Proctoring software raises concerns among some college students

Online proctoring software that allows professors to monitor students’ behavior during exams represents yet another aspect of pandemic education that hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing.

By Jessica Kronzer, Contributor 

Before taking exams last semester, Sydnei Moody, a senior JMU student, paced around her apartment “paranoid” about the strength of her Wi-Fi connection. She kept her professor’s contact information beside her in case she had technology issues. Moody, who’s majoring in accounting and marketing, panned her camera around her room before holding up her ID, scrap sheets of paper, and calculator. She also held up her phone to the webcam and then moved it outside of her reach. 

In Moody’s class, skipping any of those steps could cause a student to fail the test and to get an honor code violation. Last fall, Moody’s business professor used Proctorio, proctoring software that can record your video, data, and movements to send to professors. 

“I’d just be so flustered, because I’m trying to focus on an exam … trying to do my best and then of course something happens and you kind of get thrown off your game,” Moody said. 

Moody had to take her exams between 8-10pm. She had a 15-minute window to fix any issues with her Wi-Fi connection and to start her test before losing time she could use to take her exam. 

Since the pandemic began, colleges have shifted to online learning and many have adopted proctoring software to monitor students during exams. While universities may deem overseeing exams with proctoring software as a necessity, some students have reported concerns over the technology invading their privacy and making exams more stressful. 

JMU currently contracts with Respondus LockDown Browser and Respondus Monitor. Bridgewater College also used Respondus last spring but has since stopped using the program. Lauren Jefferson, Eastern Mennonite University’s director of communications, gave a statement over email on how the university has not officially implemented proctoring software. 

“As the majority of our classes (are) still in-person, EMU has not as a whole adopted any specific proctoring software,” Jefferson said in an email. “Individual faculty have implemented strategies to protect the integrity of their testing/examination process during the last semester as they deemed necessary.”

With Respondus LockDown Browser, students’ browsers are locked so that they cannot access the internet or other computer applications. The Respondus Monitor includes the same features and also accesses students’ webcams. The webcam monitoring is designed to catch cheaters by looking for suspicious behavior. Professors set a list of actions for students to perform before taking their exam, for example, showing an ID or showing the exam environment. 

According to Mary-Hope Vass, JMU’s spokesperson, the university initially opted out of using “algorithmic proctoring” but ended up implementing Respondus Monitor because “external credentialing bodies require proctored tests, and not having a tool for delivering those remotely could endanger students of not completing their programs.” 

According to Bethany Nowviskie, JMU’s dean of libraries, the university began getting requests for algorithmic proctoring software last spring. In part, Respondus Monitor was selected because it was compatible with the university’s other software, Respondus LockDown Browser. A review of the program included a security assessment. 

Nowviskie said that the Center for Faculty Innovations and JMU Libraries have offered professors alternatives to traditional proctoring through guidebooks, workshops and an institute for online learning where professors were given information about how technology can support their teaching. These resources were in part a response to concerns over student privacy, test anxiety and reports that students of color might be more likely to be flagged as cheating.

Nowviskie said that libraries were looking to increase “engagement and authenticity and quality of the learning and also educate everybody involved about the trade-offs in using particular technology.”

“That was the kind of framework that JMU took that felt to me was kind of unique when I was looking around at other institutions that really just quickly went to these big firms to solve their problems,” Nowviskie said. “We took a much more homegrown and kind of locally engaged approach.”

JMU Libraries’ website now includes a LockDown Browser FAQ

Fletcher Linder, JMU’s associate vice provost, likened the need for software in programs like nursing to the need for proctoring the SAT. Linder said that some departments have contracts with other proctoring technology companies, and that the university recognizes some need for webcam monitoring. 

“We don’t want to encourage its use, but we know that some people need it,” Linder said. “Some people are teaching programs that actually require them to have exams that are monitored.”

Linder said that a JMU survey showed that 28 professors out of 1500 used Respondus Monitor. There was no data on professors using alternative methods of online proctoring that could include video monitoring. According to Vass, just two students reached out to the library in fall 2020 for help with Respondus Monitor and both issues were resolved.   

Faculty member Giuseppe Sanfilippo opted to use Respondus LockDown Browser to prevent cheating. In Sanfilippo’s elementary Italian class, both quizzes and exams are timed, closed to outside help or notes, and are taken on Canvas. Students’ webcams are monitored using Respondus LockDown Browser during the midterm and final exams, but quizzes do not require students to leave their webcams on. 

