You might have noticed a recent increase in the complaints and issues being leveled against online proctoring companies. From making students feeling uncomfortable and/or violated, to data breaches and CEOs possibly sharing private conversations online, to a growing number of student and faculty/staff petitions against the tools, to lawsuits being leveled against dissenters for no good reason, the news has not been kind to the world of Big Surveillance. I hear the world’s tiniest violin playing somewhere.

It seems that the leadership at Washington State University decided to listen to concerns… uhhh… double down and defend their position to use proctoring technology during the pandemic. While there are great threads detailing different problems with the letter, I do want to focus in on a few statements specifically. Not to specifically pick on this one school, but because WSU’s response is typical of what you hear from too many Higher Ed administrations. For example, when they say…

violations of academic integrity call into question the meaningfulness of course grades

That is actually a true statement… but not in the way it was intended. The intention was to say that cheating hurts academic integrity because it messes up the grade structures, but it could also be taken to say that cheating calls into highlights the problem with the meaningfulness of grades because cheating really doesn’t affect anyone else.

Think about it: someone else cheats, and it casts doubt on the meaning of my grade if I don’t cheat? How does that work exactly? Of course, this is a nonsense statement that reals highlights how cheating doesn’t change the meaning of grades for anyone else. Its like the leaders at this institution are right there, but don’t see the forest for the trees: what exactly does a grade mean if the cheaters that get away with it don’t end up hurting anyone but themselves? Or does cheating only cause problems for non-cheaters when the cheaters get caught? How does that one work?

But let’s focus here: grades are the core problem. Yes, many people feel they are arbitrary and even meaningless. Still others say they are unfair, while some look at them as abusive. At the very least, you really should realize grades are problematic. Students can guess and get a higher grade than what they really actually know. Tests can be gamed. Questions have bias and discrimination built in too many times. And so on. Online proctoring is just an attempted fix for a problem that existed long before “online” was even an option.

But let’s see if the writers of the letter explain exactly how one person cheating harms someone else… because maybe I am missing something:

when some students violate academic integrity, it’s unfair for the rest. Not only will honest students’ hard work not be properly reflected…. Proctoring levels the playing field so that students who follow the rules are not penalized in the long run by those who don’t.

As someone that didn’t cheat in school, I am confused as to how this exactly works. I really never spent a single minute caring about other students’ cheating. You knew it happened, but it didn’t affect you, so it was their loss and not yours. In fact, you never lost anything in the short or long run from other student’s cheating. I have no clue how my hard work was not “properly reflected” by other students’ cheating.

(I would also note that this “level the playing field” means that they assume proctoring services catch all “cheaters” online, just like have instructors in the classroom on campus meant that all of the “cheaters” in those classes. But we all know that is not the case.)

I have never heard a good answer for how does supposed “penalization” works. Most of the penalization I know of from classes are systemic issues against BIPoC students that happens in ways that proctoring never deals with. You sometimes wish institutions would put as much money into fighting that as they would spying through student cameras….

But what about the specific concerns with how these services operate?

Per WSU’s contract, the recorded session is managed by an artificial intelligence “bot” and no human is on the other end at ProctorU watching the student. Only the WSU instructor can review the recorded session.

A huge portion of the concern about proctoring has been about the AI bots – which are here presented as an “it’s all okay because” solution…? Much of the real concern many have expressed is with the algorithms themselves and how they are usually found to be based on racist, sexist, and ableist norms. Additionally, the other main concern is what the instructor might see when they do review a recording of a student’s private room. No part of the letter in question addresses any of the real concerns with the bigger picture.

(It is probably also confusing to people whether or not someone is watching on the other side of the camera when there are so many complaints online from students that have had issues with human proctors, especially ones that were “insulting me by calling my skin too dark” as one complaint states.)

The response then goes on to talk about getting computers that will work with proctoring service to students that need them, or having students come in to campus for in-person proctoring if they just refuse to use the online tool. None of this addresses the concerns of AI bias, home privacy, or safety during a pandemic.

The moral of the point I am making here is this: if you are going to respond to concerns that your faculty and staff have, make sure you are responding to the actual concerns and not some imaginary set of concerns that few have expressed. There is a bigger picture as to why people are objecting to these services, which – yes – may start with feeling like they are being spied on by people and/or machines. But just saying “look – no people! (kind of)” is not really addressing the core concerns.

4 thoughts on “People Don’t Like Online Proctoring. Are Institutional Admins Getting Why?

  1. One negative outcome for “non-cheating” students that comes to mind is that in schools and departments that still use normative grading, grade on the curve, or have caps of how many As they can hand out per class – yes it’s still happening all over the place – then if a subset of students gets higher grades than “they should” it would potentially harm the grades of others. Furthermore, that could have a ripple effect into GPA, and scholarship opportunities. However, it should be obvious that there is a ridiculously cheap solution to that problem that does not require bots.

  2. That is a good point – I have never worked with any schools that use anything like that, but I know it is out there. I don’t think it is very widespread anymore – I remember back in the 90s when several colleges were outlawing it. But still popular in law schools it seems. Either way, since its not really a thing that all classes use, it can’t really be the reason for an entire University to support surveillance proctoring.

  3. JR Dingwall said what I was going to say. If others’ grades are artificially high, then those who earned their grades are in effect lowered in standing. It’s basically why baseball stats are all asterisked from a certain area. How can we compare juicers to players who didn’t cheat?

    Additonally, Matt, I think widespread cheating does negatively impact everyone. That is, if you think a dishonest culture is worse than an honest one. I was an artist before I was a professor and I definitely think stealing other people’s stuff is bad. So many comics on Twitter and Instagram have this happen daily.

    ALL THAT BEING SAID, online proctoring definitely veers into the creepy. I think a better solution may be to have more of the conversations like the one you’ve allowed us to have via this post. If we can collectively think through the issues of integrity, dishonesty, etc., maybe that would be better for the academy than RATware. Thank you for posting this article and helping me think through this.

  4. From what I can find, it seems like grading on a curve is not that popular anymore outside of law school. But one of the selling points of the curve is that you are supposed to be able to detect cheating because your curve will not be a true curve anymore.

    It still seems inaccurate to me to use normative grading as a reason to saying cheating hurts “all” students, when even in law schools there are many classes that don’t grade on the curve. It’s not true to say that cheating hurts all of “the rest” of the students.

    There is also a larger conversation to be had about honesty versus dishonesty, especially in light or Art. I got a degree in Art Education, and one of the more popular ways to teach students how to learn various art techniques (or even music and other creative expressions) is to have students copy the masters over and over again. If you go to large museums, especially in Europe, you will see students sitting there copying the famous paintings on the wall. “The line between stealing and originality is based on how well you hide who you are stealing from” or something like that is how the saying goes in Art. I mean, what exactly is stealing in the arts? Led Zeppelin was accused of stealing everything from Black Sabbath for their first three albums… and there is some accuracy to that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *