Understanding the HEOA’s Student Authentication Provision for Distance Education Programs

Hundreds of distance education administrators breathed a collective sigh of relief upon learning in a recent online seminar that the vast majority of schools are already in compliance with the Higher Education Opportunity Act’s new rules on student authentication.

During last week’s live broadcast of How the Higher Education Act Affects Your Online Courses, Dr. Fred Lokken, who helped draft a portion of the HEOA legislation, addressed the concerns raised by his peers about what the new law will mean for their programs, and to what lengths they will have to go to verify students are who they say they are.

But, for now, institutions must simply “verify the identity of a student who participates in class or coursework” by using, at the discretion of the institution, methods such as:

  • A secure login and pass code;
  • Proctored examinations; and
  • New or other technologies and practices that are effective in verifying student identification.

Most programs already use a secure login and pass code.

It could easily have turned into a very tricky, expensive problem, and there are still some concerns.
“Clearly, an undercurrent of the discussion is the assumption that fraudulent activity is occurring in online courses,” Lokken says. “Sadly, there is no definitive national data to confirm or refute this assumption. We know that distance education programs are vigilant in monitoring for fraud and dishonesty–and based on the realities of the HEOA–programs will have to redouble efforts going forward to ensure course and program integrity.”

For many distance educators, already feeling targeted by those who question the quality of online education, it felt as if their programs were being picked on or held to a higher standard than traditional courses that don’t verify that the students sitting in the classroom are who they say they are, says Lokken, chair of the Instructional Technology Council and associate dean of the WebCollege at Truckee Meadows Community College.

During the seminar, Lokken explained the relevant provisions of the HEOA, the likely impact on distance education programs, the role of regional accreditation agencies, and the actions schools should take in the near and long term.

As regional accreditation agencies work to revise their policies later this year, Lokken recommends reaching out to the agencies (as well as the Department of Education) to provide suggestions and offer assistance. He also stressed the importance of developing a trail of evidence regarding practices you have put in place to ensure academic integrity and minimize fraud.