Keeping an Eye on Online Test-Takers (New York Times)

But when those students take the final exam in calculus or genetics, how will their professors know that the test-takers on their distant laptops are doing their own work, and not asking Mr. Google for help?

The issue of online cheating concerns many educators, particularly as more students take MOOCs for college credit, and not just for personal enrichment. Already, five classes from Coursera, a major MOOC provider, offer the possibility of credit, and many more are expected.

One option is for students to travel to regional testing centers at exam time. But reaching such centers is next to impossible for many students, whether working adults who can’t take time off to travel, or others in far-flung places who can’t afford the trip.

But now eavesdropping technologies worthy of the C.I.A. can remotely track every mouse click and keystroke of test-taking students. Squads of eagle-eyed humans at computers can monitor faraway students via webcams, screen sharing and high-speed Internet connections, checking out their photo IDs, signatures and even their typing styles to be sure the test-taker is the student who registered for the class.

The developing technology for remote proctoring may end up being as good — or even better — than the live proctoring at bricks-and-mortar universities, said Douglas H. Fisher, a computer science and computer engineering professor at Vanderbilt University who was co-chairman of a recent workshop that included MOOC-related topics. “Having a camera watch you, and software keep track of your mouse clicks, that does smack of Big Brother,” he said. “But it doesn’t seem any worse than an instructor at the front constantly looking at you, and it may even be more efficient.”

Employees at ProctorU, a company that offers remote proctoring, watch test-takers by using screen sharing and webcam feeds at offices in Alabama and California. ProctorU recently signed an agreement to proctor new credit-bearing MOOCs from Coursera, including one in genetics and evolution offered at Duke and one in single-variable calculus at the University of Pennsylvania.

MOOC students who want to obtain credit will be charged a remote-proctoring fee of $60 to $90, depending on the class, said Dr. Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, based in Mountain View, Calif.

Other remote proctoring services offer different solutions. At Software Secure in Newton, Mass., test-takers are recorded by camera and then, later, three proctors independently watch a faster-speed video of each student.

Compared with services where proctors are monitoring students in real time, this combination of recording first and viewing later “gives greater latitude for the institution to adjust the timing of exams to whenever they want,” said Allison Sands, Software Secure’s director of marketing. The cost is now $15 per exam.

Employees at ProctorU say they are well-versed in the sometimes ingenious tactics used to dodge testing rules. “We’ve seen it all,” said Matt Jaeh, vice president for operations. “After you’ve sat there a while watching people, the patterns of behavior for normal people versus the people trying to sneak in a cellphone to look up information are very clear.”

Each proctor can monitor up to six students at a time, watching three side-by-side camera feeds on each of two screens. If a student’s eyes start to wander, the proctor gives a warning via videoconferencing software, just as a classroom monitor might tell students to keep their eyes on their own papers. For an overwhelming majority of people, that warning suffices, said Jarrod Morgan, a co-founder.

With the system in place, “cheating usually isn’t a problem,” he said. But if it does occur, ProctorU follows the rules of the institution giving the exam. “Some schools ask us to cut off the exam on the spot if there’s a suspicious incident,” he said; others ask that the exam be continued and the incident reported.

Beyond the issue of proctoring, MOOCs are also addressing the problem of making sure that credit-seeking test-takers are the same students who enrolled in the course. In that effort, Coursera is offering a separate service, called Signature Track and costing $30 to $99, that confirms students’ identity by matching webcam photographs as well as pictures of acceptable photo IDs.

Students also type a short phrase, which is analyzed by a software program. It takes note of the typing rhythm and other characteristics, like how long the keys are pressed down. Then, when a student submits homework or takes a test, the algorithm compares a bit of new typing with the original sample. (And if you’ve broken your arm, there’s always your photo ID.)

Online classes are hardly new, but earlier courses typically didn’t have to handle exam proctoring on the scale required for vast MOOCs. The University of Florida in Gainesville, for example, has long offered many programs for students studying far from the campus, with some monitoring done by ProctorU, said W. Andrew McCollough, associate provost for teaching and technology.

