Student Authentication in Higher Education-Authorized Access

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Welcome to the first post in our 3-part series about student authentication and the implications for higher ed. Over the next few days, we will be taking a look at three distinct areas in which institutions of higher learning are having to take a closer look. Authorized Access, Active Authentication, and Assessment Auditing are critical in efforts to ensure academic integrity.

Authorized Access

Losing weight is hard.  Anyone who has tried to lose weight knows that it takes discipline in three areas – eating less, eating the right things, and exercise.  When you control your eating but do not exercise, weight loss is not optimal.  When you exercise, but eat lots of sweets, you will not lose as much weight.  Believe me, as a fifty-year-old, I am speaking from much experience in this struggle of being diligence with all three elements.

At this age, after a 25+ year career related to higher education, there are also some things I have recognized as common struggles for higher education leaders.

Just as the desire to lose weight is common among people, the desire to foster a culture of academic integrity is common among school leaders. 

Everyone seems to want to do it, but few are truly able to succeed.  As with weight loss, there are multiple matters related to academic integrity that are interrelated, but distinct, when it comes to fostering a culture of academic integrity among students. Issues related to authorized access, active authentication, and assessment auditing are intertwined, yet separate.

Authorized Access is ensuring that only the person who has been authorized to access a course (or other educational content) can obtain access.  This is typically achieved with a username and password.  A username and password can help prevent an unwanted person from getting access to the course, but they do not prevent the actual student from providing that username and password to someone else to allow them access to the course to complete tasks acting as the student.  Usernames and passwords are sometimes supplemented with challenge questions.  While this provides an additional layer of protection, the student can still provide the other person with the requested information.  Like dieting without exercise, usernames and passwords are helpful, but will not fully attain the goal of academic integrity or foster true student authentication.

Active Authentication is ensuring that the person engaged in the learning activities of the course is consistently the actual student who registered for the course.  Schools typically authenticate a student at the time they are admitted to the school by obtaining copies of their official identification documents (i.e. driver’s license, SSN, transcripts).  After this initial identity verification, the most common instance of learner authentication comes at the time of a proctored exam when the student must provide some form of identity verification.  But even if we prove the person taking the exam is the registered student, that does not document that it was that person who participated in the other course assignments.  Few courses compute all of the course grades from just proctored exams.  Many courses utilize forms of authentic assessment such as projects and papers and do not require a proctored exam.  So, using proctoring as the most common form of learner authentication post-enrollment is like exercising, but not eating right.

What is needed is a solution that actively authenticates the students at multiple, institution-determined moments in the learning experience.

Assessment Auditing is ensuring that the student is appropriately demonstrating their knowledge.  The concept of assessment auditing includes the practices of plagiarism detection and proctoring.  Schools often use services that detect plagiarism on papers or projects that students submit as a form of assessing what they know or can do.  Schools also often require a proctored exam which serves as a deterrent to cheating.  But a student could still hire someone to write a paper for them and even with the most diligent of proctoring technology, some cheating goes undetected.

When a school only detects for plagiarism and proctors exams but is not actively authenticating students, that is like eating chocolate while exercising – there is a lot of activity going on, but really what is being gained?

Lori McNabb, writing for the Continuing Higher Education Review authored an article entitled “An Update on Student Authentication: Implementation in Context.” This article is strongly recommended reading for higher education leaders interested in this topic as it is a comprehensive analysis of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008 and its implications for accrediting agencies and the schools they accredit.  In the article, she cited Gallant in providing the following five categories of academic dishonesty: plagiarism, fabrication, falsification, misrepresentation, or misbehavior.  Violations of authorized access could be considered instances of falsification.  Violations of active authentication could be considered instances of misrepresentation. The HEOA defined misrepresentation as “falsely representing oneself, efforts, or abilities.”  Violations of assessment auditing which indicate plagiarism or cheating could be considered instances of plagiarism, fabrication or misbehavior.  The three related but distinct issues being discussed in this blog series could cover all five of the academic dishonesty categories.

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