Posts published in May, 2013

Using Technology To Fight Cheating In Online Education

By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times

While Jennifer Clay was at home taking an online exam for her business law class, a proctor a few hundred miles away was watching her every move.

Using a webcam mounted in Clay’s Los Angeles apartment, the monitor in Phoenix tracked how frequently her eyes shifted from the computer screen and listened for the telltale sounds of a possible helper in the room.

Her computer browser was locked — remotely — to prevent Internet searches, and her typing pattern was analyzed to make sure she was who she said she was: Did she enter her password with the same rhythm as she had in the past? Or was she slowing down?

In the battle against cheating, this is the cutting edge — and a key to bolstering integrity in the booming field of online education.

Only with solid safeguards against cheating, experts say, can Internet universities show that their exams and diplomas are valid — that students haven’t just Googled their way to an “A+” or gotten the right answers texted to their smartphones.

“I think it gives credibility to the entire system, to the institution and to online education in general,” said Clay, 31, who is studying accounting at Western Governors University, a nonprofit institution that enrolls many working adults like her.

But defeating the ingenuity of computer-savvy students is a huge challenge that has attracted much investment and attention in the last year. The whole system can be corrupted with something as low-tech as a cheat sheet tucked out of camera sight.

“Online courses are under scrutiny to show evidence of integrity in ways that face-to-face courses aren’t,” said Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University in South Carolina.

William Dornan, chief executive of Phoenix-based Kryterion Inc., which monitors tests for several schools and companies, said technology is up to the task. He contends that his webcam system reduces cheating far below its occurrence in regular lecture halls.

“Security is incredibly important,” he said. “If it’s known you can cheat, that completely dilutes the brand.”

Some students say no security measures are fail-safe.

Pell Grants Should Not Pay For College Remediation

By Michael J. Petrilli / Fordham Foundation

Everyone from President Barack Obama to U.S. Representative Paul Ryan to Bill Gates seems to have a plan for improving the Federal Pell Grant Program for higher education.

A huge proportion Pell investment goes to unprepared students
Less than 10 percent of students who start in remedial education graduate from community college within three years
Image by MyTudut.

Worthy though some of these efforts may be, none get to the crux of the problem: A huge proportion of this $40 billion annual federal investment is flowing to people who simply aren’t prepared to do college-level work. And this is perverting higher education’s mission, suppressing completion rates, and warping the country’s K–12 system.

About two-thirds of low-income community-college students—and one-third of poor students at four-year colleges—need remedial (a.k.a. “developmental”) education, according to Complete College America, a nonprofit group. But it’s not working: Less than 10 percent of low-income students who start in remedial education graduate from community college within three years, and just 35 percent of such students earn a four-year degree within six years.

What if the government decreed that, starting three years hence, students would only be eligible for Pell aid if enrolled in credit-bearing college courses, thus disqualifying remedial education for support?

One could foresee various possible outcomes. Let’s start with the positive. Ambitious, low-income high school students would know that if they want to attend college at public expense (probably their only option), they would first need to become “college ready.” This would provide a clear sign and incentives for them to work hard, take college-prep classes, and raise their reading and math skills to the appropriate level.

Better Preparation

To be considered successful, the high schools serving these young people would need to get their college-bound students to a college-ready level, not just to graduation. They might offer more college-prep courses, especially for those pupils with the most promise, and make sure that teachers are up to the task.

Likewise, state officials concerned about college completion would be prodded to ensure that their high schools produce college-ready graduates, maybe boosting graduation standards accordingly. Better yet, they might start to include college matriculation and graduation rates in their high school accountability systems.

As for colleges, without a federal funding stream for remedial education many would become more selective, only admitting students who are ready for credit-bearing courses.

This would probably raise the academic tenor of the institution, for students and professors alike. And with fewer students using Pell aid, we could afford to make each grant more generous, removing financial barriers that force well-prepared low-income students to leave before graduation, or not to come at all.

In sum, disqualifying the use of Pell grants for remedial education would substantially reduce the gap between the number of students entering higher education and the number completing degrees.

Yes, there are obvious downsides. Most significantly, many students wouldn’t be able to afford remedial education and thus would never go to college in the first place. Millions of potential Pell recipients—many of them minorities—might be discouraged from even entering the higher-education pipeline. Such an outcome seems unfair and cuts against the American tradition of open access, as well as second and third chances.

Then again, it’s not so certain that these individuals are better off trying college in the first place. Most don’t make it to graduation.

Job Training

Many would be more successful in job-training programs that don’t require college-level work (or would be better off simply gaining skills on the job). Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that more than a third of jobs today only require a high school diploma or less. While these jobs won’t make young people rich, they will keep them out of the grip of poverty and can propel them to new opportunities.

Furthermore, it isn’t fair to spend scarce dollars on students who aren’t prepared for college; those dollars could instead be used by needy students who are ready. It would be better to place our bets on low-income individuals who are most likely to succeed by boosting the maximum value of a Pell grant. (At $5,500 a year, it’s worth much less today than when Congress created the program decades ago.)

Perhaps the greatest risk is that colleges would respond to the new rules in a perverse manner: by giving academic credit for courses that used to be considered “remedial.” This would be the path of least resistance. Everyone could keep doing what they were doing before, with a wink and a nod, but would further dilute the value of a college degree.

It’s hard to know how many institutions would be willing to disregard academic integrity in such a way; one could imagine it being a lamentably large number. It would be incumbent on government agencies and watchdog groups to shame colleges that attempt to take this route.

On balance, withdrawing Pell subsidies from remedial courses appears promising enough to try. Congress should require the Education Department to create a demonstration program in which colleges and universities volunteer to eliminate their remedial courses and, in return, their qualified low-income students become eligible for more generous Pell-grant money, thus reducing their own financial-aid obligation.

Perhaps offer the deal to an entire state. Study what happens. My guess is that it would have a salutary effect on the K–12 system, on higher education, and on college-completion rates. Let’s find out.

This piece originally appeared on Bloomberg View.

Useful Study Skills Guide For College Students

Study skills rank pretty high on the “must have” list for successful college students. But they’re not just about memorizing names, dates and places — that might get you through high school, but it won’t cut it for college! On top of having a good memory, you’ll need to know how to evaluate, contextualize, and compare all the information being thrown at you.

 So, how do you gain these critical study skills? You can start with the Study Skills Series on Get a grasp of what college level writing demands in “Having the “Write” Stuff for College” ( Check out “Now Read This! Effective & Efficient Reading” ( for tips on how to read to learn. Contributing to classroom discussions may not seem like a study skill, but students who ask questions and comment get a lot more of out of the class than those who keep quiet. Go to “Speak Up! Contributing to Discussions” ( Tests bring on a lot of anxiety for students; pick up some pointers for how to ease the stress of test-taking and earn a better grade in “How to Become an Ace Test-Taker”. 


 This study skills series is written by Amy Baldwin, a community college instructor and author of several books on college success, including “The First-Generation College Experience.” 


Students Can Stack Up Courses From Various Providers For Completion

Conventional College Route Shifts to ‘Education Buffet’
Increasingly, a new type of college student is emerging: one who doesn’t start and finish at a single brick-and-mortar campus, but picks and chooses credits toward a degree or job from a veritable buffet of education options. These include dual-enrollment courses, advanced-placement programs, military or corporate training, career and life experience, and classes taught online. (Hechinger Report, 05/01/13)