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Ana Elena Guerrero: "The reputation and credibility of online degrees will be improved by TeSLA"

ngels Codina Relat
Interview with Ana Elena Guerrero, coordinator of the TeSLA project

Ana Elena Guerrero heads up the Technology Enhanced Knowledge and Interaction Research Group (TEKING), part of the eLearn Center, and has been working as a professor at the UOC for the past eighteen years. However, since 2016, most of her time has been devoted to coordinating the TeSLA project, an initiative focused on developing a system to validate students’ identity and authorship when completing online activities and exams, as well as tackling the problem of plagiarism. Funded by the European Commission Horizon 2020 programme, the project is managed by a consortium of 18 partners and has a budget of over €7 million. In 2019, it is now nearing completion.

What area of work is TEKING, the research group you head up, involved in?

My research group is involved in evaluating the tools and resources that are potentially useful and applicable to online assessment. We also carry out a certain amount of data analysis and look at how the tools respond to the relevant needs of the teaching staff that work in online teaching.

One of which is being able to validate the authorship of a piece of work or an exam, correct?

Indeed, that was an issue we needed to find a solution for with regard to online assessment; being able to validate that a learning activity has been completed by the correct person, ie that it wasn’t done by a friend, family member or someone else, as well as ensuring that the person behind the computer is the person it should be.

And did the TeSLA project come about in response to that challenge?

In fact, the Tesla project was preceded by an internal project called eEXAM, involving four professors from the Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications and, subsequently, another project called Val-ID, for which we developed a prototype for validating authenticity and authorship in learning activities using a range of biometric tools. We tested that prototype within the UOC and, once we had something fairly solid that was delivering very reliable results, we started working with other partners across Europe to try to put together a proposal for a project, which resulted in TeSLA. We became one of five funded projects and, then, over the course of the past three years, we have been working on developing an evaluation system that enables us to validate students’ identity, as well as learning module authorship.

Which tools has TeSLA looked at for authenticating student identity and authorship?

We have looked at a range of tools. To list them briefly: we have used face recognition, voice recognition, keystroke dynamics and a plagiarism tool similar to Urkund or Turnitin, but which we developed ourselves, and another forensic analysis tool that carries out a kind of stylistic analysis of the texts. Our students have been involved in testing all of them. We have conducted four simultaneous pilot tests within seven European universities involving 23,000 students and around 500 professors. In the case of the UOC, the project has involved the participation of around 4,000 students and something like 200 professors, including coordinating professors and affiliated teaching staff.

What has the feedback from the students been like?

The feedback from students has been positive overall. For two main reasons; firstly, because they see it as a way to improve the credibility of online degree courses, ie, their own credentials, and, secondly, as a way of saving them time. The majority of our students work, they have families and are studying with us specifically because they don’t have a great deal of time. The fact that they don’t have to travel, not even to take their final assessment tests, and are able to authenticate their identity and authorship makes it really a beneficial and positive experience.

Was the scope of the project limited to developing this tool?

No, we have also conducted research in the area of teaching; looking at learning activity design and the type of activities that work best with the tools I mentioned earlier. We have also been working very closely with the Catalan University Quality Assurance Agency, AQU Catalunya, to produce an initial outline that defines the relevant quality standards required for online assessment, and a lot of important work has been done in conjunction with a number of experts involved in evaluating the pilot tests conducted by the different universities that have participated in the project. We now have that initial outline which will form the basis for the document that will be used as the framework for online assessment across all European universities.

What is the project’s current status?

At the moment, the work is mainly focused on analysing the results and generating reports from the results of the tool from an educational, ethical, legal and quality assurance standpoint. We are also working on publicizing the results of the project; all the results we have collected, both in relation to teaching, ie the perception of the students and teachers in terms of using the system, as well as the data supplied by the system itself.

What are the next steps once the project comes to an end?

We would very much like to see this tool being used at the UOC and for us to be able to complete our entire assessment process online, not doing away with on-site exams entirely but perhaps reducing the amount in certain cases. And, in terms of the project itself, we are currently speaking to our other partners to work out the plan for its future exploitation and how to proceed.

And what’s next for you?

I would like to continue to be involved in researching outstanding issues in relation to online assessment and education. That’s always been my focus and, in my opinion, it is key in terms of the University’s future progression.

To finish, is there anything further you would like to add?

If I may, I would really like to thank everyone who has collaborated on this project at the UOC. Many of the UOC’s departments have participated, including professors from other faculties, affiliated teaching staff, colleagues from my own faculty and other in-house faculties, the OSRT, which has provided a great deal of support, the Legal Office and Academic Services. I am very grateful to all those people who have given up their time, even if it was only five minutes, to help us move the project forward, which was no mean feat given the number of students and courses involved.