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Digital Detox #3: E-proctoring Sucks, So Why Won’t It Go Away?

If there’s one trend that Covid-19 brought on like a freight train — other than the crushing existential dread — it’s e-proctoring. Reader, I hate it. There are loads of good pieces online about why e-proctoring is troubling, but I want to focus on what I think e-proctoring says about the state of education now, why it took a quick hold on our institutions, and where this discourse takes us in the future. (There’s actually no good evidence that students cheat more in online classes, but here we are nonetheless.)

First, let me point you to some top-notch thinking on the subject of e-proctoring:

It is slowly — too slowly — becoming less controversial to point out the harms and inequities of e-proctoring, because the longer this pandemic goes on, the more access we have to these difficult and upsetting stories. And also because, well, it’s just an objective truth of all of our lived experiences right now that cameras are in our home spaces in ways that many of us find invasive. We know there’s no way to require e-proctoring that is equitable, both because the tools themselves are repeatedly shown to fail racialized students and because of the anti-Blackness that seems to be inherent to the AI and facial recognition projects, but also because the act of the room scan, which records the room in which a student is writing, is predicated on so much privilege: that you have a safe and clean space to work, that you are not caregiving, that those you live with offer you space and respect to do your work. There are inherent inequities here.

But the use of e-proctoring persists in many places despite what I think is increasingly widespread acceptance of the reality of these in-born inequities. The biggest reason for this seems to be a lack of will to make structural change to the way we do assessments: we need to e-proctor because this exam has to be proctored for accreditation / transfer / licensing. I’m not saying this isn’t true, but it also isn’t the whole story. Most often we “can’t” move to more authentic, project-based, or collaborate methods of assessment because we have to move too many students through a system and we’re not willing to commit resources to revising assessment and paying people to do the evaluation. I can’t think of a more perfectly neoliberal assessment structure than the multiple choice exam, for example. Yes, of course, you can write thoughtful and complex multiple choice questions, but the assessment tool is used primarily to allow huge numbers of exams to be easily marked with minimal human hours expended (thanks, ScanTron).

Sometimes I worry that we forget we’re the ones who made these things up. On the radio this morning they were talking about how the pandemic is making students “so behind” in their studies. Behind what? It’s literally a global pandemic. Students will only be “so behind” if we as a society decide that when everything reopens we have to behave as if it never closed, if we choose not to extend grace, if we insist on the arbitrary notion that age x = grade y with no deviation allowed. (Of course there are structural considerations and inequities that make the playing field uneven, and I’m not disputing that. But every grade four student isn’t suddenly “behind” if they’re not ready for grade five next year. We don’t have to accept this industrialized model of education.) I see these kinds of assessment issues in the same way. If a global pandemic isn’t enough to shake us out of assessment structures that are designed for institutional convenience and not for learning, is change ever going to be possible?

I should confess something here. I think cheating is a problem, sure, but I think it’s largely a structural problem, not an individual one. I don’t think students cheat because they are inherently bad people. I think students cheat because we treat education like a series of hoops for students to jump through, a game they have to learn to play, and one that must feel wildly rigged against them. We know that when assessment is authentic, when learning is scaffolded, and when students feel valued and prioritized as people, cheating goes down. To me, it’s a widespread condemnation of the educational system we have built together that authentic, scaffolded, student-centred learning is not the norm in our institutions. What the hell are we even doing?

Julia Christensen Hughes, in her research on why students cheat, came up with the phrase, “Students cheat when they feel cheated.” I look around at the kinds of trends that have taken hold across our institutions, from huge classes to wildly overworked and precarious instructors to course-in-a-box solutions that have students paying out of pocket for the privilege to submit their assignments, and I wonder: why do we expect students to commit to their courses and learning more than we do? And what values underly the choices that have brought us to this point? What does that 300 person course with the $250 courseware and the assignments available on CourseHero communicate back to our students about the worth and value of the learning community? We all, I’m sure, saw the story this week about the Concordia course running this term with the dead professor. I’m not sure I would feel compelled to do original work for a course being run from beyond the grave, to be perfectly honest. Unless the seance hours work with my schedule.

