Monday, April 20, 2009

Distance Ed Authentication Rulemaking

The second round of discussions by the rulemaking committee occurs at the Department of Education in Washington D.C. on Tuesday through Thursday, April 21 - 23. It is this group that will decide whether the final resolution of the distance student authentication issue goes beyond the clarifying language attached to the Higher Education Opportunity Act.

You can read the draft language (PDF submitted by the Department of Education) for the second round of discussions by Team III - Accreditation. Of primary importance to distance educators is Issue #1: Definitions of correspondence and distance education and Issue #10: Authentication of distance ed and correspondence ed students.

Issue #1: The lesser of the two issues, this one is an attempt to determine definitions for correspondence courses and distance education. The draft language defines various features of correspondence courses and then states that "Correspondence education may not be considered distance education." (pg. 2)

The definition of distance education is proposed as:
"Distance education means education that uses one or more of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (4) to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously. The technologies include--

  • (1) The internet;
  • (2) One-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite, or wireless communications devices;
  • (3) Audio conferencing; or
  • (4) Video cassettes, DVDs, and CD-ROMs, if the cassettes, DVDs, or CD-ROMs are used in a course in conjunction with any of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (3)."
This is significant in that it clearly delineates between correspondence courses and distance education. However, it is also significant because it does NOT differentiate between fully online courses and hybrid courses. One of the concerns is whether the distance ed requirements will also be applied to hybrid courses since the students are sometimes "separated from the instructor."

Issue #10: (pages 37-40) "Amends current regulations regarding change of scope and agency standards to include references to distance education and correspondence education and to require processes to authenticate distance education and correspondence education students."

This is the section of the HEOA that has all distance educators shaking their heads in disbelief. Fortunately, the draft language isn't too far crazy - but it's not perfect either:
"(g) Requires institutions that offer distance education or correspondence education to have processes in place 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 course or program and receives the academic credit. The agency meets this requirement if it--
  • (1) Requires institutions to verify the identity of a student who participates in class or coursework by using such methods as–
  • (i) A secure login and pass code, randomly generated personal questions, or proctored examinations; and
  • (ii) New identification technologies as they become widely accepted; and
  • (2) Makes clear that institutions should not use or rely on technologies that interfere with student privacy."
I certainly hope that the good people working on the negotiated rulemaking come to realize that the inclusion of the "randomly generated personal questions" is very problematic. There is only one company (Acxiom) that is trying to push this down out throats and I question how much influence they have had (can you say lobbyists? Sure, I knew you could) on the process. Being a bit of a conspiracy theorist, I also question whether Blackboard has been influencing this legislation since they are in bed with Acxiom and would potentially stand to benefit if this language doesn't get removed.

The “randomly generated personal questions” is absolutely one of the methods that we were attempting to exclude via the clarifying language as a new identification technology that is not ready for prime time (another is the remote proctor "big Brother" camera). One way to read the language is that they are mentioning three possibilities for authenticating students - and that random personal questions will not be a requirement. However, just by having that language in there leaves open the door for an accrediting agency to require it.

BTW - I'm rather peeved that our accreditors, the Higher Learning Commission (North Central Association), saw fit to jump the gun on the student authentication language in the HEOA. The accreditation report that was due a couple of weeks ago asked us which of these intrusive student authentication methods we have already put in place at the college. We cited the clarifying language of the HEOA and told them that we are doing everything that we are required by law to do at this time. I still stand by that statement.


TheGreenEpidemic said...

Acxiom solution to student authentication is not sufficient. Additionally I am not comfortable with some 3rd party agency knowing so much information about me. There is a huge privacy concern here. It is obvious that Acxiom has powerful lobbyists working for them. There is a better solution out there, and i am working on it.

Susan said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.