Technologies May Curb Online Cheating

Entrepreneurs and researchers develop software to identify online test takers.

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Nearly three quarters of American public high schools assess students online, but teachers have long had to trust that students were doing their own work. New technology from researchers at Pace University may help solve that problem.

According to a 2008 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 71 percent of high schools give at least some online assessments to students. As virtual education becomes more popular, entrepreneurs and researchers are trying to help teachers identify whether students are cheating on online tests.

[Learn which universities are offering online high school degrees.]

Each person using a computer has subtle typing differences, according to researcher Charles Tappert, head of the Pace project. By measuring how long a typist presses individual keys, a program is able to create a "digital fingerprint" that can identify who is typing.

This technology isn't particularly new; companies such as Digital Proctor already offer keystroke pattern recognition software, and Kryterion offers a toolkit that combines keystroke recognition with webcam technology to identify test takers. But neither system can prevent students from being fed answers by a parent, talking with classmates on an instant messaging program, or using Web searches to do research.

[Read about sites plagiarists use.]

"If I'm keying in answers but a friend is sitting next to me giving me answers, the [current] systems will verify it's me," Tappert says. "But I'm still cheating."

He hopes that by analyzing a student's stylometry (syntax and vocabulary) combined with keystroke recognition, he can create a more secure system that will scale back cheating. His system compares a student's writing style on an exam with a baseline sample, which makes it more difficult for students to cheat, he says.

Pace's research is still ongoing, and Tappert expects to expand the tests to more classrooms this fall.

But some academic integrity experts wonder if these technologies are worth the effort. Teddi Fishman, director of Clemson University's Center for Academic Integrity says "mechanical" solutions that police cheating aren't the answer.

"I discourage people from trying to do this in a distance-set environment," she says. "Every time we figure out a mechanical means to prevent cheating, students find a way to get around it. They're often more motivated than we are."

She says that while these "adversarial" anti-cheating programs might prevent a student from cheating once, it doesn't teach students why cheating is wrong. "Our time would be better spent trying to help students develop their skills to make well-reasoned, ethical decisions," Fishman, a former police officer, says. "I know that I want my role in the university to be one [in which] I educate rather than police."

[Learn the importance of promoting academic integrity.]

Shaun Sims, president and founder of Digital Proctor, says his software is meant to be an aid to teachers' natural inclinations. "A lot of times, a teacher will see a student's assignment and say, 'I know this student; I know the personality of their writing. This isn't their work,'" he says.

By providing teachers with extra data such as keystroke patterns, the number of instances of pasting text, and a comparison of students' work versus their classmates, Sims says teachers can be sure. "We become hunch validators," he says.

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