree of privacy in order to further their education would quickly emerge. And such has been the case. Reactions to recent presentations on the Remote Proctor at The 5th International Conference on Technology, Knowledge, and Society in Huntsville, AL in February, 2009, did indeed focus on such issues, with the prevailing sentiments tending to be more critical than supportive (Dunn, 2009). On the other hand, student reaction has been surprisingly accepting of the technology.

The Remote Proctor, was developed through a public-private partnership in which Troy University invested significant financial resources to develop the device, which the University stands to recoup after a sufficient number of the Remote Proctor devices have been sold. Fortunately for students they too may be able to recoup their investment since the Remote Proctor can be resold like a used text book, and reregistered to another student.

The Remote Proctor program which was initially agreed to by a University Distance Learning Faculty and Administrative Leadership Committee, began its phase in period with Troy University’s graduate business programs in 2007 and in the Fall of 2008 became required for use in all online MPA courses (Meine, 2009). The phase in will continue with all remaining graduate programs during the 2008-2009 academic year before being expanded to all undergraduate programs offered online. It is anticipated that once fully implemented, the Remote Proctor will see thousands of such devices in use. It is certainly likely that interesting stories about what the device recorded will abound. Of significant interest to date, however, is that many of the fears about the Remote Proctor, including concerns about student complaints, have not materialized.

Thus, while the Remote Proctor may well have solved a nagging issue in the online education environment, for at least for one university, should it give those of us in The Academy pause to wonder at what cost do we implement potentially invasive measures to ensure the security of online testing, as well as what we can and should expect our students to accept as the price of the convenience of anytime-anywhere online education.

Manfred F. Meine, professor of public administration, Troy University-Florida, e-mail: [email protected].

Thomas P. Dunn, assistant professor of sociology, Troy University-Florida, e-mail: [email protected].

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