Thursday, April 23, 2009

Student Authentication Update - April 2009

In the previous post I wrote about the second round of discussions by the rulemaking committee that took place this week at the Department of Education in Washington D.C. This is the group that will decide how the distance learning student authentication issue in the Higher Education Opportunities Act will play out.

Thanks to Chris M, the Executive Director of the ITC, I can provide you with a sense of how those conversations have gone so far. The third and final meeting for this group will occur on May 18-20, at which time we expect to have clear language about how accrediting bodies should apply the law as handed down for the HEOA.

Based on the conversations late yesterday afternoon, this is how we expect (best guess?) the language will be handled: (expected changes to the proposed language in red)

602.17 Application of standards in reaching an accreditation decision.

(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, but not limited to --

(i) A secure login and pass code, randomly generated personal questions, or proctored examinations; and

[NOTE: there was widespread agreement to drop this phrase in section i since the participants agreed that we shouldn't be locked into the use of any particular technology or method - apparently, no one (who spoke) felt it should be left in.]

(ii) New identification technologies as they become widely accepted; and

[NOTE: it seems that number ii will be dropped entirely, but that is not yet certain.]

(2) Makes clear in writing that institutions should not use or rely on technologies that interfere with student privacy.

--- end of proposed rulemaking language ---

If that is what happens, then I think we will be able to breathe a big sigh of relief. Getting rid of language that specifically promotes one new technology (random questions) and an emphasis on maintaining student privacy goes a very long way toward making this a workable requirement, without closing the door on future possibilities that might develop in this space.

The next time for an update will be in May when the third and final discussion period happens for the negotiated rulemaking. Several people have worked very hard to put some common sense and reasonableness into this language. Let's hope that those thoughts prevail at the end of the day. Either way, they deserve our thanks.

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.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Blackboard Invented Nothing!

... but of course, we already knew that. Now, the USPTO seems to have figured it out as well. Today they released their Action Closing Prosecution (nonfinal). decision (announced at D2L Patent blog)

Rather than write a long blog post, I'll share my initial thoughts (from Twitter) as I first heard about this and as I was reading the USPTO report (read from bottom up). Basically, the USPTO agrees that prior art renders the Blackboard patent baseless. However, we're still not done with this mess. What next? More Blackboard shenanigans, without any doubt.

Monday, April 06, 2009

ScreenCastle Wins Round One

Just when I was ready to recommend ScreenToaster (a couple of months ago) as a slick browser-based (no download) way to make screencasts, I ran into a problem. Today I tried the new kid on the block, ScreenCastle.

The assignment that I was trying to illustrate with ScreenToaster was the possibility of having a student make a screen recording of how they created a chart using Microsoft Excel. I remember teaching those classes years ago where the students had to turn in a paper copy of their completed chart. Seems to me that this is the same question that is raised all the time about distance learning - "how do I know that Billy Bob is really the person who made that great chart and that somebody else didn't do it for him and now he's just turning in the printout?" or some other long run-on question like that.

By having the students make a screencast of their work they would be able to talk through the steps that they completed. However, to avoid technical problems I really didn't want to have all the students download and install something like CamStudio or Jing. Instead, using a browser-based recorder that is simply click-talk-click would be a better alternative.

Here is the example of this using ScreenCastle. This was my first take and the first time I used Screencastle.



That seems to work pretty well. After you record the screencast, they give you various options for getting the code to the video. Still trying to figure out whether that is a one-shot offer, or if I can easily get those same codes later on. Here is the link to the recording at Screencastle. You don't even create an account at Screencastle so there is no way of associating the screencasts with the creator. In other words, if I can't find the link (now I can in this post, but what about a student who has created a screencast and then closed that page?), I might not be able to find the screencast again.

After it worked successfully with Screencastle, I decided to do exactly the same thing with ScreenToaster. I once again made the chart in Excel. Click on the link below to see the totally unsatisfactory result. This is the same result that I saw a month or two ago.

Here's the lousy Screentoaster version of the same chart making exercise. (Yes, I really did make the chart, you just don't get to see it.)

There are certain things that I really like about ScreenToaster. If they continue to improve their service I have no doubt that it can be a player in this screencating space. One thing I don't like is how your choices go away after recording the screencast. For example, you have the choice to upload (high quality, they say) to ScreenToaster or to upload directly into YouTube. I wanted to do both, however, after uploading to ScreenToaster I was no longer able to upload to YouTube.

BTW, Screencast-o-matic is another browser-only tool in this space, and it works pretty well.