And indeed, this attitude on our campuses is why it has been so easy for e-proctoring tools — and their precursors, plagiarism detectors — to take hold in our institutions. Companies like ProctorU and Proctorio didn’t create the desire for surveillance in our institutions any more than Pearson MyLab created the workload issue that make it’s “courseware solutions” attractive. They exploit it, sure, and they turn it into a budget line that becomes systematically entrenched, and they send out a lot of press releases talking about how without them we would have no academic rigour at all (for shame!) — but they didn’t create the market. Unfortunately, we did that.

Many of us came up in a campus rhetoric steeped in distrust of, and often disdain for, our students. You don’t have to dig online very far or very long before you find a community of professors publicly trashing their students; hell, the Chronicle of Higher Education had for years a whole column devoted to bitching about our learners. Students cheat, so we’re told, and it’s our job to defend against cheating. But for most of us, that messaging wasn’t combined with any kind of training about how to create assessments. So we replicate the assignments we saw, and we replicate the attitude towards students we heard,  and we wonder why nothing changes. We need to let this be the moment we choose to reframe our understanding of our learners. If we can’t trust students, if the adversarial relationship will always be so much more comfortable to us that a camera in a student’s bedroom is a more likely scenario than simple trust, then I ask again: what the hell are we even doing?

So much bad pedagogy comes down to a misplaced sense of control. We try to control the environment, control student response and reaction, control the terms of debate. And even in a time of wild reimagining — even in a global pandemic — we don’t reliquinsh that control. That’s what e-proctoring services offer us: a way to restablish control. But at what cost? And why do we want that control in the first place?

The whole point of our work is supposed to be critical thinking. And yet it seems, at times, like critical examination of these tools is unwelcome not just by the companies, who seem to resist scholarly engagement of any kind, but by our institutions themselves. Proctorio, infamously, has responded to the questions of scholars about their services with an attempts to remove a peer reviewed research article, a DCMA take-down notice and, most infamously, a lawsuit. But they’ve also gone after students for their critiques. And where are the institutions in these scenarios? They don’t seem to be lining up to defend their students, staff, or faculty; indeed, the silence is deeply troubling. And Proctorio is just one example, but something notable about them as an example is they don’t seem to care what scholars and students think of their services. They don’t back down, they don’t apologize, and they don’t invite deeper discussion. And while so many of us stand on the margins and point at how antithetical their tactics are to the aims of higher education, they keep signing agreements with new institutions all the time. From a PR standpoint, it seems like this kind of aggressive posturing will backfire. And yet.

In the battle of reputation management, companies like Proctorio seem to be relying on the idea that reputational fear about “rigour” and sector-wide demands for their services will win out over the reputational damage done by remaining silent while members of our communities pay the price for public scholarship and rational inquiry into these tools. My biggest fear is that the e-proctoring companies are right about our institutions, and that their gamble about how to engage with post-secondary educators will prove true. 

This isn’t a temporary, momentary need that is being filled and will be abandoned. The return to campus, when it comes, won’t be total. We’ll see a variety of hybrid and hyflex learning options emerge, some for reasons pedagogical — folks are building stuff in their virtual classrooms that they like and want to keep — and some for reasons practical — social distancing will persist for some time yet, and even when it doesn’t, rooms are expensive and we never have enough of them. There will be lots of arguments for maintaining our e-proctoring contracts well into the future. Until we reach a point, institutionally, where care wins out over notions of “rigour,” these kinds of troubling tools are here to stay. And if that’s true, they reflect the worst of our institutions, our practices, and our impulses back on ourselves.

There is another choice, however. This week, in response to over 1000 signatures on a petition demanding it, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign announced that it would end its relationship with Proctorio at the end of the Summer 2021 term. It’s worth noting that vocal activism on campus from the folks in Accessibility Services was part of a larger campaign of awareness.

