By: Sam Bocetta

The world has seen drastic shifts in the last few months. Our global economy has taken massive hits as people have been forced to lay down their tools and the education sector has had to find ways to cater to the “new normal” of remote learning.

The migration to online learning has led to a rise in electronic test tracking and proctoring services such as Respondus LockDown – raising significant concerns about student privacy.

One recent report published in The Washington Post highlighted exactly how intrusive these proctoring services can be. Many of the solutions employ human proctors while others rely solely on computer software.

Nevertheless, in most cases, they require some combination of the student’s camera, microphone, keyboard, and browser access. Others also use biometrics, such as facial recognition, eye tracking, and artificial intelligence, to identify students positively and monitor any “suspicious” behavior.

Some of these programs even obligate students to show their entire room to the proctor, to enable monitoring of the student’s screen, collect their browsing and search history, and track their keystrokes and mouse clicks.

In the world of cybersecurity, these features border on what might be called “spyware”, but in the education sector, many see it as a desperate, yet effective solution for a desperate time.

Privacy and security concerns

The COVID pandemic has given us the perfect storm. Not only is 2020 filled with innumerable challenges we weren’t prepared for, experts now believe 2021 is set to be the toughest ever. Agile schools with integrated and comprehensive learning structures in place were quick to adapt; easily moving content, adapting their curriculum, lessons, and learning to online platforms.

Information is power and that’s a fact. Sadly, the power exerted by that power often unleashes the worst impulses of authoritarian regimes. That’s why it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Santa Barbara Faculty Association of the University of California raised their concerns with university management concerning the data collection, processing, storage as well as sharing policies of their preferred proctoring program during the first weeks of March.

Their concerns are shared by students and educators in the USA and around the world. Change.org features at least a dozen signatures from students asking for their colleges to stop using online proctoring services. Students are also voicing their concerns in articles written by local and college newspapers around the country.

As a result, some universities have agreed, at least for now, against such solutions. Duke University, for example, opted against proctoring online this semester, partially because of security issues. Similarly, U.C. Berkeley ‘s decision at this time not to expand online examination proctoring was said to be due, in part, to their belief that the available options did not satisfy the university’s privacy policies.

Several faculties and students seemed to unite in their shared concerns over privacy and security. The student petition at Florida State University, for example, is founded on the conviction that the university’s chosen software blatantly disregards their privacy rights. Privacy was chief among the issues raised by Phillip Sheldon, President of William and Mary’s Student Veterans, in expressing his opposition to its use of proctoring software by his university.

Many others do not want to install monitoring software simply because they believe it can leave their devices susceptible to hacks, a concern that is not completely unfounded.

Accessibility and cost of online exam proctoring

But privacy and security issues are not the only concerns being voiced. Students and faculty are also expressing concern about many other issues, including the access, cost, and overall usability of online proctoring solutions. It is a fact that learning needs to continue despite the current challenges, but there is a severe lack of access to webcams and secure internet connections for many students now that they have to work from home.

Others indicated that proctoring services do not permit any other people to be in a room when an examination is being taken, which presents a problem for students who have partners, housemates, or other family members working from home during this time. This becomes even more relevant if students live without a single, dedicated workspace in a small house or apartment.

Time differences also play a role, particularly for foreign students that had to return home for the remainder of the year.  Having to take an exam at a fixed time might mean that a student has to take the exam at strange hours in the middle of the night, which can have a negative impact on a student’s performance.

Costs are another matter. In some cases, the students themselves have to pay the proctoring service a fee for every exam. It’s an additional cost that many students are unable to afford now that they have lost any possible sources of student income and have had to seek alternative last-minute housing arrangements.

Proctoring services and other platform software solutions can simplify complex issues, yet some students have also reported that the software solutions are full of bugs and that it crashes their computers.

The resistance to these tools is not limited to the United States. Students in at least two Australian universities objected to the use of proctoring tools such as Respondus Lockdown and ProctorU. Students at the University of Tilburg have launched an online petition against its use in the Netherlands. At the time of writing, their petition already had over 4,900 signatures. Students at Concordia University in Canada have also added their voices to the fray.

Big brother is watching

The move to remote learning necessitated by the COVID pandemic has intensified older, pre-existing conflicts over the increasing need for surveillance at campuses across the country, from proposals to utilize student telephones as tracking devices to campus police collaborating with surveillance firms to reinforce campus security.

Several university officials have responded by pointing to the unprecedented complexity of our current situation as a justification for the increased surveillance measures. Others point to the extensive use of software vendors’ methods for proctoring and the software vendors’ assurances.

But the “everyone else is doing it” argument is precisely the kind of faulty reasoning that should not be encouraged. And while it may make sense to shift the burden to vendors from risk management or legal compliance strategy, it shows very little regard for the real issues at hand, namely privacy, security, accessibility, and equity.

What are the alternatives?

In addition to academic integrity, faculty and administrators concerned with student privacy and protection do need to explore alternate methods for student success evaluation. One is to reject standard exams and provide alternate types of graded research where possible. This could require more time grading and instructors’ feedback. But it could be a tradeoff some instructors are willing and capable of making.

For those who teach classes for which this solution might not be feasible is not possible, it might be time to consider doing open book exams or just trusting students to do the morally correct thing. While it’s hard for me to say it, if students lie, they ‘re the long-term losers.

Finally, lecturers, instructors, and teachers might consider employing technologies like Zoom to proctor any exams themself. But even so, in terms of flexibility and ease of use, privacy, security as well as access to webcams and stable internet connections, these technologies have their own advantages and disadvantages.

There are no simple answers. At the end of the day, it remains up to every educator to make the important choices when it comes to measuring their student learning in a manner that is equal, reasonable, and mindful of student confidentiality and protection. Given the challenge, I think these are ideals worth keeping.

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