Coursera looks to verify online student identity with photo, keystroke dynamics

January 16, 2013 - 

Coursera, a social entrepreneurship company that partners with universities to offer free courses online, has announced that students can now earn “Verified Certificates” for a small fee. This new option, called Signature Track, aims to verify the identity of the students doing the work and uses a biometric template including photo and keystroke dynamics.

“When we started offering our courses on Coursera, we aimed to extend the reach of our university’s intellectual strengths beyond our own halls, to a global classroom,” Peter Lange, Provost of Duke University said. “Now, we hope that these credentials, while they will not contribute directly toward a degree, will afford students around the world, of all ages, backgrounds and resources, an opportunity to have a legitimate credential for their work in order to advance their career or fulfill themselves personally.”

Students will have up to two or three weeks from a course’s start date to decide if they want to participate. Those who decide to participate will create their own biometric profiles by taking two photographs with their webcam: one of themselves and another of an acceptable photo ID document. Next, students will create a biometric profile of their unique typing patterns by typing a short phrase. When a student submits work in the course, they authenticate their identity by typing the same short phrase, with which identity can be verified through comparison to their recorded typing samples.

“We created Signature Track to allow students to verify their identity and show that they did the work, and thus provide a more valuable credential, without detracting from the experience of our free courses,” Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng said.

This typing measurement, called keystroke dynamics, is the detailed timing information that describes exactly when each key was pressed and when it was released as a person types on a keyboard. Though biometrics tend to rely on physical traits like fingerprint and face, or behavioural characteristics such as gait and voice, many consider keystroke dynamics a biometric.

Researchers at MIT looked at the idea of authentication through keystroke biometrics in 2004 and identified a few major advantages and disadvantages to the use of this biometric for authentication. First of all, the researchers conclude that measuring keystroke dynamics is an accessible and unobtrusive biometric as it requires very little hardware besides a keyboard. Also, as each keystroke is captured entirely by key pressed and press time, data can be transmitted over low bandwidth connections.

That being said, the MIT researchers also identified disadvantages to the use of keystroke dynamics as an authentication tool. First of all, typing patterns can be erratic and inconsistent as something like cramped muscles and sweaty hands can change a person’s typing pattern significantly. Also, they found that typing patterns vary based on the type of keyboard being used, which could significantly complicate verification.

The initial price for joining Signature Track varies by course, but prices generally range from $30 to $100 and the company has said that students who can’t afford to pay for the service can apply for financial assistance.

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About Adam Vrankulj

Adam Vrankulj is an editor for His background consists of online news writing, editing and content marketing. Adam has written for, BlogTO and was the editor and curator for the nextMEDIA and CIX Source publications. He has a degree in journalism and is passionate about science, technology and social innovation. Contact Adam, or follow him at @adamvrankulj