The Problem with Online Proctoring

This is an expansion on previous Twitter threads, and was spurred on by the recent lawsuit. Please donate to the EFF to help fight these kinds of spurious lawsuits.

My Experiences in University

have been out of university for a few years now, but when I was still attending classes, I opted to take the ones I could online. This allowed me to gain the experience I wanted doing work-study, while having the flexibility to do the class work when I wanted.

As most classes do, a few weeks into the semester came time to do the first round of tests. I was faced with a choice, use one of the online proctoring services offered (in this case and ProctorU). The ability to take the exam from the comfort of my room and when I wanted was enticing, so I signed up to do so. This was in 2016, and I do not recall which of these services I used exactly, so from here on out so I don’t expose myself to a lawsuit, I will just refer to it as the Online Proctor (OLP).

There were a few steps you had to do before you could start your actual exam, and they were fairly incongruous, strict, and didn’t exactly fit my environment. In university, I had two computers, my desktop, which at the time spent nearly all of it’s time mining Ethereum, and my trusty MacBook Air (still my favorite laptop I’ve had to this day). Since my desktop was preoccupied with other activities, and I didn’t have a webcam, I opted to take the exam sitting on my bed, with my laptop.

The first thing they had you do when you got into the proctoring session, was to take your webcam, and show your working area, under your desk, and then around your room. I wasn’t exactly at a desk, but they still had me bring my laptop over to show the desk, under it, then allowed me to go back to sitting on my bed.

The next step is they had you reflect your keyboard into the camera so they could make sure you didn’t have any cheating aids sitting on your laptop. In the instructions, they said “using a CD/DVD or a mirror to do this”. When I pulled out an CD and started to do this my first exam, the proctor was like “no that’s not going to work, you need to pull out your phone and use the selfie camera to show your working area”. I sat there a second, exceptionally confused, as they also explicitly said “phones are not allowed in the testing area.”.

Why it mattered, and why I couldn’t use a CD with a larger surface area to do what they said in their text directions when signing up for the exam – that was beyond me but it already began to stress me out before I even entered the actual exam. On top of that, it seemed awfully assumptive to expect every exam taker to have a smartphone capable of doing that. They may be fairly ubiquitous, even back then, but it’s far from fair and equal to expect people from all walks of life to have one.

After they were done taking inventory of your physical presence, they moved on to taking inventory of your computer, by initiating a remote control session, and digging through your available applications, and browser extensions. This made me vastly uncomfortable from the get-go, but the second exam I took using an OLP crossed the line.

For a long while, I have been a security and privacy nut, and the extensions in my browser reflects that. From uBlock Origin to Privacy Badger, I had my browser fairly locked down. On this check through, the proctor seemed to be anal about checking the names of each of these extensions.

Privacy Badger seemed to throw them for a loop, as I could see them hover the mouse over it for an extended period of time, and then to my horror right click -> uninstall. Of course, I couldn’t say anything at that very moment, as there was an extreme power dynamic at play: the proctor at any time could claim I was cheating, and that is a huge headache to deal with at any University.

Thankfully, even though I was tilted off the face of the Earth, the class and exam in question were relatively easy, so it didn’t impact my performance on that exam, but had that been a calculus exam, that would have been a different story.

After the exam was over, and they no longer had were surveilling my every move, I checked my browser to make sure I didn’t miss-see what had happened. I had not. That extension was straight missing. I flipped. It wasn’t that it was particularly difficult to reinstall an extension, but the principle of the matter, that they had made changes to my computer without my consent was infuriating.

I scoured the Terms and Conditions, and the Privacy Policy of the OLP I used to see if they said anything about allowing the proctor to make changes to your computer. There was nothing. So I wrote up an email to the company in question, explaining this series of events, and why it was concerning.

The response was a flippant, “we investigated ourselves, and found no wrongdoing. You did not have a browser extension uninstalled by the proctor.” It sounded a lot like a police department doing an internal investigation on themselves, and being gaslighted by this OLP just drove my frustration further. I had the expansion installed before the exam and after it was not. I am paraphrasing here, as I don’t have the original email. It was tied to my university address, which I no longer have access to. There is a small possibility I have a copy of the email on an old phone, and if I am able to recover it I will post the original as an update.

At this point, I vowed to never take an OLP exam again. I was not okay with my privacy being violated in such a way, only to be gaslighted on top of that. From then on, I paid $10 an exam to my university (the OLP exams were free in contrast), so I could go sit at the testing center and take the exams that way.

