When students’ homes became their classrooms during the pandemic, a dilemma arose about how to fairly monitor their academic progress. Some faculty and institutions turned to remote proctoring software, where a camera records the students’ home environment, monitors eye movements and physical behaviors, tracks searches, and records their screens while taking online tests to flag signs that could indicate cheating.
Just as the use of programs by Proctorio, ProctorU and ExamSoft expanded, so did outcries about the invasive nature of the practice and error-prone algorithms disproportionately hurting people of color and students with disabilities.
“Remote proctoring has been a concern in the educational landscape for years, but it has radically expanded both in scope and the severity of harm during the pandemic,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.). “What was a rare outlier technology prior to COVID-19 is now integrated into every nearly aspect of American education—from the earliest grades through professional licensing exams.”
Objections to online proctoring grow
Use of the software largely was justified by institutions as an emergency measure, but now students are voicing objections. There are protests and petitions on campuses to stop the use of proctoring surveillance programs. Some colleges and universities have begun to track or discourage use of the technology; others are revisiting assessment mechanisms altogether and moving away from high-stakes testing. Open pedagogy is one strategy in the mix that offers an alternative way to evaluate student performance and provide opportunities to co-create material.
While many campuses return to in-person instruction in the fall, the shift to remote and hybrid learning during the pandemic means that more online teaching is here to stay. And that means some fear colleges will rationalize the use of proctoring surveillance—unless people speak up.
There is also a push to broaden the conversation, raise awareness about the issue, and follow any expansion of proctoring software purchases woven into larger data management contracts on campus.
“For research librarians, there should be deep concern about the way that these technologies are affecting students’ ability to engage in intellectual exploration,” said Fox Cahn, noting for decades librarians have played a unique role in protecting privacy and pushing back against censorship.
Biased and discriminatory technology causes harm
At the University of Colorado Denver, students started a petition to ban the use of proctoring software and the issue is slated for review by the faculty senate. Shea Swauger, a librarian and doctoral student at the university, says the technology is invasive and is not sending the right message to students. “We are telling students: Come back to campus in a pandemic and we will trust everyone to make really consequential public health decisions,” he says. “But when it comes to taking a test online, we say no, that’s where we draw the line—they can’t be trusted.”
The surveillance programs that dominate the market use facial detection technology that registers a preference for lighter skin, sometimes forcing students with darker skin to shine a light on their faces to be seen, Swauger says. Biometric eye tracking can identify movements by students with glasses or certain medical conditions as abnormal and flag students wearing head coverings, such as a hijab, he adds.
This can lead to discriminatory practices that hurt students, experts warn. If the suspicion score is high on a test, it can trigger an academic misconduct investigation and take months for students to navigate through the bureaucracy to challenge the claims.
Student leaders call for transparency
In the spring of 2020, students at the University of Alberta in Canada raised concerns about online proctoring disproportionately flagging students who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC) and causing test anxiety. The university president responded in January by establishing a task force, which included student leaders. The group recommended professors get approval and register with the campus if they wanted to use proctoring software. Ideally, students will be informed on their course syllabi ahead of time about the use of the surveillance on exams.
“Online proctoring couldn’t be completely mitigated or removed, but the question now is to encourage instructors to use universal design and look at different ways to assess courses,” said Abner Monteiro, vice president of academics at the University of Alberta Students Union. One alternative to multi-choice exams is to promote open pedagogy where students can learn by creating that content themselves with instructors, he added.
Sarah Elaine Eaton, an associate professor of education at the University of Calgary, has published research demonstrating the ways in which Black and other racialized minorities may be over-represented in e-proctoring reports of academic misconduct, compared to their white peers. She co-authored a paper calling on educational researchers everywhere to pay close attention to how surveillance technologies are used to propagate systemic racism in learning institutions.
Consequences to mental health
On her campus, students voiced concern about the e-proctoring exacerbating student stress. Eaton posed questions to the administration about how a mental health emergency would be handled during an exam if the proctor was artificial intelligence or some individual off campus.
“Our university couldn’t answer that and realized we didn’t have the proper support in place for our students,” said Eaton, noting that this was among the factors in the University of Calgary deciding not to use the proctoring technology. “There was not enough information about how the software might increase students’ anxiety beyond what is reasonable.”
Eaton said that a chatbot is not adequate to rely on in a high-stakes exam. “Every college needs to put human resources behind this and understand that technology cannot replace human contact when it comes to learning and teaching,” she said. “Our students need real support from real people on our campuses, and they need to know that those people care about them.”
Eaton said it’s puzzling to see other universities use e-proctoring without consulting their student body and, in some cases, citing emergency use to contravene their institutional policies around licensing software. She’d also like to see professors consider other ways to measure learning.
“It’s helping people think outside the box. What can we do today that’s new and interesting for students that we haven’t always had the option of doing? There are infographics, podcasts—all kinds of authentic learning,” Eaton said.
Investing in the human approach
Moving beyond traditional exams takes a commitment of time and resources. But the cost outweighs the potential harm of remote proctoring, according to Autumm Caines, an instructional designer at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. When COVID-19 hit, her campus chose not to purchase an e-proctoring license but instead hired additional instructional designers and staff to assist with grading authentic, qualitative assessments.
“We decided to invest in people rather than technology,” Caines said, who notes the “veil is starting to be lifted” on the problems with remote e-proctoring and some campuses are reversing course. (Caines co-authored a paper that outlines how her campus supported faculty around assessments without a remote proctoring solution.) She shares the belief that open pedagogy is one of the strategies that can be employed to give students a chance to co-create knowledge, removing the necessity of high-stakes testing.
If colleges continue to expand the use of surveillance technology, Cahn sees the potential bifurcation of higher education. He fears individualized assessment will become a luxury for only the most elite institutions and larger schools with restrictive budgets will turn to automated assessment as a way to cut corners and costs.
The impact of this could extend well beyond graduation, as students take professional exams for licensing.
“The risk to the individual students is nightmarish. It means seeing someone’s entire career, all their hopes for the future, their entire life being derailed because of a faulty algorithm,” Cahn said. “It can mean the loss of higher education as we know it. It can mean a world where the most important moments of our lives are determined not by who we are, but what an algorithm thinks of us. If we don’t push back against this technology and push back soon, we lose the chance to prevent it from becoming intertwined with every aspect of our lives.”