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 spoof-proof.com--you 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 ZaaAlternatively, 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.)