Now the school has set up its first MOOC, on human nutrition (enrollment 47,000), and is working on four others, all through Coursera. The question of proctoring is being debated, he said, as faculty members worry about academic integrity amid the growth of open, online classes. “They don’t want any fooling around,” he said. “But as we get more experience and evidence, the faculty are getting familiar with ways technology can replicate a classroom experience.”

What Van Gogh’s Famous Self-Portrait Looks Like as a Photograph (The Atlantic)

By Megan Garber (Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.)

In a word: creepy. In another word: beautiful.

What would a Van Gogh painting look like as a life-like image? What would Van Gogh himself look like — not as a series of impressionistic swirls, but as a common photograph? Lithuanian architect and photographer Tadao Cern wanted to find out — so he digitally recreated one of the artist’s most iconic self-portraits as a modern portrait. The result is haunting:

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Compare that to the artist’s actual self-portrait:


So, basically: The architect took one of the most rare things in the world — a Van Gogh painting — and converted it into one of the most banal: a selfie. But in the process, using contemporary tools, Cern also created a new form of art, one that takes the work of human hands and transforms it into something that could exist only in the digital realm. Here is — generally — how he did it:

The virtual vs. the real: Giga-resolution in Google Art Project (

-article originally from (

Real life has a close competitor in the “Art Project,” released by Google last week. Their initial release is a clean, inviting site for browsing over one thousand artworks from 17 of the world’s most famous museums. At least one piece from each of the 17 museums is displayed in gigapixel resolution, so that online visitors can zoom in to the brushstrokes. Each piece also has information about the artists, text or video commentary, bios, and links to related pieces. Some museums have 3D walk-throughs, analogous to Google’s map street views (there are 6000 3D panoramas), and there’s a way to create personal art “collections” to revisit or share later.

The resolution on the gigapixel images is stunning. Consider “The Starry Night,” the famous paining by post-impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh. When you see the painting in real life, you can see the texture of the thick paint strokes which van Gogh created. But aside from a general impression of shimmering, textured paint, it’s hard to see the texture in detail in a busy gallery with normal illumination. Here’s a typical view:

Writing for the Boston Globe, Sebastian Smee said, “If you live far from some of the world’s great museums — and we all do — Google Art Project can give you tantalizing glimpses of their galleries and of individual works of art.” But most of Mr. Smee’s article criticizes the online access: “Call me a curmudgeon, but I remain underwhelmed. It’s not just that Google’s interface is frustrating, or that the choice of viewing possibilities is constrained and seemingly arbitrary… The human eye can grasp the thickness, weight, and texture of the yellow impasto Van Gogh used for the stars and moon in “The Starry Night’’ much more effectively than a camera.”

Is that true? below is a screenshot of the yellow impasto in Google Art Project — and you can zoom in even more:

The Starry Night image in the Google Art Project is super high resolution. The Google image is approximately 45 thousand pixels wide. It is 6 times higher resolution than the naked eye can see from a meter.

The painting is 74 cm × 92 cm. The maximum spatial resolution of  the human eye is measured in cycles per degree. If we consider the vision photoreceptors in the eye to be analogous to pixels, our vision in the most sensitive region, in the fovea of our eye, corresponds to the equivalent pixel spacing of 0.39 arc-minute (Clark, 1990).

One degree of vision is  1 / ( 0.39 * 1/60)  =  154 pixels. If you stand one meter from a painting, a 0.92 meter wide painting uses a width of 2 * arctan ( 0.92 / 2 ) degrees = 49° of your vision. The equivalent number of pixels which you can see is = 49 * 154 = 7546 pixel wide — the limit of resolution of our eye — any higher pixel density would look the same. You would need to look at the painting with your eye 7 cm (just under 3 inches) away to see the same level of detail. Brian Croxall notes that this is much higher resolution than the commercial image library ARTstor gives to schools and libraries.

