Virtual Reality

The Pandemic’s Proctorial Panopticon

Hassan Merali // Columnist

Every student has taken a proctored exam before. Tests usually take place in the presence of a teacher, who supervises to ensure that nobody cheats. Normally, coordinating this isn’t much of an issue, but having people in the same room together isn’t possible in the middle of a pandemic. For post-secondary institutions (PSIs), this poses a problem: how do we ensure academic integrity when most students are taking tests from home?

This problem stems from the current philosophical framework of academic integrity that most PSIs follow regarding testing—to see how much a student has learned, they shouldn’t have access to course material that would help them answer exam questions. Of course, there are numerous problems with this framework. Failing to take into account various learning styles imposes a burden on all students, which is felt harder by those with disabilities. But putting those problems aside, what has come from an innocent place of wanting to preserve academic integrity has led PSIs down a slippery slope into student surveillance.

Proctoring software companies use a mix of monitoring techniques to provide assurance that students taking online tests aren’t cheating. Most will require remote access to various parts of the student’s computer; this can include the camera, microphone, screen, keyboard, and the computer itself. Access to the computer’s camera allows a proctor to watch the student in real time. Before a test, students need to confirm their identity with photo ID and show the proctor their workspace to ensure they aren’t using course material during the exam. Access to the microphone allows the proctor to hear if the student is talking to someone out of view. Remote access to the student’s computer allows the proctor to view what’s happening on their screen. In addition to live observation, proctoring companies employ different types of automated software, including facial recognition for identity verification, gaze-monitoring to track students’ eye movements, and keystroke analysis to look for discrepancies in typing patterns.

These software companies try to catch students cheating by flagging what they call “suspicious events.” For example, if a student’s eyes look away from their screen for more than a few seconds, it’s deemed suspicious; if this happens as little as twice a minute, it can be flagged as a suspicious event. Most companies use algorithms to determine whether a student’s suspicion score is too high. A recording of a student’s exam can be forwarded to their teacher for review. Some companies will employ a “live interventionist” to step in during the test if they suspect the student is cheating.

These companies end up capturing reams of intensely personal and highly valuable data from test takers in the process. Proctoring companies collect biometric data, such as recordings of a student’s voice, face, and behavioural characteristics like typing patterns. They collect personally identifiable information, such as a student’s name, address, phone number, educational affiliation, and scans of government documents like driver’s licenses. They also collect information about the student’s device like IP address, operating system, device ID, Internet Service Provider, a record of websites visited and how long they were visited for. 

In BC, most PSIs are public sector institutions, and are required to abide by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act when collecting and handling student data. Because proctoring companies are private companies in an unregulated space, they aren’t subject to such regulation. The way these companies handle student data is up to each company’s individual privacy policy, which is subject to change at any time. Some companies have time limits on data retention, but others don’t. Most companies say they use industry best practices to secure data, but that didn’t stop hackers from gaining access to hundreds of thousands of student records from one of the biggest proctoring companies in the industry. Most companies also claim they won’t sell student data to third parties, but there’s no law forbidding it. Because public health orders have made online exams the only option, students are forced to accept the proctoring software terms and conditions or fail their class.

Proctoring software raises a myriad of concerns surrounding accessibility and equity. Not everyone has the type of quiet, solitary, closed off environment that these companies expect. Also penalized are students who can’t stare at a screen for two to three hours in complete silence. As I wrote about in my first column, students are experiencing extraordinary amounts of screen time, causing increases in Computer Vision Syndrome. This kind of monitoring discriminates against students with disabilities that have a hard time keeping their attention focused on a screen. It also discriminates against students who don’t have documentation recognized by these services, or the technology necessary to run proctoring software. Some proctoring companies also force students to pay fees to access the software. Like all surveillance mechanisms, proctoring software marginalizes students with disabilities and students with access to limited resources. 

Students may or may not be able to see the proctor invigilating them, but the proctor can see them and their immediate surroundings through the webcam. This is the type of surveillance that was used in prisons designed by Jeremy Bentham. French sociologist Michel Foucault wrote extensively about Bentham’s panopticon, a prison where all of the inmates could be seen by a single guard, who himself could not be seen by anyone. According to Foucault, because inmates never knew whether or not they were being watched, they had to self-regulate their behaviour under the threat of constant surveillance. Current proctoring software uses the same surveillance methods to force students to self-regulate their behaviour.

The rise of proctoring software was well under way before the pandemic, but the increased use of the services has been exponential due the sudden necessity of remote learning. For now, Capilano University doesn’t seem to be one of those interested, but an alarming amount of PSIs are already using proctoring software. I sympathise with post-secondary administrators and faculty who have been thrust into an impossible situation during this pandemic, and are trying their best to preserve academic integrity. However, we cannot condone the type of surveillance used in proctoring software. Their monitoring techniques are invasive and violate student privacy. The proliferation of proctoring software represents an unacceptable invasion into the private sphere of student life.

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