Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Facial Biometrics: A Solution or a Problem for MOOCs Assessments?

By Ramón Talavera-Franco
Photo author Mounirzok
I just registered in the Performance and Assessment in the Virtual Classroom Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). This is one of the four courses offered in the Virtual Teaching Program designed by the University of California, Irvine/ Extension through Coursera. This is the sixth MOOC that I have taken so far. It differs from others in two aspects: 1) the course requires that participants who pursue a Specialization Certificate register through a facial biometric system, 2) the cost of the course is 39 dollars. Since both aspects are controversial, I’m going to concentrate only in the facial biometrics feature, leaving the cost issue for a future post.
What is Biometrics?
Woodward, J.D., et all. (2003) defined biometrics as “[a]ny automatically measurable, robust and distinctive physical characteristic or personal trait that can be used to identify an individual or verify the claimed identity of an individual” (p. 1).

There are different types of biometrics:
· Iris scan
· Retinal scan
· Facial recognition
· Speaker/voice recognition
· Fingerprint
· Hand/finger geometry
· Dynamic signature verification
· Keystroke dynamics

Why use Facial Biometrics in MOOCs?
The recent boom of MOOCs by different providers has raised different concerns from scholars, practitioners, and academic administrators. One of those concerns is to have the certainty that the person who answers the quizzes and assignments required to accredit a MOOC is the same person who is registered in the course. So far, MOOCs providers neither have a truthful system to verify the identity of who is in front of the computer, nor have shown too much concern about the matter. Perhaps one of the reasons of this decision is because the majority of MOOCs doesn’t offer academic transcripts or diplomas––instead, they only offer a Statement of Accomplishment when the course is completed. However, the increase interest in MOOCs, and the recent offering of specialization certificates in selected MOOCs, requires more secure online identity verification systems. Therefore, MOOCs providers are looking for the right formula to authenticate MOOC takers. Facial biometrics is one of the solutions.

Facial Biometrics used by Coursera
Students registered in selected Coursera MOOCs have the option to register trough Signature Track to obtain a Specialization Certificate. According to Coursera, this software “securely links your coursework to your identity, allowing you to confidently show the world what you’ve achieved on Coursera.”

According to this MOOC provider, Signature Track offers:
Identity Verification. Create a special profile to link your coursework to your real identity using your photo ID and unique typing pattern.
Verified Certificates. Earn official recognition from Universities and Coursera for your accomplishment with a verifiable electronic certificate.
Sharable Course Records. Share your electronic course records with employers, educational institutions, or anyone else through a unique, secure URL.”

Facial Biometrics used in the Performance and Assessment in the Virtual Classroom MOOC.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I registered for the Performance and Assessment in the Virtual Classroom MOOC. The course gives the possibility to earn a Specialization Certificate after concluding the four courses that conform the Virtual Teaching Program. As an enthusiastic of virtual education and researcher of the MOOCs world, I’m interested in all different aspects that MOOCs offer. Therefore, I opted to obtain the Specialization Certificate and enrolled using Signature Track. It is important to mention that students who are interested in taking the course, but who are not pursuing the Specialization Certificate, don’t need to enroll using Signature Track.

How does Signature Track work?
Signature Track builds your “signature profile that links your coursework to your identity” using two different types of biometrics: Keystone dynamics and Facial recognition.
1. Keystone dynamics. I was required to write down a phrase that allows the software to identify your keystrokes on a keyboard. This technology examines speed, pressure and time used to type certain keys and words.
2. Facial recognition. Using the webcam embedded in my computer, I took two pictures
  • a picture of myself
  • a picture of an ID that shows my full name on it
The expectation of Coursera in adding this sophisticated facial biometrics software is to enssure that the person who is taking a MOOC assessment is the person who is registered in the course. However, other “cheating” traits such as the use of instant messenger, chats, emails, or phone calls to communicate with peers or friends to receive support while working on an assessment, can’t be controlled using facial biometrics. Hence, solving “who” is in front of the computer doesn’t solve the entire possibilities of cheating to pass a MOOC.

Final considerations in regards of Facial Biometrics
I would like to start this last section drawing your attention to the fourth amendment of the constitution: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

The fourth amendment brings me to the following question: is facial biometrics violating the right of privacy and freedom from arbitrary invasions in the pursuing of certifying that the person who is taking a MOOC is the person who actually is registered in it? I must say that after I registered for the Performance and Assessment in the Virtual Classroom MOOC, I felt that my person and privacy could be invaded if somebody on the other side of my computer–a Coursera Hacker or the NSA (if we consider the Snowden’s case)–– decides to investigate who is taking Coursera courses. Is this another
vigilant instrument that we will “voluntarily” activate (as we have done using Facebook or Instagram) whose consequences could damage our privacy in the near future?

On the other hand, suspected criminals and terrorists are investigated and sometimes recognized using facial biometrics. Thus, would Coursera students feel confortable using facial biometrics when societies link this security system to surveillance purposes? Finally, thousands of undocumented immigrants would feel threatened by using facial biometrics only to obtain a Specialization Certificate. This fact could significantly reduce them the chance of earning a verified certificate that offers the “opportunity to have a legitimate credential for their work in order to advance their career or fulfill themselves personally”, as Coursera claims in its website. Couldn’t this fact be taken as an expression or racism and discrimination for minority groups?

There are still many questions to answer in the MOOCs world. In the mean time, I’m already registered in the Performance and Assessment in the Virtual Classroom MOOC. Therefore, this discussion is just starting.

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