students

To catch a test-taking thief (with technology)

November 13, 2013: 12:26 PM ET

Thanks to smart sensing software, online exam cheaters have no place to hide.

By Erika Fry, reporter

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FORTUNE -- Now that American education has entered the era of the MOOC -- the Massive Open Online Course -- the opportunity for cheating appears greater than ever. The omniscient Google search engine is never more than a few keystrokes away for the computer-bound. So how can a proctor possibly manage the far-flung multitudes, let alone smoke out cheaters taking tests across the Internet?

Using technology, of course. While proctoring services via webcam and plagiarism-detecting software have been around for several years now, an India-based startup has come to America -- Silicon Valley, obviously -- with automated, algorithm-based techniques for netting cheaters that the company claims are even more sophisticated and foolproof. Essentially, if you try to pull a fast one, your computer will rat you out.

The online assessment company Mettl has incorporated a handful of technologies into its test-taking platform, creating, for the duration of an exam at least, a mini-surveillance state.

MORE: Why online education won't kill your campus

Here's how it works: A test-taker signs on to Mettl and selects his/her exam from the site's library of pre-loaded tests. Facial and keystroke recognition technology verify the person that has signed in is the person they say they are, and the system records both the test-taker (through the webcam) and the test-taker's screen throughout the test.

Mettl's technology uses the test-taker's webcam to detect how many people are using the computer. Soon, it will track eye movement well enough to sense whether the test-taker is looking away from the screen, perhaps to consult a smartphone or a friend on the sly. Mettl also monitors the test-taker's screen and can detect when the test-taker has changed tabs or browsers or moved from the test. The system will soon be able to record sound, and thus detect whether the test-taker is talking or being talked to.

If any irregularities are detected, the system flags the incident and reports it back to the test's administrator. This can trigger any number of things, depending on the test-giver's wishes: a complete shutdown of the exam, a warning message that appears on the test-taker's screen, even human intervention -- via webcam -- from Mettl's control center.

Ketan Kapoor, co-founder and CEO of Mettl, notes that the mere threat of being caught serves as a great deterrent to cheating. Kapoor founded the company in 2010 with an old friend and former BCG consultant, Tonmoy Shingal, when the pair realized the opportunity presented by India's exploding population of educated youth and the growth of online education.

Among the many areas where they found that technology could offer improvement? Assessment. In India, there are huge national tests given for job recruitment and professional certification purposes. Kapoor and Shingal saw that the considerable task of managing these mass assessments would only become bigger as the number of participants increased.

The young company's platform and proctoring and assessment services are now used by 200 corporations and universities around the globe; most are in India, such as Accenture (ACN), Cognizant (CTSH), and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Mettl, which has 50 employees and has raised $4.5 million in funding, is hoping its new U.S. presence will help it break into the country's sizeable recruiting and MOOC markets. It is well on its way: The company has proctored more than 1 million assessments since its launch, and projects "a few million" in revenue this year.

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