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Debates over the status of online education are leading both congressmen and educators to reassess the legitimacy of learning behind-the-screens.

Yet despite legislative changes, those involved in Penn’s Liberal and Professional Studies Online Initiatives believe little should change in Penn’s distance learning policies.

When Congress reauthorized the Higher Education Act last summer, the law included a stipulation requiring colleges to actively monitor that students receiving credit for courses are the ones actually doing the work.

While such requirements expose lawmakers’ concerns over the legitimacy of distance learning, those at the head of such online classrooms have taken a different stance.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, many educators are beginning to express fears regarding expensive anti-cheating measures and potential invasions of privacy. Educators are also concerned that professors teaching distance-learning courses are being held to higher standards than their in-class counterparts.

However, according to individuals involved in the negotiations, the federal regulations proposed will allow colleges to verify student information through methods such as secure log-ins, passwords or proctored examinations, in place of more in-depth or costly alternatives.

Despite the legislation, however, little should change in the University’s distance learning policies concerning plagiarism.

Lisa Minetti, Project Manager for LPS Online Initiatives, explained that the design of online courses at Penn already helps ensure that cheating does not occur.

“Our classes are highly interactive and participatory, with grading dispersed across a variety of activities,” she noted.

Similarly, African Studies professor John Ayoade, who is currently teaching an online class for LPS, argued that online classes can be structured in a way that they are on equal footing with traditional ones.

“The online nature does not detract from the quality of the course,” he said, indicating that his own course layout promotes interactions between the enrolled student and the lecturer, fellow students and the content itself.

Ayoade’s experience with distance teaching — first, teaching an online program in his native Nigeria, and now for the College of Liberal and Professional Studies Program — has made him more aware of the nature of such programs.

His class, “People, Oil and Politics in Nigeria”, draws from a traditional textbook, electronic notes, and videos posted on the class site. The result is that the work his students do is reflective of their effort or ability.

There is still skepticism of validity, though, especially with instances of in-class academic dishonesty that may indicate the possibility of the same in distance learning.

Last fall, almost 150 students had to retake a Math 104 exam after suspicious activity during a proctored midterm. In 2007, the Office of Student Conduct investigated a number of students for plagiarism on the Operations and Information Management 101 final project.

Nevertheless, Ayoade said that the online teaching position is “a very exciting experience” as it embodies “the cutting edge of 21st century education.”

“We are able to reach as many people as possible where they can sit in their home or almost anywhere for lectures,” Ayoade said. “That really allows students to continue on with their lives.”

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