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Blackboard Offers Student-Identity-Verification Service

Students could encounter new verification questions when they log onto Blackboard this fall if their college or university chooses to add on the Acxiom Identify-X service.

The service is the latest response to new regulations, created in the wake of the renewal of Higher Education Act, that require colleges to verify that the person enrolled in an online course is the same person who does the course work. The underlying technology has been used in the financial and banking industries, but now it has been adapted for higher education — in this case, to verify the identity of students who use Blackboard for their courses.

Acxiom's technology relies on a database of public information that is not stored at or collected by the student's institution. The software “periodically and randomly” poses challenge questions. Unlike the challenge questions typically used for bank and e-mail password retrieval, which rely on user-generated challenge quetions, these questions will ask things like “Which is a prior street name of yours?” “Which is a prior ZIP code of yours?” and “What is the last six digits of your phone number?” Students can choose among multiple answers, one of them being “None of the above.”

Clients of Blackboard won't be required to use this service, said Matt Small, Blackboard's chief business officer. How the service will work at a particular college will depend on the preference of the institution, he said. The timing of the questions, as well as how frequently they show up, will be in the hands of on-campus administrators.

Students will not be locked out of an assignment if they answer questions incorrectly, Mr. Small said. Instead, the results will appear on a report generated by software.

“A student's name and password is a means of verifying a student's identity, but best practices would require going further than that,” Mr. Small said. “This service is one of the least invasive options, while also being cost effective.”

Clients of Blackboard will get a certain number of free authentications based on their full-time enrollment, said Michael Jortberg, Acxiom's higher-education-industry leader. Though Mr. Jortberg declined to provide exact numbers, he said the number of free authentications could range from 500 for a small institution to 2,500 for a large institution.

If institutions need additional authentications, they can be purchased from Acxiom. Acxiom also has partnerships outside of Blackboard with about 10 other institutions, including Excelsior College, a distance-education institution based in Albany, N.Y.

Still, the service raises concerns for some administrators, like Rhonda M. Epper, the co-executive director of learning technology for the Colorado Community College system. Ms. Epper says institutions that offer many online courses could easily exceed the number of free authentications Acxiom is offering. The cost of authenticating additional students would have to be absorbed by institutions or passed along to students.

Ms. Epper pointed to a list of best practices published by the Western Cooperative for Telecommunications. She said the only requirements mentioned in the legislation and in the U.S. Education Department regulations are secure login credentials and proctored exams.

“Institutions will need to think carefully about which authentication strategies work best for their programs, rather than rushing into any particular technology-based solutions,” Ms. Epper said.

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