Sanfilippo uses the software to prevent students from being able “to print, copy, visit other websites, access other applications, or close a quiz until it is submitted for grading.” He also said the webcam allows him to confirm students’ identity; since he sees them in class and recognizes their faces he does not ask students to show a form of identification. 

Sanfilippo monitors students’ videos but does not record them. He likened the procedure to being proctored while taking a test face-to-face. He understands privacy concerns regarding students data. 

“I suggest students communicate with the instructor to identify problematic behaviors and suggest solutions that can reduce their anxiety,” Sanfilippo said in an email. 

James Herrick teaches multiple classes at JMU, including a general microbiology course with more than 250 students. Though his class is large, Herrick is administering his timed, open-note exams on Canvas, a web-based learning management system, which does not monitor students’ video. 

Though Herrick said he didn’t want to criticize other professors who chose other protectoring options, he wanted to remove the opportunity to cheat by making his exams open-note. He also said it’s a difficult time for students and hoped it would help students. 

“I thought it would alleviate the stress a little bit,” Herrick said.” [The exams] cover all the previous material and that can be a little bit stressful in and of itself.” 

Students are permitted to use their class notes or textbook, but are asked not to look up answers on the internet or to consult their classmates. Herrick increased the rigor of exam questions because “a lot of the answers are at our fingertips” and he hoped that asking students to “integrate multiple concepts”  would prevent students from searching online during tests. 

“Much of this is really about teaching the way that, in my case, a microbiologist thinks, and how to approach a problem, not so much just to regurgitate the name of the enzyme … which would be easily discovered,” Herrick said.

Bridgewater discontinues use of Respondus 

Some colleges have responded to concerns over proctoring software. According to Emily Goodwin, director of instructional design at Bridgewater College, complaints about Respondus led the school to discontinue its use.

“We used one in the spring when we had to pivot to remote learning,” Goodwin said. “But that software didn’t work as seamlessly as anticipated and created more issues than it resolved, so we chose not to continue with that software.” 

To compensate for their removal of the software, Goodwin said professors are maintaining academic integrity by shifting to application-based testing where students don’t simply memorize information. Other methods to prevent students from cheating on exams at Bridgewater include time-limits on exams, requiring that Zoom monitor students’ videos, or data reports from Canvas that show how long it took a student to answer a question. Some professors have opted for open-note exams. 

“Our main focus is to make sure that students are engaged and are still successful in their classes, in any environment that they’re in if they’re at home or if they’re in person,” Goodwin said. “I think that we’re doing whatever is needed to make sure that the students are successful.” 

Bridgewater College uses a recorded statement in each syllabus to notify students of what classes will be video-recorded over Zoom. The college recommends that professors outline virtual classroom expectations and allow students who are uncomfortable showing their room to place a virtual background on their video. 

In past semesters, Janae Ackerman, a sophomore biology major at Bridgewater, typically took exams on Zoom with her camera on. Her biology final was monitored with Qualtrics, which she said is typically used for surveys. Ackerman said this software would flag students for possible cheating infractions based on how long they take to answer questions and keyboard or touchpad movements. Her video was also monitored for some exams.

Ackerman said this program brought up many questions from students concerned about being wrongfully accused of cheating. Though Ackerman said her professor would examine why the software flagged students, she admitted she took careful consideration of the amount of time she took to answer questions while taking her final exam. 

“When I’m confused or trying to figure something out, I look up at the ceiling or outside,” Ackerman said. “But in my back of my mind sometimes it’s like ‘I hope they don’t think I’m cheating’… I know I test better without the camera because I’m not second guessing myself.”

At JMU, Linder said the university is encouraging professors to be upfront about their forms of proctoring in their syllabi to make students aware in case they would want to drop the class. For students who are unable to drop the class because of degree requirements or other circumstances, Linder encourages communicating with the professors. 

“I would always suggest, first that the students talk with the faculty, that’s the first line always and students sometimes don’t like to do that,” Linder said. “If there’s still some issues there, then the department head is the next step.”  

Last semester, Moody took all of her tests for her tax course in the classroom. Her professor provided partial credit when students showed their work, which Moody felt was easier to achieve. 

“I take exams better in person,” she said.  

Moody suggested that professors give students more time to take exams in case they have technology issues that require help from a professor. She also recommended that professors consider monitoring a student’s computer screen, and whether or not they click off of the exam to view other programs, rather than monitoring their video. 

Ackerman, from Bridgewater College, said she understands why professors want to monitor students’ videos and said educators should punish students who are caught cheating.

“But in all honesty, you should just trust your students.” Ackerman said.

Correction: This story was updated to correct the title of Emily Goodwin, who is director of instructional design at Bridgewater College.

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