Is that online student who they say they are? Expectations for verification of student identity

Let’s imagine Bill applies to attend your college or university. Here are some expectations that we could assume honest and reasonable people can agree on:

  1. Bill should actually exist and not be a fictional character.
  2. The person who shows up for courses saying he is Bill should actually be Bill, and not Tom.
  3. Completed assignments that Bill submits represent his actual work and not work completed by, say, Mary.

The typical instructor for the typical on-campus course pays the most attention to #3.  We check for plagiarism, we institute Honor Codes and Policies Against Academic Dishonesty, and we have students sit every other desk during exams. A much fewer number of instructors take steps to ensure #2.  They might check student ID cards before exams, much like the guard at airport security trained to match your face to whatever mug shot ended up on your drivers license. And I wager most of us have never even met an instructor who has had #1 cross their mind (although I did once have a student who I found out later was in a witness protection program and so he was, in a sense, fictitious).

But what if we switch it up and just talk about the online course? It suddenly becomes clear just how much we have relied on the personal relationships that come from same-time, same-place instruction. Can we really assume that Bill exists? that we haven’t been working in actuality with Tom? that Bill’s excellence in equations isn’t really Mary’s? Online courses don’t make people lose their scruples, but it is an environment where the fraudulent and the cheats have an easier time because instructors no longer have the additional protections of face-to-face contact.

The government recognizes this too. Part H of the The Higher Education Opportunity Act (2008) requires accreditation bodies to require that

an institution that offers distance education or correspondence education to have processes through which the institution establishes that the student who registers in a distance education or correspondence education course or program is the same student who participates in and completes the program and receives the academic credit.

The accreditation processes themselves spell out the requirements. For example, here is language for the most relevant point from the SACS-COC document Distance and Correspondence Education Policy Statement

At the time of review by the Commission, the institution demonstrates that the student who registers in a distance or correspondence education course or program is the same student who participates in and completes the course or program and receives the credit by verifying the identity of a student who participates in class or coursework by using, at the option of the institution, methods such as (1) a secure login and pass code, (2) proctored examinations, and (3) new or other technologies and practices that are effective in verifying student identification. [emphasis mine]

So, given that this requirement has existed for several years, you’d imagine that there would be some standard solutions, right? Yes and no.  Solutions? no. There are no foolproof solutions, especially for #2 and #3. Recent changes to government processes, such as for the FAFSA, have made #1 much more difficult. And most institutions have processes in place that can be modified to work for the online students–like requiring a social security card or a passport or a video interview. Of the dozens of institutions I researched for this essay, none expect course instructors themselves to verify that Bill exists.

So, Bill is admitted as a student.  What happens next is the single most universally recognized best practice:  A secure login and passcode managed through an “Identity Management System”, (commonly known as an IDM) along with an “Acceptable Use Policy” that tells students not to share their information. The government allows institutions to trust their students to not give out their login and pass code to others. Sanctions for violations are spelled out in an Acceptable Use Policy, as the institution sees fit. In best practice, rules and processes are documented, applied systematically for all students, and protect student privacy.  So, the instructor who uses the tools provided by the University (such as the learning management or the institutional email account) isn’t expected to worry about expectation #2.

Which leaves expectation #3.  Ensuring that Bill-the-online-student submits his own work is left to the instructor, just the same as it is for Bill-the-on-campus-student.  This is an area in which the government has not indicated minimum requirements or even standards by which to measure compliance. And nothing so far indicates that accreditation bodies expect institutions to make cheating impossible. But we aren’t supposed to turn a a blind eye to either.

So, even if the government doesn’t require proof, what are reasonable expectations we should have when evaluating online courses in terms of how they ensure academic integrity?

The short answer is: it’s much less about the technology and much more about the teaching. Here is where the eLearning community has developed some instructional best practices.  Several are aimed at reducing a student’s temptation to cheat. For example,

  • Make academic integrity part  of the culture.  Communicate to students regularly about it and in many forms, such as in orientation materials, on syllabi, and within assignments.
  • Create assignments that make plagiarism difficult.  For example, requiring several drafts of a paper instead of one final paper makes it more difficult for a student to use online paper mills.
  • Assign multimedia projects that show the person behind the name with a student’s voice or image.
  • Use “authentic assessment” activities and assignments that require active student engagement, such as journal, group projects, portfolios, and debates.

If a traditional “pencil and paper” type exam is needed, explore if your learning management system (LMS) offers options for randomizing exam questions. Set a limited window for exam completion.  Use software or an online tool that simulates a proctored environment.  Or, if necessary, require the students to find a qualified approved proctor in their locale.

An institution can offer these suggestions to instructors through workshops, training, instructional design assistance and other resources that support online course design and development. IT can help by testing tools and applications and recommending solutions that are both effective and reliable. And eLearning staff can help instructors to imagine different pedagogical strategies that are most likely to engage students and improve their learning experience.

Learn More

  1. Consortium of College Testing Centers
  2. Higher Learning Commission, 2012, “Practices for Verification of Student Identity
  3. Johnson, Lisa Marie. 2012. “Proactive strategies to promote academic integrity.”
  4. Middle States Commission on Higher Education, 2015. “Verification of Compliance with Accreditation-Relevant Federal Regulations
  5. US Department of Education, 2011. GEN-11-17. “Fraud in Postsecondary Distance Education Programs – URGENT CALL TO ACTION”
  6. WCET, 2008, “Are Your Online Students Really the Ones Registered for the Course? Student Authentication Requirements for Distance Education Providers”
Print Friendly