Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom

The Unblinking Eye of the Proctor

When you are taking a test it is fair to expect that you are being watched. It’s part of test taking. You sit at your desk and at the front of the room, or walking the aisles, the professor/teacher/proctor walks back and forth to make sure that everybody is keeping their eyes on their own work.

In other words: if you feel like you’re being watched, well, you are.

So what happens when the test taking goes on-line? How do the professors of MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) or other online courses know that their students are taking the tests honestly? This is a growing concern, not only for matters of academic honesty, but also because more and more MOOCs (and similar online programs) are seeking to ensure that their courses can be worth actual college credit.

One easy solution would seem to be to make students come to a centralized location for purposes of testing, but that can be quite onerous for students spread out over large areas. Another solution: have the computer on which they’re taking the test watch them. Such is the focus of Steve Kolowich’s recent article “Behind the Webcam’s Watchful Eye, Online Proctoring Takes Hold” (posted at the Chronicle of Higher Education). It is an article of such obviously laughable privacy concerns that Kolowich notes (of the proctoring solution):

“The result is a monitoring regime that can seem a bit Orwellian.”

Kolowich describes proctoring companies (like ProctorU and Kryterion) where legions of proctors (sometimes in color coded shirts) sit behind computers and watch test takers through their own webcams for any sign of improper activity. Glancing away from the screen too much? You could be cheating. Mumbling to yourself? You could be cheating. Get up to go to the bathroom? You could be cheating. As Kolowich describes:

“Each online-proctoring company has developed its own approach. Some monitor live feeds; others record students via Webcam and watch the recordings. Some require students to share a view of their computer monitor, and empower a proctor to override their cursor if necessary; others simply make students install software that makes it impossible to use Web browsers or chat programs while the exam is in progress.”

Academic honesty is important, and universities should not be chastised for wanting to ensure that those taking online courses for credit are taking their tests honestly; however, the idea that the best way to protect against cheating is to hire outside companies to monitor test takers (by their computers) seems to show a distinct failure of imagination on the part of universities. Are there no other ways to test comprehension? Granted, other types of more thorough examinations might require online universities to devote more resources to such things as grading; however, the result might be students learning a subject instead of learning to beat a test (which is more of a problem for high school students [more on that here]).

Much of the irony of the idea of such Orwellian proctors is that it seems to run counter to some of the utopian visions attached to online courses. The evangels for online education frequently speak of how wonderfully freeing it can be: allowing students to work at their own pace, allowing students to take classes from all over the world, providing assistance to students who would be less comfortable in a traditional classroom environment. What such proctoring does is take the “freedom” granted by online education and buries it beneath a comically intrusive system in the name of guarding against cheating.

Are students’ declarations of “I will not cheat” really worth so little?

Yet, what is perhaps most distressingly surprising about the article is just how unsurprising it is. At every juncture it seems as if the tradeoff that people are asked to make for technological convenience (such as online courses) is to sacrifice ever more privacy. And having to grant a third party company (contracted by the university) access to your computer so they can watch you while you take a test seems like a particularly egregious affront to privacy.

True, the proctor of an exam (taken in person) may be watching you take a test, but they are not gazing from the unblinking eye of your webcam, and that proctor is generally your teacher/professor (or another teacher/professor from your school) not a faceless individual watching you from afar. An actually present proctor can situate a test taker in the context of a classroom, instead of just leering through a camera. And does this online proctoring regime not risk creating a self-fulfilling prophesy wherein the slightest tics of a test taker get marked down as “suspicious” (which is not to even begin to discuss the ways in which taking a test in your domicile differs from taking a test in a controlled environment).

Ultimately one cannot fault these proctoring companies for their plucked-out-of-a-dystopian-novel test watching schemes, after all, one of the things that we have learned in recent years is that if somebody is willing to pay a company to watch your every move than somebody will figure out how to be that company.

Universities have a responsibility to ensure academic honesty, but they also have a responsibility to protect the privacy of their students.  Partnering with such online proctoring services would see universities jeopardizing the latter in the name of satisfying the former.

It may just be me, but it seems that in this whole affair, the group really being cheated is not universities…it’s the students.





About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul @libshipwreck

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This entry was posted on April 24, 2013 by in Big Brother, Education, Higher Education, Surveillance, Technology, Testing, The Internet.

Ne'er do wells



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