Colleges flock to online proctors, but equity concerns remain

As the coronavirus pandemic grips the country, a few services have emerged as critical for colleges. Teleconferencing networks help instructors connect with their classes. Learning management systems provide a repository for course materials. And online proctoring companies help institutions continue to administer tests while students are remote. 

Over the past month, online proctoring companies have been flooded with requests from U.S. and foreign institutions looking for ways to maintain test security as they take campus-based classes online. Typically, their software requires students to turn over access to their computers’ webcams and microphones so either a live proctor or automated software can watch for signs of academic dishonesty while they take their test. 

“Overnight, we just got smoked,” ProctorU CEO Scott McFarland said in an interview with Education Divenoting that the company has been adding between 100 and 150 faculty members a day to its client list. “It was just an overwhelming volume increase.”

But the apparent rush to proctoring companies raises questions about how colleges should conduct assessments as students deal with the impact of the pandemic and adapt to remote instruction. Although supervised online tests may be necessary, colleges should be wary about adopting this approach for all assessments. 

As they’ve grown over the last decade, online proctoring companies have been dogged by claims they violate students’ privacy. And now, as campuses shutter and some students are left without a sure way to access the internet and computers, new concerns are emerging that learners whose classes were moved online mid-term may not have the right equipment to take an online proctored test. 

In those cases, institutions and students may be better off with alternative assignments. 

“Let go of the idea of continuity,” said Jesse Stommela digital learning expert and lecturer at the University of Mary Washington, cautioning institutions to not assume they can “continue on with business as usual” during the pandemic. 

A cascade of new business

Now that most colleges have moved instruction online, they’re figuring out how to assess students and which tests warrant the supervision of an online proctor. 

Asim Ali, executive director of Auburn University’s teaching and learning center, said his institution is using online proctoring services that rely on artificial intelligence (AI) to flag behavior it deems suspicious, such as a student looking off screen for a long period while taking their tests. 

By using AI, he said, the university doesn’t have to worry about wavering quality as proctoring companies hire additional human monitors to keep up with increased demand. 

ProctorU, which offers live and AI proctoring services, has hired some 250 proctors since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, Examity has hired around 150 new technical support employees and proctors, and it plans to bring in at least 500 workers in April. 

Jim Holm, CEO of Examity, said it’s easier to scale the company’s AI services than its live proctoring because the former doesn’t require hiring people to watch exams being taken in real-time. “But even in that auto-proctoring world,” he added, “we would not be able to scale quick enough to meet the demand.” 

Respondus is letting current and new clients use its automated proctoring services for free until the end of the term, said Jodi Feeney, the company’s chief operations officer. It is also hosting daily training webinars for colleges that have drawn hundreds of attendees.

Mo Bischof, associate vice provost and director of student learning assessment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said her institution added a campuswide online proctoring tool in the nick of time. “We signed the contract just a couple weeks ago,” she said. 

Faculty members can decide whether they want to use the service or alternative assessments, such as open-book exams or writing assignments, she said. The university is working out ways to accommodate students who might not have a reliable internet connection or the technology needed to take an online proctored exam. 

Auburn has set aside more than $100,000 to buy laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to loan to students, Ali said, though he acknowledged some institutions might not be able to make that large of an investment. 

What are the alternatives? 

Some institutions are deciding against expanding or signing new contracts with online proctoring companies. 

Officials at Duke University, for instance, weren’t confident they could resolve “the technical and security issues to scale online proctoring this semester,” said Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education.

Other institutions, such as the University of California, Davis, are discouraging faculty members from using online proctoring this semester unless they have previous experience with such services. It suggests faculty consider alternatives that will lower students’ anxiety levels during an already stressful time, such as requiring them to reflect on what they learned in the course. 

At the University of Illinois Springfield, administrators are asking faculty to rethink how they view assessments, though they expect the institution’s use of online proctoring to increase this term. 

“Testing is one piece that should be in your toolbox, but it shouldn’t be the only piece.”

Vickie Cook

Executive director of online, professional and engaged learning, University of Illinois Springfield

“Testing is not always the best (option) to assess student outcomes, especially in a remote setting,” said Vickie Cook, executive director of online, professional and engaged learning at the University of Illinois Springfield. “It can be very stressful with students having to shift into new places and new types of learning.”

Although most learners have laptops, a survey of 748 students found about one one in five struggled to use the technology at their disposal because of issues such as broken hardware and connectivity problems. Students of color or lower socioeconomic status encountered these difficulties more often. 

The move to remote instruction is forcing faculty members to get creative about how they assess student learning. For a sculpting class, Cook said, students are following along with instructors on a video-conferencing network to create a new piece for their portfolios. And an organic chemistry instructor is having students illustrate concepts discussed in class and upload a video of themselves explaining it.

However, proctoring is still needed for licensure programs and in certain fields, such as math and computer science, Cook noted. “Testing is one piece that should be in your toolbox, but it shouldn’t be the only piece.” 

Moving cautiously

Although colleges are trying to move quickly to offer online proctored exams, they should be cautious when vetting companies, said Phil Hill, an ed tech consultant. Auburn, for example, ensures the software companies it contracts with protect students’ privacy, such as by destroying their data if requested. 

But some institutions risk ignoring important data privacy issues and equity concerns while they’re in “emergency mode,” he added. That could be a critical mistake, as institutions should be prepared for the impact of the pandemic to stretch into the fall. 

“You need to have your act together,” he said. “You need to be dealing with academic integrity, (and) you need to be dealing with equitable access.”

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