scorecardTech companies promised schools an easy way to detect cheaters during the pandemic. Students responded by demanding schools stop policing them like criminals in the first place.
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Tech companies promised schools an easy way to detect cheaters during the pandemic. Students responded by demanding schools stop policing them like criminals in the first place.

Tyler Sonnemaker   

Tech companies promised schools an easy way to detect cheaters during the pandemic. Students responded by demanding schools stop policing them like criminals in the first place.
Tech11 min read
  • Colleges' increased reliance on exam monitoring software during the pandemic has sparked uproar among students and faculty around the world who say the tools are invasions of privacy, biased, and ineffective.
  • One company, Proctorio, has drawn particular ire for its CEO's attempts to silence critics with lawsuits and personal attacks against students and teachers.
  • But Proctorio's aggressive response has instead put the spotlight on a more fundamental issue: why are schools spending precious resources on tools that treat students more like criminals than learners?
  • The backlash against so-called "prison-to-school" technology is forcing schools to rethink whether they need to use surveillance software in the classroom at all.

When the pandemic forced colleges — some of them with tens of thousands of students — to rapidly transition to online classes this spring, there was a lot to figure out, especially around technology.

Schools scrambled to combat Zoom-bombing, to help students with accessibility needs, and to prevent students without high-speed internet from falling behind. But as exams rolled around, schools quickly faced another challenge.

"How can we discourage cheating in the remote session?" Aisha Jackson, director of academic technology applications and design at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Business Insider.

Jackson and others in her position turned to digital exam monitoring software like Proctorio. Proctorio claims to identify "suspicious behavior" by monitoring a student's webcam, microphone, keyboard, and other computer activity during a test and then uses an algorithm to look for "abnormalities" between the student and their classmates, which the software then flags for the teacher to review. Abnormal head and eye movements, mouse clicks and scrolls, websites visited, audio levels, the time it takes to finish the test, and the number of faces detected on screen can all cause a student's test session to be flagged as suspicious.

Jackson said CU Boulder spun up digital proctoring services campus-wide in around 48 hours as it raced to support teachers in time for final exams in May. But after technical issues with the vendor it was using at the time, the school pivoted to Proctorio because it had a "known track record with respect to performance," Jackson said.

Proctorio CEO Mike Olsen said that was the whole point of starting the company back in 2013.

"We said, look, we can build a product that scales, but isn't invasive and can do a much better job than what's out there," he told Business Insider. So far, that bet has paid off: Proctorio monitored 6 million exams in 2019 but is on track to do as many as 30 million this year, Olsen said, and its Chrome extension currently boasts more than 2 million users.

Read more: Colleges thought they could manage financially in the pandemic. Dropping enrollment rates and COVID-19 outbreaks cropping up on campuses suggest they're wrong.

As Proctorio took off, students took issue with everything from privacy to racial bias

Fast-forward to this fall: Proctorio's track record is more widely known — not for its rapid growth during the pandemic, but for the firestorm it has ignited among many students and faculty.

Students, faculty, and others have spoken out on a laundry list of issues, accusing Proctorio and similar tools of being invasions of privacy; biased against students of color; biased against students with accessibility needs; biased against students with learning disabilities, neurodivergence, and anxiety; biased against low-income and rural students; harmful to transgender students; ineffective; and simply an unnecessary additional source of stress during an already nerve-racking pandemic.

"When they're saying Proctorio is our only option of keeping our integrity, I would argue that Proctorio is the opposite of having integrity," Wes Payne, a student senator at Miami University of Ohio who has pushed his school to stop using the software, told Business Insider. "Being associated with a company like Proctorio directly undermines the integrity of not only students learning at the university, but the university itself."

When asked about those concerns, Olsen said Proctorio's software "is not designed to take advantage of the disadvantaged, it's not designed to be used in unethical manners, and so we're trying to do a better job of that." To that extent, Olsen said his company is working on a system to let students report when schools use the software improperly, and that it would ideally like to require training for teachers before they can use Proctorio.

Proctorio is also by no means the only digital proctoring software on the market, and students and teachers have taken issue with its competitors as well.

But many told Business Insider that Olsen's often confrontational response to criticism — which they said felt contradictory to the company's promises to act ethically — is a major reason why Proctorio has received so much of the negative attention.

That response has included: directly attacking students on social media, filing a lawsuit against University of British Columbia professor Ian Linkletter for sharing the company's YouTube tutorials; asking a peer-reviewed journal to retract a critical article, and blaming everyone from students to teachers to schools while at times dismissing their concerns as issues with Proctorio's "messaging" rather than its product or his own conduct.

