CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is an American TV series which follows the investigations of a team of Las Vegas forensic scientists, trying to solve mysterious and unusual murders. EDEN is the European Distance and E-Learning Network whose annual conference took place last week in Gdansk, Poland. The link between the two? I found it in a presentation during the EDEN conference, which felt as an inverse “Eureka” moment. And by an inverse “Eureka” I mean the experience of one of the protagonists in the latest Terminator movie when he discovered he was not human as he believed but a machine, programmed to believe it was human (apologies for the spoiler). A lot of pieces fall into place and make sense but you are none the happier.
The presentation that brought all of these analogies was called “Using Multiple Online Security Measures to Deliver Secure Course Exams to Distance Education Students” by a team from Pennsylvania State University’s World Campus. After two days of discussions and demonstrations at EDEN of the power of new technologies to unlock learners and teachers’ creativity, the promise of new and exciting ways for collaboration and discovery for the future of learning, of openness and freedom, the presentation from Penn State suddenly brought home the fact that there exists a very real and very different possible future for learning – that of the CSI approach I mentioned in the beginning.
The security measures in question were brought in at Penn State University in response to the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, effective August 14, 2008 in the USA, that requires institutions to authenticate the identity of distance education students. An excerpt from the Act goes like this:
“The agency or association [i.e., the accreditor] requires an institution [i.e., a college] that offers distance education or correspondence education to have processes 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 program and receives the academic credit.”
While this sounds very sensible and necessary, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable with the set of measures that Pennsylvania University was advocating for the implementation of this requirement, or as they called it The Proctored Exam. It involves biometric authentification (the students are supplied with a device that collects biometric data, a bit like the equipment Border Police use); Real-Time Data Forensics (apparently the typing pattern of each of us is unique, like fingerprints and the Proctoring Exam software requires the examinee to type randomly generated text until enough data is collected to validate their identity); constant live webcam feed, capturing the room in which the student is taking the exam; a piece of software which record every key stroke during the exam and takes control over the students computer, blocking access to the machine’s web browser and all other programmes apart from the exam software. All of those. The reason I keep referring to movies in this blog post is that it is only in movies that I have seen so much technological control over an activity – be it Crime Scene Investigation or Terminator. It made me think that the abundance of fast accessible open knowledge and innumerable possibilities to do things with this knowledge will not necessarily lead to a future of freedom, trust and creativity. Learners in the future may well be faced with a choice. To attend and graduate from an institution where learning is assessed and consequently certified on the basis of what they can do, what they can create and how they can collaborate in an environment of freely accessible knowledge, where identity is established by unique skills and outcomes of learning (for example assessment tasks may be based on individually tailored continuous monitoring of the development of the unique combination of skills and knowledge of individual students). Or, perhaps employers and state authorities will press for uniformity and certification of learning outcomes based on comparisons among students and rankings, where indeed validation of identity will be done through the methods of CSI.
The future will tell… However, taking into account the defeat of the powerful music industry in trying to impose control over what people do with their music through technological means (which is what Penn State University is hoping to do but for learning rather than music), I would place my bets for a future where technology is enabling, individual and supportive, rather than forensic and policing. After all, the founder of Pirate Bay just got elected for an European Parliament MP…