The pandemic is changing the way tests and quizzes are conducted at colleges across the country, with the rapid adoption of new tools that proponents say catch cheating, but in ways that many students say amount to an unacceptable invasion of their privacy.
It may be the biggest question in college edtech during the pandemic: Should tests be allowed to robotically watch students?
The issue involves so-called automated proctoring services. The tools record video of test-takers via their webcams, and detect what is open on the users’ screens and other details. The systems then use algorithms to determine if students are doing anything suspicious, so the professor can later review the footage and user logs to see if students appeared to have cheated.
Such tools have been available for a few years, but most college students never encountered them until the pandemic forced them into online courses.
Online proctoring is not new. Companies including ProctorU have long offered human test-watchers who sit in call centers and look in on test-takers through their webcams. In that model, colleges are typically charged on a per-test basis.
The more recent rise of automated proctoring tools replace those humans with software robots, thereby reducing the cost. One of the fastest-growing robo-proctoring tools, offered by a company called Proctorio, allows unlimited use by a college for a flat rate, meaning there’s no financial reason not to use the tool more extensively once the service is purchased.
That change in pricing, mixed with concerns about cheating by professors new to teaching online, has led to an explosion in the use of test surveillance services. Instead of reserving them for high-stakes assessments like final exams, some professors now use these tools for routine work like weekly quizzes. And Proctorio has inked deals with McGraw-Hill and other textbook publishers to bundle its proctoring tool into courseware, meaning even doing homework may now involved being watched and tracked for suspicious behavior.
Many students have pushed back, arguing that remote proctoring tools result in a serious invasion of privacy and create stress that can hinder academic performance. More than 60,000 students across the U.S. have signed petitions calling on their colleges to stop using automated proctoring tools, meaning that the technology has become arguably the most controversial tool of the pandemic at colleges.
Aharon Grama, a sophomore at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York system, started a petition against the use of Proctorio in the CUNY system that has amassed more than 20,000 signatures.
“The level of stress that students have with their camera on and knowing that they’re being watched constantly makes them perform much [worse] than they would perform if they were in a test center,” he says.
Just imagine, he says, if you knew a computer would be analyzing things like whether you look away too often, and that your professor would consider you a potential cheater if you make frequent sideways glances. “You will think about it the whole entire time,” he says. “It’s human psychology … you can’t not think about it.”
He says some professors are against the use of automated proctoring as well, but some are being told to use such tools. Adjuncts, in particular, are reluctant to speak out publicly because they are concerned for their jobs.
Grama says he understands that professors are concerned about potential cheating when everyone is spread out and unsupervised. But he sees plenty of professors designing tests that defy cheating without requiring constant monitoring. “Professors need to make effective tests,” he says. “I know it requires more work and maybe a little more creativity, but it is something that is possible.”
Students on other campuses agree. In a recent staff editorial in the Daily Illini, the student paper at the University of Illinois, students made a forceful case calling for professors to design better assignments and tests instead of turning to surveillance tools. “Students have already spent the majority of this year stressed out and anxious about the state of the world. They shouldn’t have to worry about whether they are doing enough to convince the robot proctor that cheating is not occurring,” the students wrote. “Some departments have made tests take-home or open-note, and some have scrapped tests entirely in favor of essays, projects and other assignments that can be done over time. These are the types of accommodations necessary during a pandemic — not an Orwellian proctor service.”
National publications have started to document the outcry, including articles in Vice, The Verge and The Washington Post.
But the attention may not be having the desired effect, as business is booming for Proctorio and other companies that sell automated proctoring services.
“Every time one of those articles comes out, our usage skyrockets,” says Mike Olsen, CEO of Proctorio, in an interview with EdSurge this week. “In October we did 3.5 million exams. We have 2 to 4 million weekly students who are using the product,” he adds, noting that the company was used in 6 million exams in all of 2019. His argument is that the number of people signing petitions is tiny compared to the number of students using remote proctoring.
But the level of outcry is unusual for an edtech product. There are plenty of things students complain about, but no other educational technology has drawn as much organized protest in recent months.
Yet they are quickly becoming mainstream. In a survey of college technology leaders published in April by Educause, more than half of colleges said they are using online or remote proctoring tools, and another 23 percent said they are planning to or considering using them.
Ethics and Surveillance
Ironically, Olsen says he created Proctorio because he felt that the remote proctoring services employing humans were too creepy and invasive. In other words, he sees himself as a champion of privacy when it comes to online testing.
