Online Education’s Cheating Problem

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Biometric keystroke analysis interprets the rhythm and styling of a user’s typing to identify who the user is. Coursera, the Palo Alto-based online education company, has begun offering this technology, coupled with photo verification, as an authentication tool for its users. This will enable the company to offer course certifications for sale through partner institutions. Earlier this month, a few journalists covered this release. They pointed to this as early signs of Coursera’s business model, which has to this point been a free service. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and other top flight institutions who offer free classes on Coursera are noticeably absent from this pilot, a detail not lost on those who have described the launch. But this commentary misunderstands the significance of Coursera’s new product feature. If you ask me, online education is still being held back. And the number one problem is cheating.

The reason online education of the modern ilk – the MOOCs and the sexy collaborative businesses – have yet to take off is because they still lack accreditation of the robust, government-certified, culturally approved form that a B.A. or B.S. affords. This accreditation has driven applicants to traditional and vocational schools in record numbers, has created a number of extremely profitable online businesses whose value is debatable, and has left the United States sitting on $1 trillion of student debt. A future where education is lifelong, part-and-parcel, a mix between vocational training and learning out of interest, and delivered dynamically from a mobile device, a web service, and in person, relies on accreditation moving across the services. Startups like Degreed look to solve this problem by offering a credit that reflects the dynamic set of educational experiences available today. But how do you prove who is sitting behind a computer while submitting a block of code, or writing an essay, or completing a calculus derivation for an economics problem?

Of course, cheating is not a new phenomenon, nor is it restricted to online education. Every higher learning institute in the country has some version of an Honor Code and an anti-cheating policy. Plagiarism is a capital offense, in school language. But we all acknowledge, if reluctantly, that there’s a fair amount of cheating that happens anyway, and that the best defense against it is to impose cultural taboos, which have developed over 1000 years. These taboos don’t exist in the same way online, and are in many ways the opposite. The most celebrated developers, designers, and engineers copy, remix, and edit from across the internet throughout their days. And the best online students are doing the same. In a study conducted at Ohio State University, 72% of students reported cheating on one of the tests administered online during an Introduction to Psychology class. The concept of an individual’s ability to recall and create in a vacuum – which I question as the best form of testing, anyway – is not relevant to an internet era of work. We are constantly retweeting, attributing, sharing, and collaborating. But as long as testing is an individual sport, certification needs to be, too. And the masses care about certification.

Biometric authentication has two versions: behavioral, and physical. In the latter version, fingerprint, and retina-scans can return a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ for any individual identity. In the former version, it is the pacing, the style, and the pressure a user applies to the keys that create a statistical model representing an individual: it is an imperfect science. But Coursera’s decision to tie revenue to certification, and to tie certification to cheating, suggests the direction certification will go online. For now, proving that a student is who she says she is, will be the fastest way to get online education properly going. And as it does, the top tier institutions, who today are still reluctant to allow online certifications with their brand attached, will be wise to take heed.

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