Online Degrees: Friend or Foe?

Going online has never been easier. And now, neither has getting certified. Many reputable institutions across the country offer online-only courses, meaning students can enroll and earn certificates from the comfort of their own homes, libraries or local test centers. An example being a masters of education online(AD).

But with the great opportunities the Internet provides also comes anonymity — and ambiguity. After all, if students never even step foot on campus, how do schools know that they are who they say they are? How does the school know if the student’s work is legitimate, and how do the students know the institution’s degrees carry weight?

This online security issue has serious repercussions not just for the educational institution but for would-be students everywhere. If a degree from a particular university is compromised due to cheating, not only is that university’s reputation damaged, but the quality of the online degree is jeopardized.

That’s why many institutions are working to tighten the security of their online courses and why a new suggested provision to the Higher Education Act could require schools to prove the identity and legitimacy of the student via webcams, fingerprints and other means.

“If the integrity of the online course is diminished, everybody pays a price,” said Matt Shanahan, senior vice president of marketing and strategy at AdmitOne Security, a risk-based authentication solutions provider.

“If it’s ever brought up that there’s widespread cheating, those degrees will immediately be devalued and so will the online courses,” he said. “This is what banks saw: Anytime there was a breach at a bank, the number of customers that switched accounts was very high. It doesn’t take much for a large company to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to blacklist that online set of courses.’

“People are concerned about that. [Schools] want to protect their brand and therefore they have to think through, what are the different ways that cheating or fraud can occur?”

What that means for IT students across the globe is they’ll need to prepare themselves for tougher — and in some cases potentially intrusive — security measures, as well as do everything they can to avoid earning a certification that ultimately gets devalued.

Here’s what students considering online certifications can expect going forward:

Online Proctoring

“What [schools] want to do is basically take a multilayered approach to tracking of students’ activities online,” Shanahan said.

That is, educational institutions can monitor how fast students answer questions, look at where students are taking the exams by tracking their IP addresses and implement policies regarding what devices students can use to take the exams.

“And they can look at other environmental factors: the image of the individual or even typing patterns. They can look at how the individual is entering information and be able to verify that,” Shanahan said. “So they take all these different layers, probably as a deeper form of verification of the individual than some of the in-classroom capabilities.”

Webcams

“Some online institutions are asking students to have a webcam, and some online institutions are not. So it’s really a question of, how intrusive are they making the proctoring?” Shanahan said.

The passing of the provision in the Higher Education Act could change that, though. According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Congress does not object to the provision and it has a good chance of becoming law, which would result in all online institutions using webcams or fingerprinting or requiring students to take exams in a qualified test center to verify their identities.

That said, if a student is considering an online degree, he or she should be prepared to invest in a webcam — or at least research local test centers.

“Question No. 1 if I’m a student is, ‘Where can I take my test?’ And question No. 2 is, ‘If I can take my test at home, what do I have to do to set that up, and what’s my responsibility?” Shanahan said.

– Agatha Gilmore, agilmore@certmag.com

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