“You have examples of human proctors hitting on and contacting students after an exam,” he says, noting that it is “very invasive” to have someone look into your living space. “I was an early critic of the proctoring industry, and it’s why I created Proctorio.”
Olsen says Proctorio offers settings that allow professors to adjust how much information the service is analyzing or capturing. For instance, a professor can choose to not require test takers to do a “room scan,” or decide not to record video and instead only watch for what browser windows a student might have open.
He argues that some of the complaints against Proctorio are based on a misunderstanding of how it works. For instance, some of the petitions charge that Proctorio can see into the computer files of students, but he said that because the tool works inside a web browser, it cannot possibly get to that data.
Olsen says some professors may be using the Proctorio tool too aggressively. “Is a ‘desk scan’ necessary for a syllabus quiz? That’s ridiculous,” he says. The company recently created an online Proctorio Academy to teach professors best practices in using the tool. He recommends professors go through a desk scan themselves before they ask students to do it for an exam.
“The idea that surveillance never existed in higher ed, I disagree with. It’s always been there in universities,” he charges. “Even in a classroom you’re constantly being monitored by a TA” or professor.
Plenty of professors disagree with Olsen’s arguments. They say his focus on customizing proctoring settings clouds the reality that the tool is advertised as being able to watch students carefully.
“You don’t get to build a tool and then get to say, ‘I didn’t intend it to be used that way,’” says David Parry, an associate professor of communication and media studies at Saint Joseph’s University. “He built a surveillance tool, and he should have known that’s exactly how it would be used.”
Parry considers it unethical for professors and colleges to use Proctorio and other automated proctoring tools.
“Our job as teachers and professors is not to surveil and police our students, but it’s to educate them,” he says. “You are assuming that students are trying to cheat—rather than assuming students are trying to learn and help them learn.”
He sees the growing adoption of automated proctoring tools as a continuation of a trend started by plagiarism-detection services like Turnitin, which he says were built on the assumption that students want to cheat and must be policed. But despite early pushback by students and some professors, plagiarism detection has become ubiquitous. Parry worries the same thing could happen with automated proctoring.
“You’re taking money away from education and giving it to surveillance companies,” Parry says of colleges who buy Proctorio and other services. “Hire better teachers instead.”
That sentiment was taken further this week in a Twitter thread by Jesse Stommel, a senior lecturer in communications and digital studies at the University of Mary Washington and co-founder of the Digital Pedagogy Lab. “If your institution just spent $500,000 on a proctoring solution, or even $200,000, put that number next to these:
1) how many of your students are food or housing insecure?
2) how many faculty or staff have been furloughed or fired?
3) how many positions are currently frozen?”
Students and professors have raised other concerns about the effectiveness of automated proctoring tools as well. Among the complaints are high rates of false positives, require students to have web cameras that not every student can afford, create challenges for students with disabilities and can even be discriminatory.
Social Media Battles
One of the most forceful critics of automated proctoring services has been Ian Linkletter, a learning technology specialist at the University of British Columbia, which uses Proctorio. In August, he tweeted a series of critiques, including links to YouTube videos that Proctorio gives to colleges and professors showing them how to use the service, in an effort to show how invasive it is.
“Proctorio is afraid. They are afraid of students. they are afraid of the truth. They are afraid of what they have made,” he tweeted.
In response, Proctorio filed a lawsuit demanding that the Tweets with its YouTube links and screenshot of its training website be taken down, arguing that he was infringing the company’s copyright and sharing confidential information that he only had access to through his position as a tech specialist.
“I wanted to contribute to a very lively public discourse about the way that Proctorio works—whether it’s effective, whether it’s ethical,” Linkletter told EdSurge in a recent interview. “They uploaded their videos to YouTube, and now they want to call them confidential, but that’s not how YouTube works,” he says.
Linkletter has pushed back, charging that the company is trying to silence his criticisms with their lawsuit.
Olsen says his company only took legal action after Linkletter repeatedly posted YouTube links to information designed only for customers, and continued to do so after the company asked him to stop.
“We’re a security company. If test takers knew every single thing about the product, then they would simply bypass it,” Olsen says.
To that idea, Linkletter countered: “If it’s easy enough to game your product just by knowing how it works, then it’s not very effective at what it’s supposed to do,” he says. For his part, he thinks the more productive conversation would not be how to surveil students, but how to create better tests. “This might be a good opportunity to rethink assessment,” he says.