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To Monitor Online Testing, Western Governors U. Gives Students Webcams

Welcome packets for students at Western Governors University now include a free Webcam, part of an extensive monitoring program used by the online university to make sure test-takers are who they say they are.

At Western Governors, the average student is 36 years old, has a family, and takes a full course load on top of holding a full-time job. Because it’s convenient for them to be able to take tests from home, students have embraced the technology, says Janet W. Schnitz, associate provost for assessment and interim provost at the university.

The university, which first started handing out cameras in July 2010, now has over 30,000 Web cams in use.

Before 2009, when the university introduced its Webcam pilot program, students had to go to one of 6,000 on-site assessment centers to take a test. For many students, this could involve taking time off work, securing a babysitter, and then driving several hours to the center.

“Trying to get to different sites to take these exams—that took up to four hours to complete—was quite onerous on the students,” Ms. Schnitz said. “So we began looking for a secure environment that would allow us to identify the student and provide a secure testing environment that was more conducive to the lifestyle of our adult students.”

The camera, which is mounted on a stick, is not the standard Web camera found on a computer. Standard Webcams, Ms. Schnitz said, provide only a view of the student. With this camera, proctors can see the computer screen, the students’ hands and profile, and a 180-degree view of the room.

While the university is still working out some bugs in the system, such as full compatibility with Apple products and issues with satellite Internet connections, Ms. Schnitz says the transition has been fairly seamless and beneficial for both the university and its students. The system the university uses, known as Webassessor, was developed by the online testing technology company Kryterion.

“The one thing I think that really helps us the most is that they have full streaming and live proctors who are actually watching the students during the entire testing event,” Ms. Schnitz said. “We really felt that it was important that it not be viewed after the fact, and that it be viewed during the actual testing.”

The idea behind the live proctor is twofold: to have someone monitoring students and checking for any aberrant behavior and also to have someone there in case a student has a technical issue.

Students’ dress is another issue the university is still working out when using the cameras, Ms. Schnitz said. Before beginning an exam, the student’s hair has to be pulled fully behind his or her ears to make sure they don’t have any device feeding them answers. For some students, such as those who wear headscarves for religious reasons, this can present a problem. In those cases, the university can arrange for female proctors or students can choose to take the test at one of the on-site centers.

The university administers roughly 2,000 of the 10,000 tests it gives each month at physical testing centers, and the rest through the Webcam system, according to Ms. Schnitz.

Some students choose to take assessments with the traditional on-site proctor because they find it easier to concentrate in that traditional environment. “Sometimes they want to get away from the kids to take the test,” Ms. Schnitz joked.

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