Thinking of cheating? These FAU students sell tools to stop it

A pair of Florida Atlantic University business school grads who once bemoaned the ease of cheating on online tests have jumped into the increasingly competitive world of high-tech proctoring with a twist, a patent and a mentor with big credentials in the electronics of education.

Their first clients (though not their only ones): FAU business professors.

If you got lost somewhere around the words “high-tech proctoring,” it may be time for a refresher course in the world of education, which these days involves tens of thousands of students watching their lectures on laptops and taking the ensuing exams online as well – from just about anywhere.

Elena Soboleva came to FAU from Kyrgyszstan to earn her MBA. Somewhere along the way, she met fellow MBA student Adam Roth and complained that many of their peers were gaming tests – putting an honest student at a a disadvantage and cheapening the degree.

While Roth gave the matter more than a passing thought, the two didn’t truly dig in until $250,000 was on the line in a university business competition.

Soboleva and Roth decided to try their hand at the business of short-circuiting cheats and thus the seeds of Honorlock were sown.

“Who knew they’d give someone a prize for protecting student integrity?” she said.

They didn’t claim first place, but Roth said the $13,000 in cash and prizes for second still propelled them two years later into an industry in which even a newcomer like Honorlock will proctor roughly 100,000 tests this school year and is positioned to grab thousands more.

At FAU, the portion of student credit hours earned through online courses alone has nearly tripled in five years from 7 percent to 20 percent, university officials report. That includes so-called lecture-capture courses, in which maybe 50 students attend a live class in one time slot and then the lecture is replayed on demand for hundreds of others. Those students sit for online exams, too.

Where once it was enough for a professor to roam the aisles of a classroom, checking for cheat sheets and keeping an eye out for students signaling one another, proctoring today’s tests often requires web cams and biometric IDs.

A field of more than a dozen test-proctoring services has emerged in the past decade.

The companies have two tasks when someone logs on: confirm the test-taker’s ID and ensure the student isn’t cheating to get the answer. They have found a variety of ways to do this.

Typically, the company gets some sort of visual on the test taker via a web cam and then asks the student to show the camera his or her ID. Other security layers can include software that recognizes faces or even keystroking patterns.

The next step is to monitor the student during the test.

In the online proctoring world, that is done in one of three ways:

  • A remote but live proctor who watches in real time.
  • A record-and-review method in which a proctor watches the testing session, but not in real time.
  • An automated system, in which the software is programmed to spot abnormalities and flag them.

Most proctoring services rely on audio and visuals to curb cheating – to ensure collaborators aren’t in the room, that notes aren’t planted in the desk, etc. Some use software to prevent a student from searching the web during the test or opening other screens where answers could be lurking. The people or software monitoring the exam are looking for tells, averted eyes, frequent bathroom breaks, test interruptions.

Honorlock is a record-and-review outfit, which is easier on the personnel logistics and easier on a budget.

But the recorded visuals came last. What set the company apart is a patented secret weapon to catch the cheater.

As students, the cheat that Soboleva and Roth were particularly fed up with was the out-of-sight Google search. For those who haven’t taken a test in the past decade, entire sites have popped up on which both test questions and answers are posted – sites that can be accessed by a cell phone during a test.

When the two began to collaborate, their one goal was to foil that common con.

With the help of some computer-savvy collaborators, the technology they devised became Honorlock’s secret recipe – one it has patented. Suffice it to say, searching the Internet during a test secured by Honorlock will send a signal to their system: You’re caught.

A secret weapon, however, wasn’t enough to get Honorlock onto the vendor list of universities. Soboleva and Roth needed someone to give the product a test drive. And they needed space and advice to turn a good idea into a working business.

FAU professor Mary Schindlbeck, who teaches information technology and operations management, was an eager guinea pig. She wasn’t a fan of the technology she and her colleagues were using.

Students had trouble signing in. They had trouble downloading the required software. No one answered the phone when a student needed to trouble shoot. And, in the end, students still subverted the security, Schindlbeck said.

“They (Soboleva and Roth) came to me and said, ‘We have this idea,’” Schindlbeck recalled. “It had to be easy – where students weren’t frustrated.” She didn’t want students to have to install software. “They don’t want to download things onto their computers, and I don’t blame them.”

Schindlbeck said Honorlock delivered a system that hit all those marks. “You don’t need any instructions,” she said. “That they thwart the efforts of students Googling is great.”

Like most online proctor companies, Honorlock lets the teachers make the final call.

“I still get a few. It’s usually students who don’t have a camera on them. (Honorlock) has stopped the Internet usage. I don’t see that anymore. But I had somebody who actually put their hand over the camera.

“Here’s the other advantage to doing this: It makes the conversation with the student quite easy. … They’re caught dead to rights. They see themselves and they go, ‘Oh,’ and that’s the end. It eliminates the controversy.”

Soboleva and Roth weren’t just founders, they were the company’s first proctors. But they had to nurse a business, too. FAU’s Tech Runway gave them some start-up money, office space and help to pitch their business to investors.

Their persistence landed them Dan Cane, the Lake Worth High grad who now heads Boca Raton software firm Modernizing Medicine, but who also founded the education technology outfit Blackboard Inc.

“We talked about proctoring even at Blackboard,” said Cane, about the company that pioneered technology that supported teacher lesson plans and more before he sold it. “Blackboard’s approach (to proctoring) was done through partnerships.”

But today, technology opens doors that were closed to the company 10 years ago.

“It’s 10 percent innovations and inventions and 90 percent execution. The idea can get you in the door,” said Cane, who began as an unofficial mentor and eventually joined Honorlock’s board of directors.

Roth said it was Cane who encouraged them to take their product on the road and show it off at conventions. He advised them about how to contact universities and what to expect when it came to landing a contract in the red-tape filled land of public education.

“It’s like if we wanted to start AirBnB and we talked to Conrad Hilton,” Roth said.

FAU gives its colleges and instructors options to use certain proctoring services, and Honorlock has hooked about 50 of those educators and is steadily winning users one building at a time.

This summer it landed a pilot at Florida International University that this semester expanded to landing status as an approved service this fall. The University of Florida has also committed to a pilot, said spokesman Leo Bentovim. The company has professors at two university campuses in Utah, another in Washington state and a community college in California.

“Neither of us had any intention to start a business,” Roth reflects. “It was FAU that really pushed us to use our resources. There’s a whole ecosystem at FAU that was in place.”

And as they grew the business, something else happened. Soboleva and Roth got married.

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