Last month, as students at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Ontario, Canada, began studying for their midterm exams, many of them had to memorize not just the content on their tests, but a complex set of instructions for how to take them.
The school has a student body of nearly 18,500 undergraduates, and is one of many universities that have increasingly turned to exam proctoring software to catch supposed cheaters. It has a contract with Respondus, one of the many exam proctoring companies offering software designed to monitor students while they take tests by tracking head and eye movements, mouse clicks, and more. This type of surveillance has become the new norm for tens of thousands of students around the world, who—forced to study remotely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, often while paying full tuition—are subjected to programs that a growing body of critics say are discriminatory and highly invasive.
Like its competitors in the exam surveillance industry, Respondus uses a combination of facial detection, eye tracking, and algorithms that measure “anomalies” in metrics like head movement, mouse clicks, and scrolling rates to flag students exhibiting behavior that differs from the class norm. These programs also often require students to do 360-degree webcam scans of the rooms in which they’re testing to ensure they don’t have any illicit learning material in sight.
Some of the requirements for Wilfrid Laurier students went even further.
In exam instructions distributed to students, one WLU professor wrote that anyone who wished to use foam noise-cancelling ear plugs must “in plain view of your webcam … place the ear plugs on your desk and use a hard object to hit each ear plug before putting it in your ear—if they are indeed just foam ear plugs they will not be harmed.”
Other instructors required students to buy hand mirrors and hold them up to their webcams prior to beginning a test to ensure they hadn’t written anything on the webcam. Another professor told students, “DO NOT allow others in your home to use the internet while you are completing your test,” presumably because proctoring software can be a nightmare for students without reliable high-speed internet access. That same exam guide also said that students should not sit in front of pictures or posters that contain animal faces because the software might flag them as suspicious for having another person in the room—not a reassuring requirement, given that one of the chief criticisms of exam proctoring software is that they often fail to recognize students with darker skin tones.
There has been a fierce backlash against Respondus at WLU. Petitions demanding that the school administration ban the software from campus or change its proctoring policies have collected thousands of signatures. Similar petitions have spread across scores of universities.
Wilfrid Laurier is not the only school where students must comply with complex, and often bizarre, remote exam requirements. At Arkansas Tech University, some students were sent a long list of instructions for taking tests through the exam-monitoring software ProctorU. Before beginning an exam, students were required to hold a mirror or their phone's front-facing camera to reflect the computer screen, and then adjust the webcam so the instructor can "see your face, both hands, your scratch paper, calculator, and the surface of your desk," according to an email obtained by Motherboard.
"I must be able to see these at all times while testing. If you have a webcamera built into your computer, you will need to move your computer back from you to fit all of this in," the instructor wrote in the email, which detailed instructions for taking exams with ProctorU. "If I cannot see all of this, I will have to set your exam score to 0%."
Administrators at most universities have chosen not to set standards for how instructors should use proctoring software. As a result, campuses that use the programs are increasingly seeing students voice their anger not just with the programs themselves, but with how individual professors use them.
The website ratemyprofessors.com, which allows students to anonymously comment on courses and rank teachers on a scale of one to five, is filling up with negative reviews tied to proctoring programs like Respondus, Proctorio, and ProctorU.
“For the PHYS 205 EC course over the summer, over 60 students received an F because the proctorio software didn’t register their exams, and Abinader juat (sic) said that he couldn’t do anything,” a student wrote in a one-out-of-five review for a Concordia University professor.
“Terrible with COVID, switched to ProctorU examinations and she did not care that ProctorU shut off on me half way through the exam and submitted it, she just said ‘I will grade what ProctorU submitted.’ Bad class,” an Austin Community College student wrote in another review.
The WLU student government has met with administrators to share student complaints about the software, and the university has already been forced to backtrack on a department policy that would have required all students taking a math class to purchase an external webcam and tripod—something the department head himself acknowledged would be difficult given the pandemic-induced webcam shortage.
In a public statement, university officials said they will “be working with faculties and instructors to collaborate in developing solutions to concerns about test/exam requirements.” University spokesman Graham Mitchell declined to provide any details to Motherboard about what those solutions might entail.
WLU began using the webcam-monitoring version of Respondus in 2015, albeit at a lower rate than during the current pandemic. When asked whether the decision to adopt it was driven by research, faculty requests, or high incidents of cheating, Mitchell did not provide a direct answer. He also said the university does not track rates of academic dishonesty or how often Respondus flags suspicious behavior.
WLU did provide guidance and resources to faculty members to help them set remote exam policies, Mitchell said. When asked whether the university supports some of the policies shared by students, specifically the direction that no one else in a student’s house should be allowed to use the internet during a test, Mitchell wrote: “We know that students are doing their best to adapt to the new and challenging online learning environments required in the pandemic. These were not university policies. In some cases, to help answer student questions about remotely proctored exams, instructors provided very thorough information to anticipate and address questions from students, especially for those students who may be taking an exam remotely for the first time.”
Students at WLU seem to have little faith in their administration, and they aren’t accepting the excuse universities and the companies who sell proctoring software often make when confronted with complaints: that professors decide how to use the tools, so they’re the ones responsible for the harms they cause.
One third-year WLU computer science student, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation, told Motherboard that by abdicating responsibility, the administration has encouraged professors to institute progressively punitive policies. “When I did use [Respondus] before the pandemic it was nothing like this,” the student said. “It was tame in comparison, in terms of seeing what professors require you to do.”