As much potential as Massive Online Open Courses might have to change the future, little of that potential can be unlocked until a way can be found to test the participants' knowledge gains in a secure way. That's where a company like ProctorU comes in with a way to proctor online exams to confirm the identity of the test-taker and ensure there's no cheating. ProctorU brings that security to anywhere there's a student with a computer taking a MOOC exam: in the kitchen, in the office, in the bedroom or even in a classroom.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that recent years have seen the growth of companies like ProctorU, right along with the growing popularity of online courses at the college and even high school level.
It works like this: Schools allow their students to enroll in a distance learning course where they move through the material at their own pace, but when it comes exam time, ProctorU is there to monitor via webcam as students take the exam to assure that no cheating takes place.
The old biases against online education have begun to erode, but companies that offer remote-proctoring services still face an uphill battle in persuading skeptics, many of whom believe that the duty of preserving academic integrity should not be entrusted to online watchers who are often thousands of miles from the test-takers. So ProctorU and other players have installed a battery of protocols aimed at making their systems as airtight as possible.
The result is a monitoring regime that can seem a bit Orwellian. Rather than one proctor sitting at the head of a physical classroom and roaming the aisles every once in a while, remote proctors peer into a student's home, seize control of her computer, and stare at her face for the duration of a test, reading her body language for signs of impropriety.
Even those who do the job sometimes feel like they're intruding too much into the students' lives. That was certainly the experience of Rebekah Lovaas, who began her career in the sector proctoring exams for Kryterion, a company similar to ProctorU. She did that job for three years before being promoted to the post of operations analyst, and she admits she was never quite able to completely let go of the discomfort that comes from peeking into someone's ultimate personal space.
Each online-proctoring company has developed its own approach. Some monitor live feeds; others record students via Webcam and watch the recordings. Some require students to share a view of their computer monitor, and empower a proctor to override their cursor if necessary; others simply make students install software that makes it impossible to use Web browsers or chat programs while the exam is in progress.
The companies make bold claims about their effectiveness, arguing their services are not just equal to but better than in-person proctoring. "The level of supervision over the Web is much more intense," said William Dorman, chief executive at Kryterion. "Frankly," he said, "we can spot any cheating."