When Ashley, a recent graduate of the University of Delaware, had to take her first remote exam in April after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the experience was less than ideal. Her forensic science professor asked students to use a remote-proctoring service, ProctorU, to monitor them while they took their test. During the exam, Ashley says her proctor moved her mouse around several times while she was trying to answer questions, which was scary and distracting while she was taking her test. Ashley didn’t do as well as she had hoped, and by the time she logged out of ProctorU, she was in tears.
“I had so much anxiety taking my exam,” Ashley, who preferred not to use her real name, told Teen Vogue. “When I finished the exam, I was literally sobbing to my boyfriend.” Teen Vogue has reached out to the University of Delaware for comment.
Ashley is one of many students who are now being asked to use remote-proctoring services like ProctorU, ExamSoft, or Proctorio when taking exams online. While these services were around before the pandemic, they have grown in popularity as the number of students taking classes remotely exploded. In theory, they provide a useful service, allowing professors or universities to determine whether students are cheating on exams that they are not taking in the classroom. In practice, though, these services have been a huge source of stress for students. Many students who are required per their teacher’s instructions to take tests while being recorded told Teen Vogue they felt heavily surveilled while doing so.
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“ProctorU takes privacy very seriously,” Scott McFarland, ProctorU’s CEO, told Teen Vogue via email. “Our technology is able to flag suspicious behaviors during an exam that require follow-up review by a human proctor or instructor.” When pressed about the software’s ability to manipulate a student’s mouse, McFarland added, “Some test providers do request or require a more secure proctoring service we offer, known as Live+ service, that does call for a trained and supervised proctor to ask a test-takers permission to remotely access their computer, in much the same way an IT help desk may. The process is explained in advance, requires active permission, is easily observable by the test-taker, and the test-taker may revoke access at any time.”
Bea, who has used Proctorio to take exams for several of her remote classes at Tarrant County College in Texas, tells a similar story. According to Bea, Proctorio had access to her video camera and microphone per her instructors settings and recorded students with audio during the remote exam. The software can also monitor movements during an exam.
“I’ve despised using this software,” Bea, who preferred not to use her real name, told Teen Vogue. “On one occasion, I was ‘flagged’ for movement and obscuring my eyes. I have trichotillomania triggered by my anxiety, which is why my hand was near my face. Explaining this to my professor was nightmarish.” (Mike Olsen, Proctorio’s CEO, clarified that Proctorio “flags” students based on settings that an exam administrator chooses for each test session.) Teen Vogue reached out to Tarrant County College for comment.
“The faculty are in full control of what’s being flagged, and they control that after the recordings are already done,” Olsen explained to Teen Vogue. “They can say, ‘show me all students who left the exam,’ and we’ll show that. I think there’s a bit of nervousness from students who are using Proctorio for the first time and don’t understand that we’re not going to kick them out of the software for any reason.” According to Olsen, it is the universities, not Proctorio, who are responsible for what happens to video or audio recordings of students stored on the platform. Yet Olsen himself shared a student’s private Proctorio chats with tech support on Reddit in June, saying the student had “lied” about the company not taking a technical issue seriously. (As The Guardian reported, Olsen later deleted the posts and apologized, saying that he and the company “take privacy very seriously.” “Proctorio does not collect any personally identifiable information from test-takers to provide support,” Olsen clarified in a follow-up email with Teen Vogue. “This includes chat logs.”)
According to Proctorio’s website, the software cannot and does not collect the personally identifying information of any user. However, Olsen clarified that, based on instructor settings, the software may take screenshots of a student’s desktop, detect the number of computer monitors connected to a student’s computer, or record a student’s web traffic. Students may also be prompted to do a “room scan” where they turn their computer camera 360 degrees to show that nobody else is in the room with them.
Many students have raised concerns that the remote-proctoring services not only feel like an invasion of privacy, but can also discriminate against marginalized students. Proctorio’s recommendation that students should be alone in a room when taking a test, for example, could be difficult for low-income students, who might not have their own bedroom, while being penalized for looking away from the screen too often can disproportionately impact students with learning disabilities such as ADHD. Audrey Yarmowich, a transgender student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told Teen Vogue they felt discriminated against while using Honorlock, a Google Chrome extension that is often used by universities to monitor exams, when taking a test earlier this semester. Honorlock requires students to show a photo ID before taking their exam. For Yarmowich, this meant providing the software with an ID with their government name, rather than the one they prefer to use at school, which initially caused some complications.
“I had to wait 15 minutes for the professor to be notified about my situation and then respond [with] allowing me to take the test he assigned, which is both humiliating and none of his business,” they said. Teen Vogue reached out to the Georgia Institute of Technology for comment.
According to Honorlock’s student privacy statement, the software can log the websites students visit or attempt to visit from Chrome while they are actively in an exam. Honorlock also collects students’ IP addresses and email addresses, and stores students’ photo and ID for a limited period of time after the exam is complete.
“For the last six months, I and other recent law school graduates have fought hard against the bar examination going remote in large part because of the reliance on invasive artificial intelligence in order to remotely proctor the exam,” said Pilar Margarita Hernández Escontrías, a recent graduate of UC Irvine School of Law. “What this experience has solidified for me is what many BIPOC have long known: that lawyers are only comfortable highlighting racism, ableism, sexism, and transphobia when it comes to outside actors, but they refuse to acknowledge when they are perpetuating oppression institutionally.”
“Adequate lighting is required for all exam-takers,” Nici Sandberg, ExamSoft’s associate director for marketing content and communications, told Teen Vogue in an email. “ExamSoft maintains a non-biased identification and exam-delivery process to ensure that our exam does not disproportionately harm any individuals of color.”
In July, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote the Supreme Court of California opposing the state’s use of ExamSoft’s technology while taking the bar. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has also implored the California Supreme Court not to require use of ExamSoft during the bar exam, arguing that the software forces applicants to surrender their private information in violation of the California Consumer Privacy Act.
“ExamSoft only retains limited personal data throughout the period of having ongoing legitimate business needs, such as customer legal, tax, or accounting compliance,” said Sandberg. “Once this ongoing legitimate business need is addressed, data is either deleted, or anonymized and de-identified. We take privacy very seriously.”
“Remote proctoring reinforces systemic injustice,” said Lindsay Oliver, an activism project manager at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and co-author of the EFF letter to the California Supreme Court. “We should call remote-proctoring technologies what they are: spying.”
Students and professors who spoke to Teen Vogue agreed with Oliver’s sentiment that remote-proctoring services can seem more effective at surveillance than actually determining whether students are cheating. Universities often allow professors to decide whether they want to use remote-proctoring services for their exams, and many have chosen not to. “Proctoring software is an expensive way to terrify students into compliance with sub-par teaching and learning conditions,” Susan Schorn, a senior academic program coordinator at the University of Texas at Austin, told Teen Vogue. “It’s a sign of a hostile learning environment.”
In response to the issues these proctoring services have caused, many students are taking action. Students at several schools including the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Texas at Dallas have started petitions to convince their respective administrations to stop using certain remote-proctoring services due to privacy concerns. Ultimately, many students feel that remote proctoring serves as a distraction, rather than an aid, to learning.
“I cannot help but feel that Proctorio does harm and harm only,” Bea, the Tarrant County College student, said. “Neuro-divergent students such as myself, who exhibit behavior related to our condition like high rates of eye movement, are consistently punished. This software serves to disproportionately penalize those whose behaviors deviate in any way from what is considered the ‘norm.’”
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