Comparing E-Proctoring Software to Hydroxychloroquine: An Apt Analogy

November 4, 2020
Image courtesy of patrisyu at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of patrisyu at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To help educators and administrators understand why I urge caution, and even skepticism about the use of e-proctoring software and other surveillance technologies such as those that lockdown students’ Internet browsers, here’s an analogy I have been using that seems to resonate:

In my opinion, e-proctoring software is to higher education what Hydroxycloroquine has been to the COVID-19 virus.

It’s not that e-proctoring software is bad, it is that it was never designed to be used under the current conditions. There are colleagues who would disagree with me about this kind of software being bad in principle. I accept their position. Let’s look at this through the eyes of scholar who is trained to reserve judgement on an issue without evidence to back it up. If we assume the software was designed for a specific purpose – to invigilate exams taken via a computer, then it fulfills that purpose. So, in that sense, it does what it is supposed to do. However, that is not the whole story.

We can turn to Hydroxychloroquine as an analogy to help us understand why we should be skeptical.

Hydroxychloroquine is an anti-malaria drug, also used to treat arthritis. It was never designed to be used against the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) virus. Hasty attempts to do research on the coronavirus, including studies on Hydroxychloroquine, have resulted in numerous papers now being retracted from scientific journals. People ran to this drug as a possible antidote the coronavirus, just as schools are running to e-proctoring software as an antidote for exam cheating. Neither e-proctoring software nor Hydroxychloroquine were designed to be used during the current pandemic. People flocked to them both as if they were some kind of magic pill that would solve a massively complex problem, without sufficient evidence that either would actually do what they so desperately wanted it to do.

The reality is that there is scant scientific data to show that e-proctoring actually works in the way that people want it to, that is, to provide a way of addressing academic misconduct during the pandemic. By “scientific data” I do not mean sales pitches. I am talking about independent scholarly studies undertaken by qualified academic researchers employed at reputable universities. By “independent scholarly studies” I mean research that has not been funded in any way by the companies that produce the products. That kind of research is terrifyingly lacking.

We need to back up for a minute and look about why we invigilate exams in the first place. To invigilate means “to keep watch over”. Keeping watch over students while they write an exam is part of ensuring that testing conditions are fair and objective.

The point of a test, in scientific terms, involves controlling all variables except one. In traditional testing, all other factors are controlled, including the conditions under which the test was administered such as the exam hall with desks separated, same lighting and environment for all test-takers, length of time permitted to take the test, how it is invigilated, and so on. All variables are presumably controlled except one: the student’s knowledge of the subject matter. That’s what’s being tested, the student’s knowledge.

Exams are administered in what could be termed, academically sterile environments. In an ideal situation, academic hygiene is the starting point for administering a test. Invigilation is just one aspect of ensuring academic hygiene during testing, but it is not the only factor that contributes to this kind of educational hygiene that we need to ensure testing conditions control for all possible variables except a student’s knowledge of the subject matter.

During the pandemic, with the shift to remote learning, we cannot control all the variables. We simply cannot assure an academically hygienic environment for testing. Students may have absolutely no control over who else is present in their living/studying quarters. They may have no control over a family member (including their own children) who might enter a room unannounced during a test. The conditions under which students are being tested during the pandemic are not academically hygienic. And that’s not their fault.

E-proctoring may address one aspect of exam administration: invigilation. It cannot, however, ensure that all variables are controlled.

As an academic integrity scholar, I am distressed by the lack of objective, peer-reviewed data about e-proctoring software. Schools have turned to e-proctoring software as if it were some kind of magic pill that will make academic cheating go away. We have insufficient evidence to substantiate that e-proctoring software, or any technology for that matter, can serve as a substitute for an in-person academically hygienic testing environment.

Schools that were using e-proctoring before the pandemic, such as Thompson Rivers University or Athabasca University in Canada, offered students a choice about whether students preferred to take their exams online, at home, using an e-proctoring service, or whether they preferred to drive to an in-person exam centre. During the pandemic, students’ choice has been taken away.

We all want an antidote to academic misconduct during remote learning, but I urge you educators and administrators to think like scholars and scientists. In other words, approach this “solution” with caution, and even skepticism. At present, we lack sufficient evidence to make informed decisions. Educators need to be just as skeptical about this technology and how it works during pandemic conditions as physicians and the FDA have been about using Hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the coronavirus. Its use as being effective against the coronavirus is a myth. The use of e-proctoring software as being an effective replacement for in-person exams is also a myth, one perpetuated by the companies that sell the product.

