When higher education shut down due to COVID-19 in spring 2020, the capacity to provide quality remote instruction varied widely within and across institutions. Diverse and complex social, economic, and physical factors made the transition to distance learning easier for some students than for others. Not surprisingly, tensions between displaced students and their institutions emerged almost immediately.
Recently, I spoke with Autumm Caines, an instructional designer at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and public scholar of educational technology and student experience, who described the problem this way: “COVID-19 shook up so many of the things we take for granted in higher education—even when and how classes meet. Yet, the faculty were all told to keep teaching. Institutions never really fully acknowledged the shake-up. They just kept moving forward, regardless of any consequences.”
Arguably, remote instruction was a rich learning experience for all of us. However, the mistakes and mishandled situations have taken a toll on the trust between students and institutions. As campuses reopen, many institutions will have work to do in rebuilding these relationships.
While institutions resolved some conflicts with students quickly, controversies surrounding online proctoring and cheating have been sustained, public, and emotionally fraught. A recent New York Times article describes how Dartmouth uses LMS activity data to identify cheating, but students claim to be innocent of the charges. The student protests pictured in the article show students holding signs that say “Believe your students” and “Your students are hurting.”
“Many faculty thought—and still think, unfortunately—of online proctoring as the digital equivalent of in-person proctoring,” according to Caines. “But these technologies enforce much stricter levels of surveillance than any sort of in-person proctoring would enforce. I can tell you that I’ve never tracked students’ eye movements when I’ve proctored a test.”
Most of the head and body movements that online proctoring technologies flag as suspicious are also common intrinsic, unconscious, or coping behaviors unrelated to cheating. “We are letting educational technology companies define what is normal and not normal for test-taking behaviors,” Caines says. “By relying on what the online proctoring tools say, we are telling a lot of honest students that their normal, unconscious behaviors are abnormal and not acceptable.” Even when faculty make allowances for technology hiccups, students who experience those hiccups often feel more vulnerable, out-of-control, and singled out than peers who were not flagged.
In contrast, students who cheat successfully in the presence of online proctoring technologies are even more likely to assume they can write their own rules. Caines notes, “Students who find ways to cheat with online proctoring systems tend to have greater access to human and technical resources than those who do not. If anything, beating the system only reinforces their previous assumptions. Vulnerable students are more vulnerable, and privileged students are more privileged.”
Finally, Caines echoes other privacy advocates by pointing out that the online proctoring experience can also harm students who navigate the system without incident. “I worry about what proctoring does to a student’s relationship with the broader idea of authority. If it’s OK for my college to monitor me, what about my boss or the government? Normalizing surveillance is concerning for the future of democratic societies.”
Online proctoring is just one area of growing strain between institutions and their students. However, it is an area in which some institutions are already taking action by implementing the following strategies.
“I want it to be clear that I’m an abolitionist with online proctoring technologies,” says Caines, “but when institutions cannot do away with online proctoring entirely, there is a place for harm reduction.” Common harm reduction strategies include limiting the use of online proctoring technologies to specific contexts, such as high-stakes assessments. Mandatory faculty training, including the technology’s limitations and alternative pedagogical approaches, is also essential.
“To implement online proctoring in a less harmful way takes a lot of faculty time and effort,” Caines observes. “Once faculty understand how much work thoughtful approaches to online proctoring take, they start asking about alternative strategies like open-book assessments.” Finally, institutions must require faculty to provide equal, alternative assessment options like in-person proctoring and alternative assignments for all students, regardless of their accommodation status.
“Some institutions definitely need to apologize to their students,” Caines says. “Restorative approaches are in order.” Restorative practices involve meaningful, voluntary engagement between students and campus leaders to repair institutional climate and build trust. Actual methods vary based on context but might include listening tours, town meetings, and plans for accountable action on the part of the institution.
“So many educational technology vendors are directly targeting individual faculty now,” according to Caines. “If institutions are going to allow faculty to vet and implement technologies for the classroom, they need to have a conversation with faculty about sales rhetoric. Faculty need to understand their responsibilities to students in terms of accessibility, privacy, equity, and data security.” Alternatively, institutions could centralize educational technology selections to standardize the vetting process and offer students a more transparent description of specific technology use, risks, and benefits.
Increasingly, institutions like the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are rejecting the use of online proctoring technologies. While this news cheers Caines, she acknowledges that the decision is complicated.
“So many institutions conflate proctoring with some idea of academic rigor. In some cases, students from two-year institutions must somehow prove their exams have been proctored before they can receive credit for them at four-year institutions. Institutional leadership can use their voices to help lobby other institutions and accrediting bodies for culture change.”
Special thanks to Autumm Caines for her contributions to this blog post. You can read about her work to move away from online proctoring and towards authentic assessment at the University of Michigan-Dearborn in her recent publication for the Pod Network.
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