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3 ‘Game Changing’ Ideas From an Ed-Tech Start-Up Competition

Orlando, Fla. — More than two dozen start-up technology companies exhibited at this week’s Educause conference, making their pitches in a section of the exhibit hall the group calls “start-up alley.” Some of the companies are led by recent graduates, others by professors, and many competed in the group’s Game Changers Business Competition.

Here are three ideas from start-up alley that stood out:

Automate test proctoring: Many colleges with online programs have turned to technology in recent years to proctor tests from afar. In the remote-proctor model, a proctor in a call center can watch students live via webcam as the students take tests in their own dormitory rooms. But what if the job of monitoring test takers could be completely automated?

Proctorio argues that machines can watch for cheaters. In its system, students must still take tests in front of their webcams, but an algorithm studies the video feed in real time, looking for abnormalities in the student’s behavior that could indicate peeking at a cheat sheet or calling a friend for an answer. “We can tell if their mouth is open and where their eyes are looking,” said Michael Olsen, the company’s chief technology officer.

To test its own system, Proctorio has hired cheaters—or, at least, students it invites to try to defeat the system. “We get these students in a room, we see what they’re doing, and two days later we put out an updated version,” says Mr. Olsen. “It’s a game.”

After any test proctored with the system, the professor is emailed a report including a timeline that has any suspicious moments marked with yellow or red. The professor can then click right to those portions of the video to verify whether the student appeared to be cheating.

Encourage helicopter parenting (but with limits): Colleges are used to parents’ calls about how their children are doing—even though federal student-privacy laws limit what officials can divulge.

CampusESP built a system that it says gives colleges an “engaged-parents strategy.” The website lets parents make requests for access to things like student grades or late-bill notices. The student then gets a notification asking him or her to review the request. If the student grants permission, then the parents have an online portal to the information.

“It was the helicopter parent, now it’s the drone parent swooping down on people,” joked James Bright, chief technology officer at CampusESP. “It’s not necessarily all bad,” he added, noting that the company’s research shows that more involvement by parents correlates with higher grades.

Curate open-education materials to replace textbooks (and create a business model for it): The idea of replacing costly commercial textbooks with free online resources has been around for years. In fact, some refer to it as a movement. But despite years of trying, the most popular responses from professors are fear, uncertainty, and doubt, according to David Wiley, a longtime proponent of so-called open-education resources.

Mr. Wiley gave up a tenure-track job at Brigham Young University (where he still works as an adjunct) to help start Lumen Learning, a company that works with professors to collect and certify open-education materials to create low-cost substitutes for textbooks.

His goal is to work with community colleges and other institutions where the cost of textbooks has the most effect on students’ success. “If you can get into Stanford or MIT, you can probably afford to buy the books,” he said. At other colleges, however, “there are students who drop courses because they can’t afford books.”

Mr. Wiley predicted that 80 percent of all general-education courses would one day use open educational resources rather than textbooks, though much would have to change for that to happen, especially as major textbook publishers push to add analytics and features that will be hard for free textbooks to match.

Lumen Learning won the Educause business competition as the biggest potential “game changer.” CampusESP earned an honorable mention.

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