These agreements don’t exist in perpetuity. We can choose to opt out. We can resist. We can build something better from the rubble we’ve created. We just have to want to.

Oof. Okay. Before I let you go, just a reminder that we have a live session today (if you’re reading this on Friday) — check your email for the meeting link if you registered previously, or sign up here to jump in, and I’ll see you at 12 pm PT / 3 pm ET / 8 pm GMT /tomorrow morning in Australia.

And today’s prompts:

  • What other problems in education do you see the pandemic laying bare?
  • How has your institution dealt with the conversation around academic integrity during the pandemic?

Or of course, anything else that moves you…

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  1. The conversation about cheating always makes me feel like a failure as an instructor, to be totally honest. I do believe in trusting students and I hate the industrialized model of education that pushes them through (or just completely eats them up). Those things are true, but what is also true is that when I am teaching articulated courses, I feel pressure to have exams. I have not resisted that pressure in the past.

    Last March I put in close to three weeks of 60+ hours trying to finish 3 courses fully online (2 were new preps I had never taught before). It was absolute hell. To make a (very long) story as short as possible, I had an exam in two of my three classes. In one of them, I had a major incident of cheating involving multiple students. Beyond then having to deal with my chair and dean on this (who were very understanding) any feeling of competence I had as an instructor was absolutely destroyed. The exam had been given a wide window (8 hours), was assumed to be open book and Google-able, and I dropped the percentage it was worth overall as low as I felt I was able to. Other faculty had gone the opposite way and locked down their exams or decided to proctor through Zoom. In March, all I was feeling was that I was the one with the cheating incident, my choices were the wrong ones, and I was a bad instructor or they wouldn’t have felt the need to cheat. I thought I should have Zoom proctored like others. If e-Proctoring had been an option, I was vulnerable and prepared to do pretty much anything to not feel I was a failure as an instructor again. I might have fallen down that hole if I had taught another articulated course the following term.

    Luckily(?) since then, teaching work for sessionals has been slim, and the two courses I have taught haven’t been “feeder” courses into highly competitive programs (like Nursing). I felt way more free to assess as I wanted and structure my courses as I wanted. I had a fabulous group of students in the Fall, and Spring is going well so far.

    All that to say, in addition to the pressures you outlined, I think a big issue is impostor syndrome and needing to “prove” you are doing a good job. When articulation groups are having arguments like “should courses offered online ‘count’ or be removed from the grid?” it is very easy to feel you are on shaky ground if you stray from the path. Most critically, all of that is insidious peer pressure – articulation groups are just other instructors from other institutions after all – but I think that makes it harder to fight then big, obviously evil corporations or bad policies.

    My institution has a blanket policy against e-Proctoring, which I am so grateful for. We don’t even have Turn-it-in, back in my days as edutech support it was considered a FIPPA violation to force students to use it. Instead, students were given the option to check their work using Turn-it-in before handing it in so they could correct anything it flagged.
    I know some faculty are using Zoom as a makeshift e-Proctoring tool (so problematic) but that is so time-consuming I don’t know if they will continue to do it for another year. Every time I hear about it I say passive-aggressive things like “oh, wow, that must be so stressful for the students with bad connections, I hope it doesn’t effect their grades” or “when I was a student I would have been so embarrassed to have you see the inside of my house” or “what do you do when someone’s kid/cat/significant other Zoom bombs a test accidently?”. I don’t have a lot of power in my current role, so I’m just a nuisance instead.

    At least two folks I know teaching articulated courses (one of them who has won a teaching award, no surprise) have moved to project-based assessments. Our teaching and learning center also coaches faculty on assessment design when they are asked about e-Proctoring, and there are many upcoming sessions on ungrading. It seems most of our senior management group is onboard with that messaging, which helps it stick a bit better as well.

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