Monday, July 20, 2009

Farming Credits and Your Next Million $

One of the more frequented posts of mine is this one on the fear and uncertainty about the Higher Education Opportunity Act's language about ascertaining a student's identity. In the post I noted that "the requirement is for accreditors, not schools, meaning that this requirement will likely become part of the accreditation list of to-dos next time it rolls around." This appears to be happening. The last time I talked to a SACS VP, a few weeks ago, she went out of her way to tell me that this authentication issue was coming around the bend. There were no specifics. She also mentioned, by the way, that it will soon not be possible to reject transfer credits merely because they come from an unaccredited institution. This seems bizarre to me, but I haven't followed up on that yet.

The problem of authentication stems from the easy anonymity of the internet. If a student signs up for and takes online courses, how can you be sure that it actually is the registered student doing the work? How easy would it be to hire someone else out to do it?

With face to face interactions, this is still possible, but seems to me would be pretty rare. You'd essentially have to hire someone to become your alter ego, interacting in the classroom with students and faculty. It would take a peculiar sort of person to be willing to do that (are you listening, Mr. Ripley?). But with a purely online environment, an unscrupulous student could conceivably hire different stand-ins for each class. It becomes much easier to hide one's identity in general.

Interestingly, this happens in online games already. Massively multi-player online games like World of Warcraft have their own virtual currency. A player who doesn't want to grind through the lower levels, suffering the pains of an entry-level character, can simply buy a powerful avatar with cash by converting US dollars to World of Warcraft gold. There are plenty of so-called farmers out there who specialize in creating this product (as well as others). Because the internet is ubiquitous, the farmer can live in China. This June 30 article from GossipGamers states that:
According to a survey in 2008 by Richard Heeks, he estimates 80-85% of the gold farmers are based in China and the virtual currency market generates between $200 million and $1 billion annually.
This trade, however, is to be banned by the Chinese government. I suspect it will go on anyway, but the larger point is what else can they farm? College credits, maybe? Language would probably be a problem in China, but perhaps less so in India. And home-grown credit farms are not unlikely either. I remember from my SIU days that there was a guy who made a living just doing math tutoring, with his posters all over campus: Vince makes Sense! I wonder if Vince is still in business. How much harder would it be for a financially-strapped grad student, say, to spoof a couple of online sections of Math 101 for cash? Don't you think that's already happening?

I've heard rumors about devices coming to market that would provide some level of cheat-proofing. Imagine a USB-plug-in gizmo that monitors audio and video around your computer as you take an online test at home. In my opinion this will never work. That's must my gut feeling as an IT guy. Even that could relatively easily be gotten around by a clever student. Think how hard it is to prevent cheating when the instructor is actually in the room walking around...

This is a hard problem. I foresee a large market for identity-spoof-proof products. (There's a brand name for you: go pay $10 for won't be sorry!). It's an interesting line of thought to imagine what is it about YOU that ties you to a particular product: a writing, homework, test, interaction... Really, the only thing that cannot be spoofed is the connection that it comes from your mind and body. So, for example, a type-sensor that notes how you use the keyboard when typing would be very hard to imitate. Potentially, another person could learn the pauses and fits and starts that characterize your particular style of keyboarding, but this I imagine to be so time-consuming that the cost would become prohibitive. In a different vein, deep patterns of style in vocabulary and grammar would be invisible to the spoofer, but could be perhaps detected with pattern-recognition tools like latent semantic analysis.

So there, dear reader: I've presented you with a latent demand for a new product, two solutions, and a brand name. When you make your next million, please make out the thank-you check to:
Stanislav Zaa
Gmail, Com
Alternatively, should you turn to the dark side, please hire me as a consultant and we'll see how we can get around those pesky keyboard and semantics limitations. (Just kidding. Really. No, Really.)


  1. David, if you have a few high stakes examinations, then the opportunity and the desirability of spoofing is high. But if learners are creating a running portfolio, and collecting feedback in a community on that portfolio, its a different matter. Perhaps someone will lead a dual life, but most of us are too busy leading one to try it.

    In your Warcraft example, if I were to buy a farmed character and enter the game at a high level without learning anything by apprenticing, I doubt I'd last long, or that I could "pass" as a high level player. My portfolio would not align with my actions, and most likely being at that higher level my skill (as seen in the portfolio) would be tested. Which is why my WSU Colleagues and I are talking about learning in communities, where there are many tests as one moves from novice to expert in a community of practice.

    In that regard, we'd like your help credentialling a piece of our portfolio.

    Would you please help Theron, Jayme and me by working through the live demo we are preparing for a TLT webinar next week. This is a 10 minute request and a chance to explore harvesting.

    We ask you to start here and then follow the link near the top of the blog post for the Webinar activity.

    On the next page you'll find a roadmap and Workshop activity.

    If you would please rate either the student work or the assignment that prompted it. You may repeat the activity or share with others, we just ask for thoughtful ratings to make the demo useful.

    For the workshop we chose a short piece of student work and a short assignment and simplified the critical thinking rubric to speed the process.

    We’ll be walking our audience into the beginning of the rating to help them get started, however, we want it to work without lots of hand-holding.

    Other comments are welcome in the blog post to help improve the experience.


  2. WOW Gold, World of Warcraft Gold - Buy WOW gold at our shop, fast delivery of WoW gold and unbeatable prices make us so popular within the World of Warcraft community.

  3. Nils, I hadn't thought about that, but you're right. The more creative and non-standardized the work is, the harder it would be (more expensive) to find someone to do it. Thanks for the invitation to participate with the harvesting portfolio. I'll do it this evening after this whole-day retreat that's planned off campus (without cell phones, the horror...).

    The farmed Warcraft characters are, from what I've read, easily identified and the players generally despised for having taken the easy road.

    I think it's hilarious that someone spammed the blog with an advertisement for World of Warcraft gold. I'll leave it up as an ironic knickknack.

  4. Final Fantasy XI has come up with a counter measure against hackers: the security token. Every time you log on, you get a different number to enter in the log in screen. So two people in two different locations cannot log in unless they share information. Would there be an application like this that would make it difficult for different people to access an account from two different locations? A USB device that would have to be used to access the educational portal?

  5. Richard, software companies have used something like what you suggest (they call them 'dongles' for some reason). In order to get the software to work, you have to plug in a USB device. I suppose it could be made to work in a LMS system for online learning. You'd just have to have a way to replace lost key devices easily. It's a good idea. I wonder if someone's already doing it...

  6. Anonymous7:00 PM

    It's hard to fake an oral examination. They're just more difficult to administer.