Instructional challenges sparked by COVID-19 keep coming—among the latest is how to use online proctoring fairly and securely

Online proctoring keeps remote exams secure but raises privacy questions

Instructional challenges sparked by COVID-19 keep coming—among the latest is how to use online proctoring fairly and securely

The shift to remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic has brought many challenges, and a key question in particular is how campus leaders can ensure the integrity of student work during exams.

To answer this question, many colleges and universities are turning to a solution that online degree programs have been using for years: online proctoring.

Although online-only institutions have used online proctoring successfully to prevent students from cheating for many years, the technology represents a culture shock for some students not accustomed to learning online, who have raised concerns about the privacy of online monitoring during exams.

How online proctoring works

Sending students to physical testing centers isn’t practical when they’re spread around the world, and during a pandemic it might not be not safe or responsible. Online proctoring from companies such as ProctorU, Respondus, and other providers uses live proctors, artificial intelligence, or a combination of the two to discourage students from cheating during online exams — and to catch them if they do happen to cheat.

Related content: Best practices in online proctoring

ProctorU, for instance, offers three proctoring solutions for exams with different stakes. The most secure option uses live proctors to verify the identity of test takers, scan their physical environment to make sure there are no cheating aids, and monitor students throughout the exam to make sure they’re not cheating. For low-stakes exams, the technology can flag potentially suspicious behavior for an administrator to review later. In both cases, the testing sessions are recorded using a student’s own webcam and microphone.

Advocates of the technology note that students would not feel their privacy was being compromised if they were taking an exam in person at a testing center. Online proctoring, they say, helps make sure that students’ work is their own — just like proctoring at a test center or in a classroom.

Anthony Babbitt, who is working toward a Ph.D. in higher-education administration, said he believes online proctoring “will play an important role in American education in the future.”

In completing his undergraduate degree from Charter Oak State College in Connecticut, Babbitt took several online exams monitored by ProctorU. “I had nothing but good experiences with them,” he says. “My interactions with the [proctors] were pleasant. You can talk with them and type directly to them in a chat window. If a test requires ProctorU, I would consider that test to be valid.”

Leann Poston, a licensed physician who holds an MBA and a master’s degree in education, earned her MBA online from Wright State University. “Most professors used online proctoring software,” she says. “After the test started, I didn’t really think about the webcam being on while I took the test. I appreciated the university’s effort to maintain the integrity of the testing environment, while allowing me the convenience of taking the test from home.”

Concerns about online proctoring

Although many students report positive experiences with online proctoring, there are some who don’t feel comfortable with the technology. These critics say there is a difference between being watched when you’re in a neutral facility and being watched in your own home.

For instance, some students might feel uncomfortable or ashamed about revealing their living conditions to a complete stranger. Others are worried about private footage being recorded and stored on company servers.

In a recent exchange about online proctoring on the website Reddit, a poster asked: “Isn’t it creepy that some stranger on the internet is watching you take an exam? Exams give people anxiety, and when a random stranger is watching my every move, it could make it worse.”

One respondent to the post noted that with artificial intelligence technology instead of a live monitor, “students would no longer have to worry about some random stranger watching them, as only the professor is able to see all the recordings.” Another wrote: “I figured that someone was going to watch me take an examination—whether live or in person, there was going to be a proctor. I didn’t find it creepy at all. … I admit I don’t have test anxiety, but I would think being in your own home, taking the test alone, would be less stressful than being in a lecture hall crammed with students.”

This past spring, the University of California Santa Barbara Faculty Association Board wrote a letter to campus administrators arguing that the use of ProctorU “violates our students’ rights to privacy,” turning the university into a “surveillance tool.”

“We recognize that … there are trade-offs and unfortunate aspects of the migration online that we must accept,” the letter stated. “This is not one of them. We are not willing to sacrifice the privacy and digital rights of our students for the expediency of a take-home final exam.”

Scott McFarland, ProctorU’s chief executive, says the university is still using ProctorU, but he admits the letter prompted the company to take a closer look at its privacy language.

In response, ProctorU has published a “Student Bill of Rights for Remote and Digital Work” to make it easier for students to understand their rights and how their data will be used. Drafted in consultation with students, faculty, and administrators at colleges and universities nationwide, the document outlines seven “essential rights” that students should expect while participating in online learning and assessment.

Among these rights, students should have their work presumed to be honest and accurate, understand what data is being collected from them and how it’s stored, and expect that online proctoring companies will comply with federal and state laws and institutional policies regarding student and data privacy.

Instances of cheating are not likely to disappear. What’s important, says McFarland, is that some measure of control be put into place so that students are on a level playing field, particularly for end-of-course exams or high-stakes entrance exams like the MCAT and LSAT.

“If anyone gets a grade, credit, or degree by taking shortcuts, it hurts everyone — the people who didn’t cheat, the cheater, and the institutions that stand by the quality of their programs,” he says.

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