Pedagogical-and Other-Approaches toAuthenticate Student Identity

Member, Educational Technology Advisory Committee (ETAC)

While most of the current focus on accreditation issues is on SLOs and the reports following accreditation visits, there is a relatively new issue that is deserving of attention. There is now a component of the Higher Education Opportunity Act that may force us to change some elements of how we deliver distance education. This relates to accreditation as it is accrediting bodies that will need to check to see that we are doing as directed. The agency or association referred to in the following would be the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC).

..the agency or association requires 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..

This went into effect in August and, for the time being, it appears that using a password-protected environment will suffice. But the official "rule-making" will be happening soon-and is likely to call for something more stringent than this initially rather low bar. What does that mean to our colleges and our students? How do we authenticate our distance education students? And is this new policy about ensuring that students are who they say they are-or is this a more general concern about the integrity of distance education offerings?

The Academic Senate for the California Community Colleges adopted a resolution on this topic at its Fall 2008 Plenary (2.02). It resolved that the Academic Senate build on the Spring 2007 adopted paper Promoting and Sustaining an Institutional Climate of Academic Integrity to recommend processes that assure a means of demonstrating the consistency of student work and employ approaches to authenticate the identity of students enrolled in distance education courses and programs that are no more invasive of personal privacy than those commonly used in face-to-face classes and that Senate work with ACCJC to develop language mutually acceptable to the Academic Senate and the ACCJC that meets the requirements of the Higher Education Act Update.

Some of you may wonder why the Academic Senate even needed a position-what about this federal mandate will change what we are doing locally? Is there a need for concern? The concern can be stated quite succinctly-depending on what approaches are adopted, this could result in a decrease in student access. And if we are not all about ensuring student access to education, what are we all about?

The simplest means of "authenticating" distance education students would be to require proctored exams-and, presumably, for such in-person assessments to be the primary basis for the grade earned. In order for this to be a means of "authentication", the presentation of photo identification would certainly be called for. This calls into question our campus-based practices-do you regularly ID your students, or do you sleep peacefully at night knowing that you see the same faces in your classroom week after week-and trust that they are who they claim to be? If proctoring with identity verification were mandated for all distance education offerings, would this not be holding distance education students to a more stringent "authentication" standard than we hold our campus-based students? Why should selecting the distance education mode result in such differential treatment? No doubt there are some disciplines that always have and always will require proctored exams-and some faculty who prefer it. As someone who once required a single proctored exam and found that that one assessment was highly correlated with a student's final grade, I am most comfortable with permitting students to complete assessments traditionally done in the classroom with a clock as the proctor in the online environment. Furthermore, having had students who were homebound (bed-bound due to a difficult pregnancy, suffering from anxiety disorders, gravely ill, etc.) and students who do their work exclusively between the hours of 1:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m., I know that forcing students to take proctored exams has the potential of being an insurmountable burden to some students.

The next least invasive approach, in terms of faculty time, would be to find a technological solution. I was rather aghast at the options being discussed on the Distance Education Coordinators listserv when this topic was first introduced. Be it a retinal scan, a means of identifying one's key-stroke pattern, or a program that randomly asks you personal questions, all have one major hurdle-they cost money. They require an investment on the part of either your college or the student. With the sky-high cost of texts, the economy and the California budget an utter mess, and proposed increases in fees, how could anyone consider anything that has a hefty price tag attached to it-whether it be a cost borne by student or institution? Perhaps there will be a day when Dell and Apple come with built-in identity detectors-but we are not there yet. And do we really need to be? How often do you ask your students in the classroom to whip out their identification?

The more complicated approach is to have a means of "knowing" your students-of interacting with them regularly such that you are familiar with them.

Such a pedagogical approach is consistent with that which we are mandated to do by Title 5. We are already required to ensure "regular effective" contact, right? This should mean that integrated into your distance education course is regular communication-such that you know how your students write and/or think. Even in disciplines that do not require much writing by their very nature, certainly one develops insight into what a student is capable of. While we may not see our students, the instructor who teaches at distance should have ample opportunity to come to "know" his or her students.

While courses offered via distance education seem to constantly fall prey to undue scrutiny, we should be able to withstand it. Our existing separate review process is a means of communicating how we are able to effectively teach in a distance mode and has served us well when "defending" distance education to our transfer partners. Every faculty member should be able to respond to questions about the integrity of their courses, be they campus-based or distance education. And every instructor who teaches at a distance should have a ready answer to the often-asked question "How do you know who your students are"? Until the day that we ask for photo identification in our campus-based classes and do away with homework (after all, how do you know who is doing it?), knowing that the student that logged in on day one is the same student who took the final should suffice in the distance education world. But perhaps this new level of scrutiny can be leveraged as a means of arguing for smaller class sizes and for establishing policies regarding course integrity and quality. Perhaps by advocating for "approaches to authenticate the identity of students enrolled in distance education courses and programs that are no more invasive of personal privacy than those commonly used in face-to-face classes" we can shape the conversation such that the end result is one that benefits students and improves our distance education offerings.

References and Useful Resources

Academic Senate for the California Community Colleges:

The Higher Education Opportunity Act, 2008