May 10 2007

Troy University unveils 'digital proctors'

Digital proctors are the latest attempt to prevent students taking tests online from working the system.

Troy University unveils ‘digital proctors’

John Pulley

Sandra Kinney got caught red-handed.

When Kinney, a student in Troy University’s Master of Public Administration online degree program, tried to cheat while taking an exam remotely, her proctor locked down her computer and recorded her conversation with another person in the room for her professor to hear.

Kinney isn’t really a cheater, though. She’s a beta tester for Troy’s new method of trying to legitimize online testing. Her proctor wasn’t a human, but a device that plugged into her computer while she took a mock exam.

As distance learning rapidly gains popularity, higher education institutions find it crucial to ensure integrity in online testing.

“That has always been an area of concern for accrediting bodies all over the country,” says Belle Wheelan, president of the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting body for institutions of higher education in Alabama and 10 other southern states.

The device, which Troy calls the Securexam Remote Proctor, is the latest approach to securing online tests. Some schools require students to take tests on campus or at another designated facility. Others — including Troy — give distance-learning students permission to find their own human proctors. There is also software to prevent a student from accessing the Internet, e-mail or files that could contain test answers.

All methods have their good points, as well as holes. “If you really want to cheat, you will find a way,” Kinney says.

So in Troy, Ala., university leaders decided to create their own system, and put up $1.1 million to manufacture their device in partnership with Software Secure of Cambridge, Mass.

Their new tool is essentially a digital proctor. It combines audio, video, biometric and software filtering to verify the identities of online test-takers and prevent them from cheating. Troy is beta-testing the devices this spring in anticipation of beginning to deploy them in the fall.

The school will require students enrolling in online courses to buy the device, which it expects will cost about $125. The digital proctor is a USB device that students attach to their PCs. Through the device, students register online at a secure Web site by scanning their fingerprints and taking photos of themselves holding picture identification.

Human Touch

Not every university is in a hurry to follow Troy down the digital proctor path. The University of Maryland University College is sticking to its tried-and-true online testing program for now, says UMUC Director of Exams and Testing Patricia Wolf.

“All of our students take a proctored final exam,” Wolf says. “We think we have a great system.”

UMUC tested more than 100,000 distance-learning students around the world last year, and gave students the option of taking tests at one of the institution's 10 regional sites in the Washington, D.C., area or finding a proctor in accordance with prescribed criteria. Members of the military may take exams at testing centers on military bases or recruit commanding officers to serve as proctors. Other students take exams at local universities, commercial testing centers or other designated sites.

Wolf is intrigued by a digital proctor, but far from sold. “I think it’s an interesting concept, but I have a lot of questions,” she says.

Those questions include: What happens if the electricity fails? How do you train professors to use the system? How time consuming would it be for professors to review the recordings of students' test taking? Will students rebel at a device that records inside their homes? If something makes noise in a test taker’s home, such as a dog barking during the test, would that trigger the device to begin recording?

Next Steps

Those are some of the questions Troy University may answer during its beta program. Before going live with the program, the university will train instructors to use the Web interface and set up a help desk for students. David White, director of Troy’s eCampus program, anticipates that all of the university’s online courses will eventually require use of some type of proctor device.

Kinney says she didn’t mind the cost or intrusion.

“It was very easy to use,” Kinney says. She added that she would have had an easy time cheating on exams she took for distance-learning courses offered by another college, and she found Troy’s human-proctor system required her to take tests at inconvenient times.

She compared the purchase price to that of another textbook and says she would consider it worthwhile “for the convenience of not having to drive somewhere and spending the time” to take proctored exams.