Who’s monitoring online students?

When students go to school via “online courses,” how do you know they’re actually going to school — virtually speaking, that is?

You don’t, according to this Friday’s edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education. So Congress is about to pass changes to the Higher Education Act that allows “distance-education” schools to more closely monitor what their “students” are up to. The stated concern is the schools want to be sure the person passing a test, for example, is actually the student getting the credit for doing so.


But some college officials are wary of the technologies, noting that they are run by third-party vendors that may not safeguard students’ privacy. Among the information the vendors collect are students’ fingerprints, and possibly even images from inside their homes.

“This is taking a step into a student’s private life,” said Rhonda M. Epper, co-executive director of Colorado Community Colleges Online. “I don’t know if we want to extend our presence that far.”

One of the biometrics systems being considered to identify students works only on Windows, not Macs.

(H/T: Corrie Bergeron via Twitter)

  • B2

    Just today I drove by one of those “finish on-line” signs showing an eager student looking at….who knows what, and thought, how would the “school” know who is on line? It not only changes the meaning and ethics of a “degree” but sort of blurs the lines of identity too – the Great Pretender…I am whomever I can pretend to be and get away with it.

  • Lily

    I have a child in an online high school and you would be amazed at how accountable these kids have to be. The teachers call them, their counselor checks in weekly with him and me, and they follow up on everything we ask. There is now way to “pretend” your way through this school.

  • Ryan

    I would argue that students in online courses are, in some cases, more “present” for classes than those in traditional brick-and-mortar courses. As a student who’s taken advantage of the option to take several of my courses online, I’ve found that doing so forces me to work much harder to remain committed to the course.

    I gathered from the story, Bob, that we’re discussing college-level courses, here. Is it the job of a professor or of a university to make sure that each and every student is engaged at all times? Or do students have to bring at least some of the “engagement” with them? I think if you’re leaning towards holding the teacher accountable for a student’s interest, then yes, these sorts of technologies are appropriate.

    But if you feel that a 18-year-old, or 22-year-old, or non-traditional 45-year-old student should be responsible for their own learning, then why do you need “Big Brother”-type software making sure that they’re learning?

    Yes, there is the challenge of ensuring that examinations are actually taken by the appropriate student. But that’s also a concern in “real-life” courses, where in a 300-seat lecture, students are often asked to present their student ID when handing in an exam or a paper, to make sure that they are who they say they are. I don’t think the level of draconian monitoring that seems to be being considered here is at all necessary, and certainly not wise from a privacy-protection standpoint.