Student Authentication Does Not Prevent Cheating

The Brownsville Herald reported earlier this week about a case of gross academic fraud discovered within the office of Distance Learning at University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College (“UTB-TSC”). (Herald Article)

The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote that “former student employees of the Office of Distance Education, which manages Blackboard, confessed to a police investigator that they had used the online system to obtain test answers for themselves or to give or sell to other students.” (Chronicle Article)

The cheating reports included the sale of test questions and students accessing test answers on one computer while taking the test on another computer.

Considerable time, money and ink has been expended this year debating what academic institutions must do to be in compliance with the 2008 Higher Education Act language which requires schools to demonstrate to accreditors that they are doing something to authenticate the identity of their online students.

Blackboard recently announced that a service is being made available through Acxiom that will periodically and randomly present real-time challenge questions to the test-taker (i.e., in 1998 you lived at one of the following three addresses) (Press Release). The pitch is that along with Blackboard’s username and password, these challenge questions will ensure that the correct person is taking the test.

At best such a service will ensure that the correct student is in the room where the exam is taken. Authentication does not prevent the correct student from having another student answer the test questions, or having the correct test-taker access unauthorized materials during the exam.

Identity authentication is important. The username and password sign-on required by most learning management systems starts the process, and certainly challenge questions can help validate the appropriate person is near the computer publishing the exam (just like checking an ID or recognizing your student in the exam-room or testing center), but academic institutions need to adopt methods and tools to prevent cheating if they want to protect academic integrity.

Ultimately, all institutions will interpret the HEA requirements and put processes in place to comply with them. However, there is much more to academic integrity than just meeting the current requirements of the HEA. For example, exam academic integrity means ensuring that processes are in place not only for student authentication, but also for electronic exam security as well environmental security during an exam.

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