Forcing surveillance technology on students against their will during a pandemic is tantamount to forcing an untested treatment on a patient; it is unethical to the extreme.

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This blog has had over 2 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton, PhD, is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, and the Educational Leader in Residence, Academic Integrity, University of Calgary, Canada. Opinions are my own and do not represent those of the University of Calgary.


E-Proctoring: Understanding the debate about invigilating remote exams

May 12, 2020

There has been a lot of talk in the news recently about the rush for secondary and post-secondary institutions to implement digital solutions for proctoring of remote and online exams. In this post, I share helpful resources, articles and news to help you better understand the current debate about what’s good, what’s bad and what’s ugly. This post is not meant to be exhaustive, but instead to curate and share some of the key resources I have found particularly helpful.

Back to the future

Interestingly, the debate is not entirely new. In 2018, Rory McCorkle predicted more students would be taking exams remotely in the future. Welcome to 2020, where the Coronavirus has changed everything.

Students stressed out

Math students at Laurier University were described as furious after their department required them to buy external web cams for their exams. Rebecca Heilweil shares the perspective of University of Washington student, Marium Raza, who shared concerns about the lack of transparency about how their recorded video will be used or who will see it. The heightened use of surveillance to monitor students’ every move is a recurring theme in these stories.

Faculty disgruntled

Faculty are also concerned about surveillance and an invasion of students’ privacy. References to George Orwell’s 1984 have been made in more than one news article, such as this one by Colleen Flaherty in Inside Higher Ed, and this one by Shawn Hubler in the New York Times.

Michael Sankey of Griffith University has described the rapid move to e-exams as driving headlong towards a cliff.

Human rights considerations

An article in the Washington Post describes how some students get so stressed out by the heightened surveillance of remote proctoring that they throw up into their waste bins while on camera because they have been told they cannot leave the room during the exam. (This begs the question: Is there a human rights violation here? I mean, shouldn’t students be allowed to vomit into a toilet?)

Concordia University has included guidance in their rollout of e-proctoring that: “Any proctored online exam that goes beyond two hours may include a break for students.” They are basically sending a message to faculty to have exams of a reasonable and humane duration, which is a good place to start.

Glitches in the matrix

A recent news story out of Australia detailed how over 250 candidates taking a TAXAU120 required special consideration after their remote exam provider, ProctorU reported that they experienced “a momentary connectivity issue”, leading to them being disconnected from their exam.

Hacking the system

There are ample resources available to students about how to beat or hack e-proctoring software. This post talks about how easy it is for students to load up a virtual machine to beat the system. There are also plenty of online videos dedicated to showing students how to beat e-proctoring system. Let’s be clear: There is no completely foolproof way to ensure students do not cheat on exams. There will always be a small percentage of students who spend more time and effort trying to find creative ways to cheat instead of putting that same effort into preparing for their exams.

Resources: Webinar Recordings

A couple of publicly accessible webinar recordings you might find useful are:

Academic Integrity in Online Exams – This session was presented by Tod Denham and the team at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) Open Learning did for us at the University of Calgary.

Implementing remotely invigilated online exams at scale, presented by Kylie Day as part of the  Transforming Assessment Webinar Series is also worth a watch.

Additional Resources

E-CampusOntario – ProctorTrack Instructor Support Guide (open access pressbook)

Fourteen Simple Strategies to Reduce Cheating on Online Examinations – Excellent article by Stephanie Smith Budhai

What the research says

For those interested in scholarly perspectives on the topic, a couple of journal articles worth looking up include:

Cramp et al. (2019) – Lessons learned from implementing remotely invigilated online exams.

González-González et al. (2020) – Implementation of E-Proctoring in Online Teaching: A Study about Motivational Factors

I will update this post as I collect and curate more information that I think will be helpful to educators and administrators as we learn more about this brave new world of remote learning during COVID-19. (All literary and cultural references to sci fi and dystopian future(s) are most definitely intentional).

Related posts:

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This blog has had over 2 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, and the Educational Leader in Residence, Academic Integrity, University of Calgary, Canada. Opinions are my own and do not represent those of the University of Calgary.

Last updated: 8 June 2020


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