I was working at my desk the other day when I turned to look at my girlfriend Caitlin, cursing to herself. Sitting across our 430-square-foot apartment, she was visibly frustrated. She had just started an online course required for graduation at the University of Georgia.
I asked her what’s wrong. She told me she needed to put on pants before taking a practice test.
Her course, like many required courses for students, uses Respondus’ LockDown Browser, one of many course monitoring and test proctoring software that have become all too familiar through the COVID-19 pandemic.
It just asked her to pivot her webcam to show her immediate surroundings, so as to limit her ability to cheat. In addition to preventing her from opening extraneous tabs on her internet browser, LockDown Browser keeps her webcam on when she is accessing course materials.
Online classes predate the coronavirus by decades, yet I never saw or heard of these kinds of programs until the past 18 months. They were not necessary before the pandemic, they are not now, and they should be banned from use.
Caitlin is going to graduate in a year's time, but because of the rapid normalization of programs no better than school-sanctioned spyware, she will only get her degree after being coerced to sacrifice her privacy.
She is far from the first to experience the fury of dealing with a proctoring program torn right from Orwell. Hundreds of thousands of students have been subject to this nonsense just since 2020, and there’s no guarantee we’ll be rid of them after the pandemic chaos winds down.
There’s nothing these programs even do to genuinely prevent all cheating, or even a sizable chunk of it. From putting notes on the laptop keyboard to cross-room screen mirroring, the “state-of-the-art” tech is less of an impenetrable wall and more like a revolving door if you think about how to cheat for longer than 5 minutes.
All of this is not to mention the added toll on students financially and mentally. LockDown Browser is free, but other programs like Proctorio aren’t, and other ancillary websites that professors seem to require more and more post-pandemic. WebAssign, StatCrunch and other third-party sites, each with fees and subscriptions, add cost to students unannounced until after they enroll in a course.
They rarely provide services that eLC, the official UGA online learning management system included in student fees, cannot. We’ve allowed these private companies to insert themselves as middlemen leeching money from students already sinking their present and future finances into school.
For many students with mental health concerns or disabilities, the pandemic promised potential to make school more accessible and less stressful. Then the test monitoring started.
Margaret Lonsway, a second year environmental health science major and student on the autism spectrum, had to pay for ProctorU for her precalculus class.
“I didn’t like the idea of having someone being able to control my screen, even if it wasn’t for that long,” Lonsway said.
These programs are doubly unfair to neurodivergent students, as Miami University students point out in their petition to ban the school's use of Proctorio, calling it “ableist by design.” Any “suspicious” looks or glances can be flagged as potential cheating. Nevermind that most people would struggle to be self-aware of their eye movement, this is completely discriminatory against students with ADHD, autism and other disabilities.
College, among other things, serves to prepare students for corporate America. Unfortunately, UGA using what you could call “proctorware” is doing exactly that if trends hold. Companies and corporations have implemented always-on microphone and webcam policies for remote work, capitalizing on our new circumstances to build an omnipresent workplace culture that’s indistinguishable from their personal life or free time.
The threat of this software being somehow compromised or abused, and subsequent identity theft or leaking of private information, is a far greater threat than students cheating on tests. Cybersecurity threats are going to grow exponentially as industries and finance become more digitized. If oil pipelines and banks can be hacked, so can Proctorio.
Schools and employers having the expectation of insight to your personal life is not an expectation that we can sustain. My professors have all OK'd open-note tests because they recognize that when students do all their work at home, they can’t reasonably prevent it without crossing a line. Students should be able to do schoolwork at home pantsless if they choose, something I cannot believe needs to be argued.
The honor system is not without its flaws, but we’ve gone all of academic history with it save the past year and a half. We shouldn’t stop now. Hopefully, a future is near where COVID-19 is completely behind us. Let’s leave proctorware in the past, too.