Students are up in arms against anti-cheating surveillance tech

As colleges continue to rely on ‘anti-cheating’ exam monitoring tech in lockdown, pupils claim they’re being treated more like criminals than students.

If you’re something of a nervy student you’ll know that settling down and feeling comfortable plays a big part in overcoming the whole exam process. The quicker you’re able to acclimate to that little wooden desk and the constant ticking of the clock, the better chance you’ll have of reaching a solid level of concentration, avoiding distractions, and doing your paper justice.

What doesn’t help on any level is that one jittery invigilator that catches your eye every time you reach for your tippex, and strides up and down the sports hall as though they’re taking part in a slow marathon. Granted, they may be there to watch out for cheating, but oftentimes their presence can be overbearing and does more harm than good.

Now, take this scenario, remove the human invigilator from the picture, and replace them with a webcam powered by an AI algorithm that constantly monitors for ‘suspicious behaviour.’ Reckon clearing your head and putting in your best performance would be any easier then?

Avoiding exam hall blunders | ACCA Global

Exam time in lockdown

Back in spring, schools and colleges were scrambling around to find viable ways of navigating the pandemic and providing thousands of students with quality education remotely.

To its credit, schooling has managed to maintain a semblance of normality through the guise of tech, though it’s still facing challenges in combatting Zoom-bombing, helping students in need of extra accessibility, and preventing those without decent broadband from falling behind.

As exam time began to roll around, however, the system faced by far its biggest (and most contentious) challenge of 2020, that being: ‘How the hell do we stop students from cheating at their computers?’ Seniors in academia and tech quickly landed on digital exam monitoring softwares like Proctorio – which claims to identify ‘suspicious behaviours’ through a pupil’s webcam, mic, keyboard, and browsing history -as the key to sniffing out foul play.

Vaguely defined movements with one’s eyes and head, as well as mouse behaviours, audio levels, time completion, and the number of faces detected in webcam view can be enough to throw up red flags and log samples to be sent off for review at each institution.

Quickly picked up at more than 400 schools for its affordability, supposed campus-wide instatement in under 48 hours, and its track record in observing upward of 6 million exams in 2019, Proctorio and similar programs have become 2020’s standard for keeping watch on students as they round off the year’s work.

All sounds awful convenient for those handing the tests out… what about those sitting them?

Privacy and inequality issues

This fall, Proctorio’s once squeaky clean track record is no longer associated with rapid COVID-19 growth, but the epic backlash it has ignited among students and even some faculty members obliged to use it.

Not only are students drawing attention to the fact that these mechanics and ambiguous guidelines are increasing feelings of anxiety and confusion, already heightened by the pandemic, but they’ve also brought forth a laundry list of tech faults compounding concerns around systematic equality in education.

Shea Swauger, who is leading an initiative to ban facial recognition in educational settings, claims that the tech has a 35% fail rate for people of colour. Through approximations based on public data he asserts that there have been more than 18,000 instances of racial discrimination on Proctorio alone. Beyond this, there’s been accounts of bias against transgender students, those with neurological and physical disabilities, learning disabilities, and low-income or rural placed students.

When confronted with these concerns, Proctorio’s reaction really didn’t do itself or similar companies any favour. From directly attacking people on Reddit, filing lawsuits against professors, and demanding that peer reviewed online critique be retracted, quite frankly, it has done everything possible to stoke the fire under the asses of already irate students.

At more than 100 schools across the UK, US, Australia, The Netherlands, and Canada, students are forcing their institutions to discuss the ethics of proctoring tools, with some writing open letters and rallying thousands of signatures for petitions. One particular cause centred on student privacy from the City University of New York (on has amassed close to 30,000 signatures already.

Some schools have actively taken a stance against use of the technology due to the concerns around privacy and discrimination, but at its core there’s a more basic critique to be reflected on – and that’s whether we should be using tools that treat students like delinquents that need policing in the first place.

Proctoring tech just isn’t the solution

Jeffrey Moro, a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland, summarised the wider issue nicely in his blog post ‘Against Cop Sh*t’. Arguing against any teaching ‘technique that presumes an adversarial relationship between students and teachers,’ he asserted ‘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.’

There will no doubt be people out there irked by and pointing to younger generations proliferating an age of cancel culture. We just love to tear stuff down for no reason, eh? But truthfully, what do students stand to gain from fabricating problems with proctoring technology? Are the thousands of signatures collected so far coming from students desperate to cheat on future exams – is that really the agenda?

Are the stories of students who were flagged for touching their face due to hyperactivity disorders not valid? What about those who couldn’t sit still due to arthritis and metabolic issues? Those who were at an instant disposition because of their ethnicity? Or those who had to break down their gender identity to professors and struggle through classification hurdles?

Granted, the pandemic is bringing forth some really difficult challenges at the moment and this is anything but an easy one to solve, but opting for practicality over compassion is never a good idea.

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