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.


3 Reasons why proctoring an exam using Zoom is a bad idea

March 31, 2020

Lots of people have been asking me about using Zoom to proctor exams. I’ve taught over 100 online courses, between the graduate courses I’ve taught for the Werklund School of Education and dozens of continuing education courses.

Combining that experience with research expertise in academic integrity, I can say that using Zoom to proctor written exams is a bad idea. Here’s why:

1. Zoom is not a substitute for a professional proctoring service

Professional proctoring services are sophisticated, both in terms of technology and operations. Asking an individual professor to proctor an online exam using Zoom as a makeshift solution is a bad idea. Most instructors are not trained on how to proctor online exams.

Given that some instructors are also working from home, while managing child care and family responsibilities, it is even less likely that they could do an excellent job of online invigilation, especially for a large class.

2. Creates additional technology barriers for students

Not all students have web cams or reliable Internet service. Requiring students to have cameras on and stream video during an exam could put some students at a technological disadvantage. If you suddenly require them to buy a web cam, you could be adding financial stress to the equation as well.

At our university, we cannot penalize students if they do not have a video camera. If you did not tell students at the time they registered for the course that a web cam would be required for the course, it is unethical to suddenly make it a requirement partway through the course. If we want students to act with integrity, we must demonstrate integrity in how we run our courses… Changing the rules as you go along just isn’t ethical.

3. Things are not always as they seem

My colleague, D’Arcy Norman, shared this post on how and why the video feed is not necessarily trustworthy. Go read his post. Watch his video. They try it yourself and see how easy it is to create a video background that makes it look like you’re in front of your camera when you’re not. (Hint: It is really easy.)

Besides, if an instructor suspects exam misconduct are they going to use Zoom as their evidence? How would they actually be able to prove it? I mean unless a student has crib notes out in plain view, the case management for that could get messy fast. Chances are high, I would say, that an allegation of academic misconduct could be dismissed (in the student’s favour) if the evidence is not strong enough.

There are few benefits and many potential complications with using Zoom to proctor written exams, especially for large classes. Of course, the exception to this would be individual oral exam where the student interacts in real time with the examiner. That could be do-able via Zoom. In the case of graduate student thesis defences, it may be the only option, but the examination committee must take steps to verify the identity of the student if they are not personally known to at least one of the examiners.

My recommendation is to consider alternate assessments if possible. If it is not possible, then consider a professional online exam proctoring service. Trying to use Zoom to MacGyver your exam invigilation of written tests is probably not going to serve the purpose of upholding integrity.

Note: This post was updated on April 13, 2020 to clarify that I am specifically referring to written exams in this post.

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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.


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