The Good Student’s Argument Against Proctoring Software

By: Asia Merrill, Plymouth Voices Editor

The transition to digital learning in 2020 exhausted a population of students and educators alike. Suddenly, issues like Zoom fatigue, lack of participation, lack of engagement, and technological frustration baffled the field of education nearly overnight, and has generated digital versions of everyday necessities: namely, proctoring. Due to the sharp increase of digital learning, according to this poll, “54 percent of institutions were using online or remote proctoring services, while another 23 percent were considering or planning to use them,” (Flaherty, 2020). I would be the last to argue against the value of academic integrity. Indeed, a teacher’s lack of control over an environment presents a significant risk of cheating. I will, however, be the first to say that digital proctoring software is not the solution. 

I titled this article this way because one of the main arguments in favor of the software is that students who don’t cheat shouldn’t be bothered by the presence of digital proctors. As a student who has genuinely never cheated, I am absolutely bothered. Anxieties around test taking are crushing alone. Being actively watched and potentially flagged for minor behaviors or elements of my environment that I cannot control makes that fear significantly worse. I’m not alone in this. The University of Arizona reportedly believes that students don’t mind the digital proctor, but UA student Jackson Hayes, according to this article from The Verge, says, “Every student I know finds this the creepiest thing ever,” Hayes says. On his campus, he finds, “the predominant feeling towards Examity is ‘Screw this.’” 

Enlisting a third party to monitor students presents security concerns and fosters distrust between students and teachers. According to this Slate article, our own Katherine Wolfseifer from the psychology department has publicly voiced her hesitation in using proctoring software: “We have many students from difficult backgrounds who may feel especially self-conscious about a professor seeing their surroundings, and the basic idea is that such extreme surveillance does not build a community of trust in which the student would feel comfortable reaching out to a professor for help”. Respondus, for example, relies heavily on facial recognition to flag “events” that may indicate cheating, such as a person missing from the frame, suspicious eye movement, or a different person being on camera. Additionally, it flags background noise, tracks the activity of the device, and even monitors the wifi network being used to take the exam. 

Not only is this a huge invasion of privacy, but it creates an unsafe environment for those who live in noisy or troubled homes, have children, or have disabilities that need to be addressed during the time required to take an exam. One student was flagged for involuntary mouth movements, while PoC students with darker skin are repeatedly asked by the software to “turn the lights on”. While a professor may not be actively watching every student, they are prompted to check a student’s camera feed when “flags” come up, presenting its own problems. Respondus is the most popular digital proctoring software, garnering patronage from a whopping 65% of surveyed institutions. Such software is not immune to data breaches, either. According to this article by The Spectator, “ProctorU confirmed that 440,000 records were stolen and leaked publicly in August. In mid-October, Verificient, the maker of another test proctoring service, ProctorTrack, was hacked and forced to disable the service.” While researching for this piece, Firefox even issued me a warning upon going to ProctorU’s official website. Additionally, this service in particular accomplishes its goal by having an employee watch students as they take the test, hidden behind a black screen. In response to the security and privacy issues, the University of California, Berkeley, has banned proctoring software altogether. 

Aside from the blatant invasion of privacy, it’s pretty expensive. Respondus’ base tier licensing fee for an institution is nearly $4,000 annually, which only covers about 1,000 seats. Examity and ProctorU bill students independently, which has its own host of ethical issues. 

 Luckily, with the vaccine for COVID-19 potentially being available for April of this year, proctoring software would ideally become irrelevant, as in-person traditional exams can continue. Or, more appealingly, the elimination of harsh exam practices in favor of more pedagogically appropriate tests of competency that aren’t based on ableist, racist traditions.