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Is Online Test-Monitoring Here to Stay?
When the coronavirus pandemic began, Femi Yemi-Ese, then a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, began attending class and taking exams remotely, from the apartment that he shared with roommates in the city. The first time Yemi-Ese opened the application, positioning himself in front of his laptop for a photo, to confirm that his Webcam was working, Proctorio claimed that it could not detect a face in the image, and refused to let him into his exam.
Yemi-Ese turned on more lights and tilted his camera to catch his face at its most illuminated angle; it took several tries before the software approved him to begin. He was initially unconcerned when he learned that several of his classes, including a course in life-span development and another in exercise physiology, would be administering exams using Proctorio, a software program that monitors test-takers for possible signs of cheating.
“Being in sports for as long as I was, and getting yelled at by coaches, I don’t get stressed much,” he said. A former Division 1 football player, majoring in kinesiology, Yemi-Ese had never suffered from anxiety during tests. Still, he managed to raise his grades back to pre-pandemic levels, even in classes that required Proctorio. (The situation, in addition to its other challenges, deprived him of his usual light setup.) By the end of his senior year, Yemi-Ese was still struggling to get admitted to every Proctorio exam.
Yemi-Ese’s grades dropped precipitously early in the pandemic, a problem he attributed in large part to Proctorio. “After I figured out nothing was going to change, I guess I got numb to it,” he said. He took several tests while displaced from his home by the winter storm that devastated Texas in February, which forced him to crash with a series of friends. Proctorio, which operates as a browser plug-in, can detect whether your gaze is pointed at the camera; it tracks how often you look away from the screen, how much you type, and how often you move the mouse.
At the end of the exam, the professor receives a report on each student’s over-all “suspicion score,” along with a list of moments, marked for an instructor to review, when the software judged that cheating might have occurred. It compares your rate of activity to a class average that the software calculates as the exam unfolds, flagging you if you deviate too much from the norm. Meanwhile, Proctorio is also monitoring the room around you for unauthorized faces or forbidden materials.
Other anecdotes call attention to the biases that are built into proctoring programs. Low-income students have been flagged for unsteady Wi-Fi, or for taking tests in rooms shared with family members. Students with dark skin described the software’s failure to discern their faces. In video calls with live proctors from ProctorU, test-takers have been forced to remove bonnets and other non-religious hair coverings—a policy that has prompted online pushback from Black women in particular—and students accessing Wi-Fi in public libraries have been ordered to take off protective masks.