Forget disruptive. Is online learning safe?

Online learning stands to disrupt every corner of traditional education models, through MOOCs, video and new forms of credentialing

There's just one thing standing in its way—security.

An online student can simply use information readily available on the internet to ace their course. A student could hypothetically pay someone to take their exam for them without getting caught. Because, on the Internet, it's nearly impossible see what students are doing—unless you're in the business of online proctoring, that is. 

Just like in-person proctors, online proctors make sure students are who they say are and that they are not cheating. To get the lowdown on the online testing process and how proctors are able to secure online learning, Education Dive spoke with Jarrod Morgan, co-founder and vice president of business development at ProctorU, and Andrew Caldwell, director of engineering and distance education business development at Kryterion, about how they do it.

A look inside one of Kryterion's online proctoring centers.


Andrew Caldwell likes the phrase "We’ve seen it all" when discussing students cheating. It comes with a note of caution, though. "The minute I say that, something new comes around,” he said.

Some students will "always try to beat the system," Caldwell said. Whether it's online or in-person, "if you leave a plate of cookies in the kitchen and walk away, people are going to eat the cookies."

But do students think it's easier to cheat online? "I know for a fact that that is the perception," Caldwell answered. 

Students believe they can hide behind the anonymity of the computer screen, but Jarrod Morgan of ProctorU warned that "just because people might be more willing to cheat online, doesn’t mean it’s easier."


Both Caldwell and Morgan warned me that online proctoring, just like in-person proctoring, will never catch cheating 100% of the time.

“There’s a misnomer that online proctoring is going to be able to catch everything," Caldwell said. "The organization that says that—you should turn and run 180 degrees the other way."

Morgan noted there are “lots of advantages” to online proctoring. For one, he said it's very easy "to scale and serve a large group of people." Just like online learning, online proctoring makes for a very "efficient model" because "you can reach a lot more people." Caldwell said the ratio of proctors to test takers is "way better online" and that "if you are the student, you feel like you are being watched the entire time."

However, the massive scale of online education raises its own set of problems. Morgan said that "if we're going to serve 100 different people on 100 different computers on 100 different internet connections at 100 different locations, there [are] opportunities there for a mistake." Caldwell says the challenge is that, with anywhere from four to 20 test-takers on a proctor's screen, each test-taker is in a completely different environment and situation, which makes it harder for online proctors.

Caldwell maintains online and in-person proctoring can be equally effective—"given the right variables." As it stands right now, he says, the use of technology makes online proctoring more effective.


Kryterion and ProctorU each approach online proctoring in their own distinctive way. 

Caldwell tells us that Kryterion looks for any "aberrant behavior." If they see it, they will stop the exam and "ask [the student] to cease and desist." Depending on their clients' instructions—some institutions ask Kryterion to terminate an exam at the first sign of aberrant behavior, others ask Kryterion to have the student complete the exam despite instances of aberrant behavior—Kryterion records and bookmarks all aberrant behavior and presents it to the institution, who "decide what they want to do with it."

ProctorU, on the other hand, takes what Morgan calls "a proactive approach to proctoring."

"Our job is not to catch cheating," he said. "It's to prevent cheating." 

ProctorU was founded when Morgan and fellow co-founder Don Kassner tried to find an online proctoring solution for Andrew Jackson University, where Kassner served as president and Morgan served as director of technology. They devised a model which they called the Definition of Proctoring:

  • You have to see the student
  • You have to see what they’re doing
  • You have to know who they are

Morgan and Kassner believed that if proctors could ascertain these three things, they could effectively secure test-taking. The only difference was that they were going to use technology to achieve it. 

Morgan says that, as part of the ProctorU process, students can see and talk to their proctors and proctors can see and talk to the students. Once that connection is established, "the proctor can verbally walk the student through the process they need to follow to get into the test," he said. "All [students] really need to do is sit back and concentrate on the material of the exam. We'll make sure [students] get into it and we minimize as many distractions as we can."

For more on ProctorU's process, here's a video that shows how it works:


For online courses to count for credit, accrediting bodies must make sure that exams taken online are safe and secure. Jarrod Morgan described the difficulty facing massive open online courses (MOOCs) in their transition from just providing content to trying to compete in the higher education space and giving credit to their students:“Spreading knowledge is one thing, giving people credentials is an entirely different thing and is very, very complicated.”

Jarrod knows this all too well. The American Council on Education (ACE) recently examined ProctorU's monitoring solution as part of its assessment of five Coursera MOOCs. All five courses received a seal of approval, indicating ProctorU "was at least as good or better than what you see in a large lecture class," according to Cathy A. Sandeen, ACE's VP for education attainment and innovation.

When asked what the difference is between online learning through universities and MOOCs, Andrew Caldwell said, “It’s just a volume game. They’re doing the same thing a normal institution would do, they’re just doing it on a massive scale."

Kryterion and ProctorU are proving online learning can be just as safe and secure as a campus-based education. But “we know these organizations are changing and new legislation is coming. It’s really built around authentication, how do you authenticate who the student says they are? And then how do you secure the environment?”

As MOOCs seek to compete with more traditional higher education set-ups, online proctoring is going to be essential to their ability to grant credit. 

“Right now, we exceed any and all regulations. As those regulations change, we will continue to adapt and add in more layers,” Caldwell said.


The future of education is a big question mark—what will classrooms look like? How will students be taught? What will be online and what will be in-person?

Although he's part of the online movement, Jarrod Morgan believes “there is always going to be a place for campus-based, in-person learning. There’s no question that that’s never going to go away." But "just simply sitting and listening to a lecture and taking notes and taking quizzes, there’s no reason to do that in person.”

Caldwell sees the future of education heading in a similar direction: "I don’t think [in-person learning] is ever going to go away, but what we’re seeing is a tremendous growth in a blended model."

But Caldwell thinks online learning can still see significant growth. "Where you will really see it explode," he said, "is when it is adopted in a full-scale model where there’s interaction between individuals in an online setting.”

That day is coming—and when it does, Kryterion and ProctorU will be ready to help institutions and organizations ensure an online education is just as cheat-proof as any other.


Would you like to see more education news like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Education Dive email newsletter! You may also want to read Education Dive's look at 10 iPad competitors for school tech budgets.

Filed Under: Online Learning