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Academic Outreach

Faculty Focused

Imposters in the Classroom: Verification of Student Identity and online courses

Posted on: September 2nd, 2015 by

I had an interesting phone call the other day. I reached out to the website and asked for a quote to take an online course on my behalf. They called me back with a quote of just 2 payments of $475 (or $950 total) for their company to complete all the assignments for the course.A masked man using a laptopThe representative apologized for the cost saying it would be higher than average because there were several writing assignments, but he would guarantee me an A. As I hung up the phone, I realized that the cost of in-state tuition at UM for the course was just a few dollars less than the amount the company had quoted.

There are many reasons why instructors should be concerned about verifying the identity of the students in their online classes. First, federal regulations, our accrediting agency (SACS) and university policies require that safeguards are used to ensure that the student who receives the academic course credit is actually the person doing the work. Secondly, instructors have a responsibility to serve as sentinels of our disciplines. When we assign a grade to a student at the end of the term, we are endorsing that student and assuring the community that the student has met or exceeded the standards for the subject area. When we don’t take steps to protect those standards we devalue the degree. Finally, we have an obligation to our students to uphold and reinforce moral and ethical standards of behavior. Cheating at all levels undermines the pillars of integrity and fairness in our society.

Screenshot of price quotes from a companies who will complete an online course for a student.

There are three ways online instructors can address student identity in the classroom; a) Proctored assessments, b) Emerging technologies and practices shown to be effective in verifying student identification, and c) Pedagogical and related practices that are effective in verifying student identity.

Below are some examples of pedagogical practices to establish and verify student identity in an online course:

  • Make assessments very personal – One of our writing instructors asked students to write in a journal about an event in their personal lives and then later in the course the students wrote an essay comparing that experience with a news event. The idea was that the first assignment was ‘low-stakes’ and therefore the student would not hire someone to complete that assignment. Then in the ‘higher-stakes’ assignment, if the student was unable to recall their answer to the first assignment, their identity would be called into question.
  • Look for changes in the students’ writing style or the addition of uncommon words – In writing intensive courses, instructors learn the writing styles of the students. If a student has been exhibiting low level writing skills and the most recent paper changes to a much higher level, or she uses words more common to a professional journal, the instructor should consider running the paper through a plagiarism program or asking the student to resubmit the paper in a proctored environment.
  • Personal interaction either in person or through some other technology such as a phone or video chat – Some professors require students to schedule at least one meeting to discuss projects, progress in the course, or some other topic. The meetings do not have to be very long, but the instructor can use the meeting to get a sense of the capabilities of the student.
  • Use a ‘credit application process’ model – One instructor required students to complete a 20 question quiz at the beginning of the class asking them personal but not necessarily confidential information (i.e. name of your favorite band; favorite color; color of your car). Then at the start of the high-stakes assessments, she randomly asked 5 of those questions. If the answers did not match with the earlier quiz (at least 3 out of 5 answers must match), the student was required to redo the assessment in a proctored environment.
  • Unusual assignments – Another way an instructor could verify student identity is to require the completion of ‘unusual’ assignments. For example the student must create a multimedia project, portfolio or a journal that includes information unique to the student’s experience, possibly even including items that the student has already revealed earlier in the class. The idea is that most 3rd party vendors will not create non-normative assignments.
  • Icebreakers, Intros and Photos – Personalize the course: Options include requiring students to post photos of themselves to the class; provide a personal narrative about their goals for the course in the discussion board, discuss how the course will assist them toward professional goals; incorporate video or audio responses into assignments. Research shows that one of the most effective ways instructors can discourage dishonest behavior from their students is interacting with their students, personalizing the student, and educating the students about what is appropriate and inappropriate academic behavior in online courses and requiring them to agree to abide by honor codes or academic integrity policies.

Below are some examples of emerging technologies to establish and verify student identity in an online course:

  • Personal interaction using web-technology – Another professor required his students to meet with him at least once during the class using skype or some other web-based video chat. During that meeting he would ask questions related to items that had been covered in the class. If the student had little or no memory of the items, then he would require the student to complete a future exam in a proctored environment.
  • University email – Instructors should always require students to only use their email accounts to communicate as a way of ensuring that the student is enrolled at UM.
  • Cutting Edge Technology – Biometric techniques, such as fingerprinting, voice recognition and retinal scans, or technology that will identify people based on their keystrokes. Currently, UM does not have access to most of these tools, but I expect that we will begin to utilize them in the next few years.