It sounds like I made the right call back then, as the invasiveness has only gotten more insane for any of the OLPs.

How This Can be Fixed

The reason these platforms exist is because universities are concerned over student integrity. This is a valid concern to a point – cheating happens. Both online and offline. But they really miss the mark on how to counter it. In general, the only tool it seems universities have against cheating is a hammer, and when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

What I mean by this, is they chose to go with the brute force approach. Assume everyone is cheating, so require everyone to be surveilled closely whenever they take an important exam. As someone who sometimes did look for the easy solution, I can tell you without a doubt this is the wrong way to go about it.

A lot of these classes are taught straight out of a book. The examples, the homework, and the quizzes are often verbatim copied word for word. Sometimes the answer keys are in the same exact order. And even if they change editions of the book year-to-year (which itself is it’s own problem), many times these question banks are not changed. Some of my online classes felt as if they could have been taught by a machine.

This poses two problems. One, it’s not impossible to get your hands on a teacher’s edition of the book. Sometimes on Amazon, sometimes available as a PDF. Two, these books are used across many colleges and universities. If you take one of the questions, and do an exact search on Google (using quotation marks around the text), there were often Yahoo Answers (rest in peace), and Quizzlets containing the full question and answer key. I am sure you can see where I am going with this.

If all of the questions an answers are available freely and that easily on the internet, the barrier to entry is so tiny that it’s as good of a barrier as a line in the sand.

A screenshot from an infamous episode of Spongebob, where they go camping. They utilize a circle drawn in the sand to keep away any pesky seabears, the joke being it's very easy to cross.
Professor’s Barrier to Cheating

Given the amount of money that one pays for the classes, and the amount of work students are often made to do, I find this method of teaching unacceptable, and it is open to rampant cheating.

Some subject matters, by their nature, are not subject to this issue. Many of the STEM fields require work that simply cannot be directly Googled. They may be subject to cheating in other forms, math problems and programmings solutions can be directly copied from another student, but those generally have unique properties or solutions that make it obvious if it’s been directly copied.

The real solution to rampant, easy cheating is to make the exams, homework, and material unique. There is no reason that you can’t teach the same subject semester to semester, but come up with new questions. It could be a simple as changing the phrasing up semester to semester, or swapping the questions out completely. If you are paid to be an expert in the subject matter and teach it to other students, this shouldn’t be a problem. We as students pay you, as a professor, to put the work in to the class.

It’s the difference between a professor that is there to collect a paycheck, and one that is invested in their student’s success in learning. My favorite class from university wasn’t on in my field of study, or anywhere close. It was an early American History class, taught by the wonderful Dr. Robinson at Colorado State University.

From the get-go in that class, you could tell he was engaged in the material at hand, and really enjoyed doing what he did. His presentations were his own, and his exams were over material directly off the slides and what he said out loud. And he really brought you back into the era he was teaching, painting an imaginary picture of the events that took place. The books recommended for the class only acted as supplementary material.

It could have been another cookie-cutter class, taught right from a book, with multiple choice answers that hundreds of other schools used, but he made that class memorable and enjoyable. I’m sure you’ll never read this Dr. Robinson, but if you do, please know you’ll be forever remembered as simply the best professor I had.

Of course, this isn’t actually going to change. The education system is kind of screwed right now. Tuition that’s increasing at an absolutely mind-boggling rate, and the growing free access to information is making the cost equation for university questionable at best. There are invaluable experiences and ideas you’ll gain from an educational institution that you’d get nowhere else, but for a lot of fields, it’s become, “pay to teach yourself these things, and if you do we’ll give you a piece of paper with your name on it”. That doesn’t feel good.

Not for everything, mind you, and post-graduate education does not suffer from many of these issues, but for the majority of students, an undergraduate education is all they’re going for, as that’s what’s been sold to them as the way to achieve their dreams.

I certainly wouldn’t want a medical doctor to perform surgery on me if they’ve never had practical experience. On the other hand, the people most passionate about computer science are often self-taught. They let their curiosity guide their education, rather than following the rigid model set out in a CS BSc.

This could very easily carry into a conversation about the freedom of information being vital to the progress of humanity as a whole, but I think that will be for another time.

To summarize, the issue of cheating isn’t one cause by the students, in contrast they’re a symptom of the greater problem of classes being too cookie cutter. Engaged professors that actually teach the content rather than repeat a book are vital for students to stay engaged and absorb the content. If professors are so worried about student’s copying each other, why are they not concerned with themselves just copying the book?