ProctorCam’s Web Technology Out to Monitor Online Testing From Afar

Teachers have always tried to keep an eye out for cheating, and cheaters have always tried to conceal the tricks of the trade. But now surveillance is coming to higher education, from Boston-based startup ProctorCam, a maker of Web-based software for the live monitoring of test-takers remotely.

The idea for the company came when founder and CEO Rob Toof witnessed the hassle his mother went through to take a test for her online course at Boston University. The nearest in-person test-taking facility was two hours away—removing the convenience that typically attracts students to online classes. Most universities require close monitoring and proctoring to prevent cheating and impersonating in test taking, either at the university or at designated proctor sites. But Toof decided to take that process to the Web to extend the convenience of taking online classes all the way to exam time.

Students schedule a specific time to take their exam via ProctorCam. The user experience starts with a check-in process where a proctor checks the student into the exam via a video interface, using a set of criteria customized by the institution, prior to opening up the Internet browser window for the exam. “In a lot of ways we’re an extension of the brands of the institutions we work with,” says Toof, who previously worked at Boston-based word-of-mouth marketing company BzzAgent. These steps often include checking a government-issued ID and examining the student’s desk and workspace via video.

In some ways, it sounds like a cheater’s dream. But in addition to the check-in process and the video proctoring that follows, ProctorCam has technology measures in place that aim to replicate the close monitoring of an in-person proctor. The software platform monitors users’ desktops throughout the test-taking process, to track whether or not a test-taker has opened up a program or Internet browser to potentially cheat off of. It also records the entire exam session and can flag any irregularities to report to the schools, and enables universities to directly view the recordings of the exam sessions.

ProctorCam held the first online test with a group of BU students in spring 2009. But the university was curious about how the ProctorCam test-takers’ scores matched up to those who took the test in a traditional proctor setting. The company ran a study of more than 500 students, half of them using ProctorCam, and half tested in-person, and found that the difference in scores between the groups averaged about two points. Now 41 percent of test takers from BU’s online program take tests via ProctorCam, Toof says.

About 6,500 tests have been taken so far at a handful of institutions, Toof says. Individual students who want to take their tests via ProctorCam foot the bill for the service, which runs between $30 and $40 per test, but Toof says he hopes that schools will eventually incorporate the ProctorCam costs into their initial fees for online courses.

Besides facilitating the exam process, ProctorCam’s platform could ultimately help shed some of the negative perceptions surrounding online classes, Toof says. “The perception of online degrees is that they’re less than an offline education,” he says. “Part of the reason is people have this nameless and faceless experience with the institutions. We see our solution as a conduit to taking that less than personal aspect of an online education and making it a little bit more personal.”

All the proctors work out of ProctorCam’s South End office, as a quality assurance measure. “It’s 100 percent a platform plus a service,” Toof says.

The company has about $100,000 committed of a targeted $500,000 seed round, led by BzzAgent founder and CEO Dave Balter—also a backer of Boston-based mobile app developer FitnessKeeper. CommonAngels board members Maia Heymann and Peter Bleyleben have also expressed interest in investing in the company, Toof says.

ProctorCam is also planning on rolling out a new technology suite in the next three or so months. The firm also a handful of employees focused on development of the technologies. Toof kept pretty quiet on what exactly this software will look like, but said it “relates to academic integrity as a whole,” and that the company is working out how to cost-effectively provide remote exam proctoring on a much bigger scale.

As part of its bigger vision, the company doesn’t see the software interface as being limited to test taking at the academic level, he says. Think things like professional certification. “The big thing for us is that it goes beyond education as well; there are many applications for monitoring and assuring that someone is doing the task as outlined,” Toof says.

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