A Peter Steiner cartoon in The New Yorker once quipped, “On the Internet,  nobody knows you’re a dog.” Well, in this age of online education, nobody   knows for sure who your students are. Services such as www.wetakeyourclass.com are available to prepare term papers, take tests, and complete degree programs — all for a fee. No online student body is immune to the deception, and all schools need action plans to address it. Even schools of theology.

Why would a student engage these services? For starters, they’re relatively inexpensive. In researching an article for Inside Higher Ed, journalist Alexandra Tilsley found that “www.boostmygrades.com advertises a $695 rate for graduate classes, $495 for an algebra class, or $95 for an essay.” A student with little interest in a course’s content but a desire to earn credit toward graduation might consider this a bargain.

Another reason for the deception: Students may need the student loan money, and here the federal government becomes interested. By matriculating into an online program, students can draw down additional student loan funding while deferring loan payments toward a previous student loan. As long as they pass their courses, they maintain the funding stream. So, they must pass the classes.

Schools that fail to address this kind of fraud lose integrity and put themselves at risk with accrediting agencies and the government. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, Section 495, states that institutions offering distance education must have processes in place to verify that students registered for courses are doing the work.

Solutions: pedagogy, technology, and administration

What type of “processes” will deter — or even eliminate — fraudulent course participation? A three-pronged offensive that involves a school’s faculty, IT staff, and administration can make deception difficult if not impossible.

Multiple quizzes, written assignments, and tests cause the fees of an à la carte service to soar, so an online teaching style characterized by interaction between the instructor and class members helps ensure the legitimacy of participating students. Naturally, creating an interactive online environment requires a commitment by the faculty and a willingness by the institution to offer training to instructors requesting it. An example of a class assignment that a “ghost” student would find difficult to generate is a course-level portfolio. This compilation of documents, projects, and reflections enables individuals within diverse student bodies to demonstrate their ability to meet the expectations of the program.

Certain technological measures also boost the likelihood that students registered for a course will complete the coursework. Services such as Kryterion and ProctorU have a range of verification and management tools. Some common methods: 

  • Password-protected logins

  • Security questions

  • Keystroke and other biometric tests

  • Real-time activities

  • Oral exams via webcam

  • Live proctoring at a testing site

Finally, an institution’s quality assurance practices can support the ghost-busting efforts of faculty and technical staffers. Helpful policies include:  

  • Checking student attendance twice, once during the first week of classes and again the week before the drop date

  • Monitoring financial aid recipients

  • Establishing student mentoring services

  • Developing online writing lab services

To learn more

Schools can follow this developing issue through the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s Cooperative for Educational Technologies at wcet.wiche.edu/learn/student-authentication.

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