Balancing Integrity with Privacy in Virtual Learning


With the coronavirus pandemic continuing much longer than anticipated, schools adjusting to fully virtual classes or a hybrid model are scrambling to find ways to ensure their strict standards of academic integrity. However, these efforts have delved into a gray area of personal privacy for students very quickly. 

The rise of proctoring software such as Proctorio, ProctorU, Respondus, Examity, and HonorLock, is unsurprising in our changed world. Instructors are focused on giving a mostly-unchanged class experience, and with that comes similar exams to those that would be administered in an in-person academic semester. Proctoring services allow test-takers to be rigorously monitored while taking an exam, both deterring and detecting forms of cheating. The goal is certainly not malicious. With students in completely different environments, the effort to standardize test-taking through strict standards of integrity ensures fairness. Problems with online proctoring lie in the implementation, not the principle.

There is a stark difference between in-person and online proctoring, specifically in the way data is collected and used. Online software uses methods such as recording a student using video, audio, screen recording, keystroke logging, and more. Some services are downloaded on your device and have full access to your website data at all times, very clearly going beyond the scope of test taking. To further prevent cheating, some even use artificial intelligence to verify identities and conduct gaze detection

The basic issues are clear. Requiring students to install what is essentially malware on their personal devices to take an exam isunjustand shows a major lack of trust in students as a whole. Artificial intelligence in these programs poses another issue with its inherent biases. Facial recognition has been proven to have repeated issues with racism, sexism, and transphobia, while eye gaze or sound detection could pose significant issues for students living with family members or roommates. Beyond the test itself, there is no transparency to students as to how their personal recordings are stored or used, and in an era where data breaches are common this is extremely unsettling.

Granted, students are not innocent in this debate either. As long as students are actively finding ways around these proctoring tools, stricter tools will continue to be used. It’s unfortunate in a case like this that “one bad egg ruins the basket”, but in an education system where grades are so dependent on how an entire class performs, the negative cycle makes sense.

Solutions come in various forms. A good step to start is increasing transparency between students and instructors. No more being told to install and trust a third-party program without evidence. Another is to reform the way students are assessed during virtual learning. Rather than keep tests the same as their in-person counterparts, adapt the test to be application based so that answers cannot be simply searched, or allow the test to be open note but change questions to be more rigorous accordingly. Change assessments to suit the environment they are administered in while protecting the privacy of students trying to learn. 

There’s certainly no easy solution, as no online test taking process will be as safe and secure as in-person exams. In the meantime, however, we should not be complacent with an unjust and harmful system. A sense of digital privacy and agency is increasingly important in the growing digital world, and certainly should not falter for a test.