Big Brother is proctoring you

Anandi Barker

Unprecedented is the word of 2020. In many ways, our first semester back seems to mirror the plots of some dystopian novels. With the desolate campus grounds and the doomsday COVID-19 numbers, the atmosphere is tense enough to secure its place in the history books.

Student proctoring services take this dystopian resemblance a bit too far.

Professors at UT and other colleges across the nation have turned to online proctoring services, like Proctorio, Examity and Quest as class enrollments go virtual. These services all share one purpose: to prevent students from cheating during online exams. Features include video surveillance of the testing environment, tracking background web browsers, detecting audio irregularities and flagging “suspicious” behavior. 

To better accommodate the switch to online classes and protect student privacy, professors should replace proctored exams with alternative forms of testing. 

While I have to recognize the potential of academic dishonesty, student surveillance is an unnecessary invasion of privacy. Since students mostly take these exams in their dorms or bedrooms, video footage of students’ faces and their living spaces raises concerns about privacy and data security. 

Additionally, flagging background audio as grounds for cheating unfairly impacts those living in louder households with family members or with roommates who also take classes online. 

“I think mostly the fear is that it isn’t a human,” undeclared sophomore Eva Kahn said. “If the computer picks up something it thinks is suspicious and the professor asks you and you can’t prove that you’re innocent, then it’s just an automatic zero.” 

The feeling of Big Brother over your shoulder is also bound to exacerbate existing test anxiety. Students should not have to fear a failing grade just because they glanced to their side or their sibling wandered into their room during an online exam. It certainly does not simulate a classroom environment.

Religious studies professor Brent Landau used Proctorio last fall to help a TA with visual impairments and because it allowed his students to type their answers quickly. 

Landau has since stopped using the service, noting concerns over privacy and bias. 

“In some ways, these technologies are impressive, but they’re only as smart as the people who design them that way,” Landau said. “They have the same sorts of implicit biases the designers have. I was not really confident in a technology company and their private algorithms using that as a metric to determine whether or not a student was cheating.” 

To solve this problem and avoid online proctoring, I would urge all UT professors to consider alternate testing practices. Open-note exams with abstract application problems, student presentations over the course content or longer essays are all valid options to ensure a student is properly absorbing classroom material.

For example, Landau has switched to a more flexible evaluation method that gives students broader opportunities to showcase what they’ve learned.

“All of the exams are going to be take-home,” said Landau. “I have found a way to test my students and have them show me they know and understand the material in a way that doesn’t require them to answer a bunch of multiple choice questions.” 

When professors rely on proctoring services, they devalue their students’ privacy and mental ease while forcing them to demonstrate their comprehension of class material in almost dystopian conditions. Online school has completely changed the learning environment, and professors have had to adapt. However, their energy should be targeted towards innovating new ways to test their students’ understanding, not monitoring their every move.  

Barker is a government sophomore from Arlington, Texas.