Seeing details is important, but the relative importance of seeing detail vs. seeing real 3D is debatable. An article in the Washington Post, reported skeptical comments from museum directors, for example, Brian Kennedy, director of the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, said the gigapixel images can bring out details that might not be visible to ordinary museum-goers in a gallery. But scholars will still want a three-dimensional view of the art, which even a very high-resolution two-dimensional image can’t provide.

In any event, the degree of access in this visually appealing, easy to use, highly publicized and free web site is unparalleled. Without it, images of this iconic painting are hard for the general public to appreciate in detail, unless they buy a (two-dimensional) poster or book. That painting is located at MoMA in midtown Manhattan. Admission to the MoMA costs $20 for adults, $12 for students, and free on Friday nights. MoMA has approximately 2.1 million visitors per year, averaging 6.7 thousand visitors per day they are open — 16 visitors per minute — many of whom are interested in the same famous van Gogh painting. Despite being painted in 1889, and long since out of copyright, MoMA maintains strict control over photos which visitors might want to take home or share. According to their guidelines: “Still photography for personal use is permitted in collection galleries only… No photographs or videotapes may be reproduced, distributed, or sold without permission from the Museum.” — All the more reason that MoMA and the other 17 museums are to be commended for facilitating this project.

This is one of the reasons that Jonathan Jones writes at the Guardian says:

“Google’s Art Project is a profoundly enriching encounter, one that really starts to break down the difference between viewing a reproduction and seeing it in the flesh. It deserves to succeed.”

And Julian Raby, director of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art in Washington said:

“The giga-pixel experience brings us very close to the essence of the artist through detail that simply can’t be seen in the gallery itself … Far from eliminating the necessity of seeing artworks in person, Art Project deepens our desire to go in search of the real thing.”

Dr. Raby’s comments echo those by made by Walter Benjamin makes in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Brian Croxall points out in the essay, Benjamin considers the effect that photography, phonography, lithography, and more have on the “aura” or authenticity of an art work. On the other hand, he noted, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Benjamin is clear that reproductions are better than originals in at least one concrete way:

…process reproduction is more independent of the original than manual reproduction. For example, in photography, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will. And photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision.

To examine this more closely with students, The New York Times Learning Network posted a lesson plan, “Real vs. Virtual: Examining Works of Art Online.”

This project did not start as an official Google strategy. Nelson Mattos, Google’s vice-president for engineering, said the Google Art Project started off as one of the company’s “20% projects.” (All Google employees to take a fifth of their time away from their regular day job, to work on innovations.) Google managed all theartwork photography, capture of the Street View imagery, and negotiations with museums. Negotiations could be a drag, and some museums resisted giving free access to their images. Absent are two of the most popular and important museums, the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, both in Paris. Amit Sood, leader of the Google Art Project, said “We approached as many museums as we could…But you can only wait so long for people to come on board. We just decided to stop at 17.” Google outsourced some of the design to a media agency, Schematic. In an interview with CNET, Jason Brush, the executive vice president for user experience at Schematic said:

“One of the first issues we had to face was making sure that the site wasn’t itself a meta-museum. The museums themselves have the cultural and civic onus to present the artworks in their collections in whatever way that’s appropriate to their mission. We didn’t want to usurp that. So, the pressure stemmed from not just making sure that the site was enjoyable and easy-to-use because of it’s cultural value, but also because we needed to create a model that drew a clear distinction between the live, in-person museum-going experience…a whole new model for viewing art… We did make some design decisions vis-a-vis unique aggregation of content from many museums. For instance, on the home page, we chose to randomize which museum gets highlighted on load. We didn’t want it always to be the museum at the top of the list.”

Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums, called the walk-through technology an interesting experiment, and the kind of experiment that most museums can’t produce on their limited budgets. She liked the personalization, citing that ”It certainly fits with the research we’ve been doing that people like to create their own experiences and their own mash-ups and share them with other people,” but she questioned the appeal of looking at art and galleries on a computer screen.

Marsha Semmel, deputy director for museums at the Institute of Museum and Library Services, said in the Post article that online collections should strive to create connections between material held by different institutions.