To proctor or not to proctor –
is that the question?

AUA Annual Conference 2021 Exhibitor Blog

The use of facial recognition technology during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a widespread debate within the HE community about to what extent surveillance and invasion of privacy is reasonable in order for universities to carry out their obligation to ensure fair and credible assessment of students.

The use of online remote proctored exams has caused a stir among students in several countries and sectors not particularly accustomed to such tools. Before coronavirus, remote proctoring tools were, for obvious reasons, mainly reserved for distance programs or in the rare instances where individual students were physically unable to attend the exam on campus. 

With the sudden lockdown of universities and schools following the virus outbreak, the use of remotely proctored exams seems to have exploded worldwide. Online proctoring providers have stated that use of their services during Spring 2020 increased more than tenfold compared to the previous year. Some of them openly admitted that their support systems have been completely overwhelmed by increased use and that they haven’t been able to handle the scale properly. As most remote online proctoring solutions emphasise the use of remote human invigilators as part of their offerings, it’s no surprise that many of them quickly ran into scalability issues as the demand far exceeded the supply. Trying to adapt to the demand, it’s fair to assume that some solution providers chose to scale up their service by using new, inexperienced or ill-equipped proctors in addition to their usual staff. Particularly in Europe, several examples of proctors sitting in non-European countries have raised concerns of sensitive biometric data being shared with third parties without proper control and GDPR measures in place. 

But the concept of online proctoring itself raises a number of issues and questions that need to be addressed more widely. In essence, online proctoring is based on Foucault’s panoptic model of surveillance: an invisible omniscient who constantly creates anxiety about whether actions are wrong. No matter how it is being presented, it is inevitably unsettling and intimidating to have a stranger observing you close-up through a one-way webcam and perhaps also monitoring your actions on your desktop and listening for sounds in your surroundings. In addition, during the lockdown, students have been confined to their private homes and rooms, without any options to go to “neutral” grounds, so remote proctoring easily becomes invasive and compromises the sanctity of the home. Needless to say, none of this is helping to reduce anxiety among students taking exams. 

On the other hand, universities have to maintain a certain level of academic integrity for accreditation and compliance to the best of their ability to reduce academic dishonesty. And while many argue that several assessment formats could probably be changed into more open-book formats and thereby reduce or eliminate the need for proctored environments, this will clearly take time and require much discussion and reflection within faculties and academic communities. There is no guarantee of a short-term resolution to this issue. So, there is little doubt that we will continue to see online proctoring as part of the assessment toolkit going forward. Not least because the technology for facial recognition and deep learning is today widely available and pretty easy to adopt, given that major solution providers like Amazon and Microsoft offer it as cloud-based services for anyone to add to their applications. 

Therefore, the question is not really whether to proctor or not to proctor, but rather how to proctor, how to strike the right balance between the extent of surveillance possible through technology today and the need for credible academic integrity in assessment.

Uniwise is kindly sponsoring the AUA Annual Conference 2021.

UNIwise is a leading software-as-a-service (SaaS) technology company primarily targeting higher education. Their mission is to free exams and assessments from the constraints of paper, time, and space. The company’s cloud-based platform, WISEflow, is an end-to-end workflow supporting software service, enabling institutions to deliver, manage, and streamline their various assignments.

You can find more information about the organisation on the UNIwise website.