While schools have attempted to remedy some of the privacy and discrimination concerns, there's a more basic critique to be addressed: Do schools even need to use tools that treat students like delinquents to be policed?

As the US and other countries around the world reckon with the harms caused by biased and aggressive policing practices, often exacerbated by technology, students and teachers are drawing parallels to how surveillance tech is deployed in the classroom — and Proctorio's behavior in the face of pushback has only bolstered their case for reform.

'Against Cop S---'

In February, on the eve of the pandemic, University of Maryland PhD candidate Jeffrey Moro wrote a blog post titled "Against Cop S---." In it, he argued against any teaching "technique or technology that presumes an adversarial relationship between students and teachers."

"The problem was this kind of antagonism," Moro told Business Insider. "We need to solve the fact that we think of our students as sort of inherently untrustworthy… that they need to be policed in some regard." He cited examples ranging from plagiarism detection software to actual cops being called on students.

Moro's post went viral within higher ed circles, but it tapped into a problem that educational technology experts have long complained about.

Exam proctoring software promises teachers — who were already stretched thin before the pandemic — a convenient solution for deterring cheating. That sales pitch is especially compelling for certain types of teachers, like those running classes with hundreds of students where proctoring may be more logistically challenging, entry-level classes where exams may cover similar material as previous years, or STEM disciplines where exam formats may be more likely to encourage cheating.

"Multiple choice tests, which can be done in seconds on the computer versus reading through a hundred written responses, like, that's an easy choice for faculty because they just don't have the time and support," Torrey Trust, an associate professor of learning technology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Business Insider.

"Proctoring tools can be seen as an easy way to assess learning from their perspective because they don't know that there are other options," she added.

But Trust and others told Business Insider that teachers have historically been conditioned to focus too much on cheating — despite a lack of evidence proving that it's even a widespread problem — relative to designing tests and assignments that actually reveal how well students have learned the material.

"It's a pretty traditional practice in teaching to sort of have this suspicion about students, to sort of command them to say 'everyone's eyes on their own work'... rather than recognizing that collaboration is okay," Audrey Watters, an education writer and scholar, told Business Insider. "Students aren't treated like they're scholars. They're treated like criminals."

Shea Swauger, a librarian for the Auraria Library at the University of Colorado Denver and the author of the article that Proctorio tried to have retracted, said this attitude — and the products it spawns — can be traced directly to how we approach policing.

"There's something called the 'prison-to-school pipeline,'" Swauger said, when schools take "technologies and ideologies that originate either in policing, law enforcement, prisons, jails, and start using them in classrooms."

"Proctorio is absolutely a 'prison-to-school' technology,'" he said, adding that when these tools are brought into the classroom, they end up discriminating against the same people as the criminal justice systems they came from.

When asked whether Proctorio perpetuates an inherently problematic approach by surveilling students, Olsen responded: "I didn't get into proctoring to fix a pedagogical problem. I'm not a pedagogical expert, I don't know if there are better ways to do things."

"I just know that there are lots of exams that are always happening. Schools feel like they need to secure them, and the tools they were using… were bad," he said. "If all tests are eliminated because there's this much better way of doing things, then I'm fine with that."

And when asked about specific critiques of the product and his own behavior, Olsen pointed a variety of causes. He told Business Insider that "teachers went wild with implementation," justified the lawsuit against Linkletter by accusing him of a "targeted attack," and claimed the student Olsen publicly confronted on Reddit privately admitted that they, not Olsen, were "being a jerk." Regarding privacy, he told UK-based TechRound: "It's hilarious, students pretending to care where their data goes... They don't do any research, they just make things up."

But pedagogical experts called Olsen's response a cop-out.

"It's really been quite a galling year of behavior from them," Brenna Clarke Gray, coordinator of educational technologies at Thompson Rivers University in Canada, told Business Insider. "After all these years, in tech startups there's still this idea that tech is somehow neutral, that you don't have to have the values or the ethics conversation because all that matters is how it ends up getting applied, but that's not your responsibility."

After Proctorio sued Linkletter, Clarke Gray wrote an open letter in defense of the Canadian professor that has since been signed by more than 400 professors, school administrators, and students from at least seven countries.

In September, Olsen wrote a blog post that briefly discussed his positions on a handful of ethical concerns like religious bias and data privacy, but critics were far from satisfied.

