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Posted at 12:35 PM ET, 01/09/2013

MOOCS — Here come the credentials

The most widely used platform for massive open online courses, or MOOCs, has just introduced another idea to shake up higher education: identity verification through keystrokes.

MOOC provider Coursera announced Wednesday that it would offer “verified certificates” for students who submit photo identification via webcams and typing samples as they turn in their work. These certificates would cost anywhere from $30 to $100. The idea is being piloted with MOOCs from Duke University, Georgia Tech, the University of California-San Francisco and the University of Illinois.

Our story notes that two other MOOC providers — edX and Udacity — are going a more traditional route. They are selling certificates that students can obtain by passing an exam at a secure testing center supervised by proctors. The edX certificate will cost $95. Udacity’s, according to co-founder Sebastian Thrun, costs $89.

Proctoring for college tests is universally understood. But using keyboard biometrics? Not so much.

Coursera, which has more than 2 million registered users and 33 participating schools, says that its idea is not meant to prevent cheating. The purpose of the keystroke screening, the company says, is to help verify, in tandem with photo IDs, that a typist is who he or she claims to be.

Andrew Ng, a Stanford University computer scientist who is a co-founder of Coursera, referred me to this Wikipedia entry on “keystroke dynamics” when I asked for background on the proposal.

Mohamed Noor, a Duke biologist, teaches a MOOC on genetics and evolution that will be part of the verified certificate trial. I quoted him in our story as saying that such a certificate is “probably worth a very small amount of money.”

What Noor meant by “very small” was a comparison to what a student pays for a full university degree.

Echoing others I consulted, Noor cautioned that the keystroke verification process doesn’t show that the work submitted for a class is a solo effort. Any number of people might be sitting with a student while the student types.

Therefore, there are inherent limits in what a verified certificate means. That is at least part of the reason why the certificates don’t convey course credits toward a degree.

But Noor, who is a huge fan of Coursera, emailed me this morning to ask that I quote him further, which my editor and I are happy to do. Noor said he does not want to be perceived as commenting negatively on the Coursera initiative. To the contrary — he sees it as an advance in higher education.

“This is a step in the direction that these MOOCs need to go,” Noor said. He also added, without intending a pun about his class, “this is an evolutionary process.”

It’s also worth noting that I spoke Tuesday with Robert Whelan, president and chief executive of Pearson VUE, which is teaming with Udacity and edX to offer proctored tests.

I asked him in general about the value of keystroke recognition in online testing security. He said: “We think that’s not ready for prime time.” But I didn’t have a chance to ask Whelan about the Coursera initiative directly because the news at the time was under embargo.

Whelan said Pearson VUE offers proctored testing at about 4,000 sites worldwide. About 500 of the facilities are owned by Pearson, he said, and the rest are available through cooperative agreements.

Here’s the Pearson procedure: A student registers in advance for a test and goes to a testing center. Pearson takes a digital photograph of the student, a palm-vein scan and a digital signature. Pearson asks for two forms of identification. At least two proctors observe the testing. And Pearson digitally records “every single moment” a student is sitting in a testing seat, Whelan said.

By  |  12:35 PM ET, 01/09/2013

 
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