LIVERMORE -- On banks of flat-panel monitors, students in breakfast nooks and bedrooms around the world squint and furrow their brows as they do battle with their online exams.
On the other side of the screens, teams of keen-eyed proctors eye the test-takers' every move. Using webcams, headsets and a real-time screen-sharing technology, proctors scan faces for wandering eyes or other unusual behavior that might suggest cheating.
"Online exams have all sorts of potential for issues," said Curtis Palmer, senior vice president of operations at ProctorU, one of a handful of remote proctoring companies nationwide. "If they're looking over their shoulder, looking off the screen or if someone else is in the room. ... We see them and they see us."
Founded in Birmingham, Ala., by two men from the online-only Andrew Jackson University, ProctorU is at the vanguard of a global trend to address security in the brave new world of massive online open courses (MOOCs). Some 6.7 million students took online courses in fall 2011, up 570,000 from the year before, according to the most recent Survey of Online Learning by Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board. And that did not include the millions of students who signed up for free courses after the launch of the major online education companies in 2012.
As the demand for Web offerings grows, so does the need for more humans to ensure students don't Google an answer or phone a friend.
In ProctorU's modest Livermore offices -- walls lined with pennants from dozens of its college partners -- nearly 100 proctors monitor exams around the clock, accommodating night owls and international students.
They handle about 1,000 tests daily and expect to double the workload and workforce after a December move to a bigger space.
Colleges hire ProctorU to monitor their tests, and students must then sign in with the company and consent to be monitored before they take an online exam.
Many proctors are college-age, able to work flexible shifts, earning pay starting at $8.75 an hour. The environment is active, yet relaxed -- Nerf battles are common -- and multitasking is a must.
As a senior proctor with the company, Vincent Termini, 26, has handled up to 30 tests per day, allowing him brief glimpses into lives from far-flung locales such as India, Dubai and Iraq.
"It was a little creepy for me at first, but you're meeting someone new every 15 minutes," he said. "When you start talking to them and get to know them, it makes things a lot more comfortable."
Proctors greet the students, ask for photo IDs and pose questions to verify identities. Test-takers must point their webcams at their surroundings and hold up a reflective surface -- a mirror or cellphone -- to show there's nothing hidden, like sticky notes or textbooks.
Proctors note oddities, flagging suspected security breaches. Depending on the behavior, they can ask the student to knock it off or, if egregious enough, they can pause or halt the test, at the behest of the institution.
"The majority of it is following the eyes," Termini said. "It's a dead giveaway."
Watching so many tests, Termini has seen strange things, like students trying to urinate in bottles during long exams (most schools don't allow bathroom breaks), or mothers with hungry babies who ask permission to breast-feed them (and who are referred to female proctors).
San Jose State is among ProctorU's 400 institutional partners, including colleges and certification programs. Mary Poffenroth, an SJSU adjunct professor, uses it for a 125-student online biology class. She said it allows students to take a test when they want and assures there's no cheating.
"We need to make sure the student taking the test is the one who signed up for the class," she said. "This just adds that extra layer of protection."
Students are charged about $20 per test for the online service, she said, but those who want can still take it in person.
The brainchild of a couple of Stanford University computer science professors, Mountain View online education provider Coursera -- which offers more than 500 free MOOCs and works with 100 institutions in 20 countries -- has devised its own method of verifying a test-taker's identity.
They developed Signature Track for students taking one of their five college credit courses, or those receiving verified certificates of completion for one of 90 other noncredit courses. Using Signature Track costs students about $40-$50 per course.
Their students register with a photo and ID from their webcam and provide a typing sample, creating a keystroke signature based on the milliseconds it takes to press and release each key.
"The way a person types on a keyboard is unique to the person," said Chris Heather, Coursera's business development manager. "In an 80-character phrase, we can authenticate a person's identity. It's very difficult to emulate."
Coursera relies on ProctorU to monitor its college credit exams.
While ProctorU does catch cheaters, Senior Vice President Palmer said, it's rare and involves about 3 percent of all test-takers.
"By being there, it helps with those integrity issues," he said.
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.