Students 'galvanized'

At more than 100 schools across the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, The Netherlands, and elsewhere, students and faculty are forcing schools to have conversations around the ethics of Proctorio and other widely used proctoring tools. Some have written open letters and started petitions on sites like Change.orgrallying nearly 30,000 students in the City University of New York's case — but others have used more direct channels.

Miami University's student government on Tuesday passed a resolution demanding that teachers undergo training before using Proctorio in their classes to mitigate racial, gender, disability, and other biases — a pre-pandemic requirement that the school ditched — and Payne said they're already working on stronger legislation asking the school to look into banning the software entirely.

"Does this really embody who we are at Miami, our values, and what we want our learning outcomes to be?" Payne said. "A lot of the administration and a lot of students would tell you that it doesn't."

The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs' student government Tuesday signed a petition started by Swauger — and backed by dozens of campus groups and faculty across the state — seeking to ban facial recognition and detection technologies as well as AI-based proctoring, and told Business Insider that they're continuing to raise the issue in private conversations with administrators.

And students are directly connecting the dots between limiting classroom surveillance and addressing systemic inequalities.

"This year, we've seen a lot of social change and civil rights activism… however, a lot of the changes that are being made are the things that are flashy, visible, and convenient. And [banning Proctorio] is none of those things," Rachel Cauwels, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs' student body vice president, told Business Insider.

"I understand that we need to have testing, but it is possible without this, and this has a lot of drawbacks," she said, adding that banning digital proctoring is "certainly not flashy or convenient, but it's time to take care of equity and diversity, whether it's flashy or convenient or not."

One additional factor helping mobilize students, according to Swauger: the response by Proctorio and other proctoring companies.

"Companies being shady has definitely galvanized an online community in a way that I haven't seen before," he said, citing the relative lack of pushback against similar tools like Turnitin that have been around longer.

Faculty innovating, schools reconsidering

Schools are also facing pressure from their faculty and educational tech experts, who are increasingly favoring approaches to testing that aren't just more equitable but are also backed by research that they actually do a good job of assessing students' learning.

Elizabeth Wardle, an English professor and director of the Howe Center for Writing Excellence at Miami University, told Business Insider she encourages faculty to "design authentic assessments of learning," which often don't require proctoring software because they instead ask students to engage in "problem-exploring and problem-solving." She even pointed to a whole list of examples the writing center has compiled.

UBC, where Linkletter works, convened more than 100 faculty and various student groups this summer to help the school think through challenges around online learning after they raised concerns. The group came up with a very different approach to academic integrity: "invite students into the community of scholars, as a way to discuss the values associated with a scholarly community when creating and sharing knowledge."

"We're absolutely trying to help our faculty rethink how they do assessment," said Jackson, the IT administrator at CU Boulder. "When I think long-term… what other less invasive options might there be that may not involve a technology at all?"

Some schools are fully on board with that approach, like the University of California, Berkeley, and McGill University in Canada, which both banned tools like Proctorio entirely — while others are more skeptical.

James Giggacher, a spokesperson for Australia National University, where students have petitioned the school to drop Proctorio, told Business Insider that while faculty are encouraged to pursue alternative assignments if they can, "the academic rigour and quality of ANU programs is what attracts students to our University from all over the world."

Giggacher defended ANU's use of Proctorio in the "small number of courses" requiring proctored exams, adding that the software had been "comprehensively assessed for privacy and security."

But many of the schools Business Insider reached out to for this story were at least reevaluating their reliance on surveillance technology, either through internal studies and working groups, or in response to students speaking out on the issue.

And while supporters of the push to ditch tools like Proctorio acknowledged the financial, philosophical, technological, and other hurdles schools may face as they consider a new direction — like Proctorio's existing contracts with more than 400 schools and projections that the industry will more than double by 2026 — they also viewed the pandemic as an opportunity.

"I reject that idea that we don't have to think through the choices we're making critically right now because it's a pandemic. We know that any losses to privacy... We don't get those back," Clarke Gray said. "If we listen to students, if we listen to what they need in this moment, and we give them the opportunity to really reflect on the experience of learning, we will learn a lot. And maybe that's what this year is for in the long run."

For schools that are on board with the philosophy but ultimately nervous about the price tag, Swauger said: "Fortunately, the right thing to do and the cost-effective thing to do is the same thing."

If schools figured out how to create a more compassionate approach to testing, he said, "not only would we have better teaching and learning, but we would have an experience that is more inclusive and inviting for students that they actually might want to stick around for another semester."

Students agree.

"We want to learn, we don't want to memorize," Payne said.