Students raise concerns about online exam proctoring during the pandemic

Abigail Lee, Science & Technology Editor

As a result of coronavirus restrictions, colleges and universities across the nation have adapted to online instruction, many using a host of questionable monitoring tactics that have led to student pushback. 

The sudden shift to virtual learning in the spring posed challenges for schools as they figured out how to reshape instruction to a completely different format. Interest in existing educational platforms, especially exam surveillance technologies, rose sharply and was quickly integrated in hundreds of colleges and universities. These online surveillance tools are designed to replicate traditional classroom settings in which instructors can monitor student activity during exams. 

Some of the most prominent companies include Proctorio, Respondus, ProctorU, and Examity, which detect students’ attempts at cheating. The features vary; some utilize live proctors that watch students for the duration of their exams while others record videos that can be reviewed by the student’s instructor. All integrate some form of algorithmic monitoring such as facial detection, tracking of head and eye movement, and desk scans, to flag evidence of cheating. 

Although online proctoring software was available before the pandemic, the change to distance learning resulted in a major increase in revenue for these companies as schools searched for ways to prevent and penalize cheating outside of the physical classroom. 

Mike Olsen, the CEO of Proctorio, told Forbes that, in approximately the first month of the coronavirus shutdown alone, the company handled 2.5 million exams, compared to the 235,000 exams proctored in the same period of 2019.  

While the demand for online surveillance has been a benefit to the companies, the use of exam software has indicated threats of widespread privacy invasion. Several companies require identification and private information prior to the exam. 

According to The Washington Post, “In July, hackers…published more than 400,000 records taken from ProctorU, including names, passwords and home addresses.” 

As surveillance companies collect students’ personal data, they also place extenuating demands on students. Those who do not have stable Internet or proper devices at home have to go to public libraries or other venues to take their exams.

Because small movements like looking away to think can be flagged as cheating, students have to be aware of themselves throughout the entirety of their exams in addition to focusing on test-taking. Several companies also require students to have little background distraction, which can pose problems for students who may have roommates or live in other unpredictable environments.

For students of color, facial recognition technologies might fail to pick up on them due to their skin color. Vice reports that students have experienced problems with programs like ExamSoft because the systems aren’t able to detect darker skin tones. 

The pressure of abiding by the rules of proctoring software has led students at several colleges and universities to voice their concerns to their administrations. Electronic Frontier Foundation provides a list of petitions protesting against the use of proctoring technology at schools like Washington State University and Texas A&M University.

Exam surveillance companies push the idea that unmonitored testing environments lead to rampant cheating, which is the primary reason schools turn to them. 

According to VentureBeat, Examity CEO and founder Michael London said in 2019, “As college cheating scandals continue to make headlines, institutions are turning to technology to validate the learning experience and ensure confidence in student outcomes.” 

But surveillance software does not necessarily deter cheating effectively. Reddit has been home to student-provided tips on how to work around proctoring services. Vice also notes that not much peer-reviewed evidence is available to sufficiently support or detract from the efficacy of online proctoring. 

As students face external anxiety due to the pandemic, strict testing policies have been criticized for heightening mental health concerns. Many question the price on students’ wellbeing of implementing these technologies in order to catch hypothetical cheating. 

The Verge states, “What is clear is that as universities find new ways to curb cheating, students find new ways to cheat. And as the cycle escalates, invasive procedures and technical requirements continue to stretch beyond what many students are comfortable with.”