Online proctoring raises privacy concerns

by and Mar 31, 2014 10:04 pm

Nicholas Nguyen, a senior industrial technology major, has taken more than a few online classes at SJSU, so when he signed up for an online section of Bio 10 "The Living World" this semester, he said he didn't think he'd be in for any big surprises.

When it came time to take his first test, Nguyen said he scheduled an appointment with a service called ProctorU, something that the syllabus stated he was required to do in order to take the test.

At the time of his appointment, Nguyen realized something was different.

"I logged on to ProctorU and I see all these requirements and verifications," he said. "I was honestly shocked."

He realized that one of ProctorU's employees was going to be watching him through his webcam, listening to him through his computer's microphone and be logged into his computer alongside him to monitor his on-screen activity while he took his biology test.

"I don't even know this person," Nguyen said. "I don't know what their motives are. Could there be anything else running in the background?"

From Nguyen's perspective, this kind of service constitutes a serious privacy violation. He said he doesn't think it's appropriate for a public institution such as SJSU to force its students to undergo that level of scrutiny, especially from an unknown third-party.

He said he also worries about the security of ProctorU's software, and isn't thrilled about having to pay more than $20 per test on top of his course fee.

"I just think it's going too far," he said. "I know they're trying to prevent cheating, but I’m off campus. I’m in my room and now they're making this company have full access to my computer, and they see the inside of my house and, you know, I'm just trying to take a test.”

Marisa Ignacio, a freshman business major, is currently taking an online class that doesn't use ProctorU.  Instead, she said her class takes tests through Canvas without any sort of proctoring.

She said if her class did use ProctorU, she would be worried and nervous about being monitored over a webcam.

“I don't do well taking tests because I'm under pressure,” Ignacio said.

She said she would prefer to take a class in person rather than be forced to use ProctorU.

Other courses use solutions such as LockDown, which prevents students from searching or navigating to other websites while  taking a test through canvas. Unlike ProctorU, LockDown doesn't prevent students from using another device or notes.

ProctorU's website says the company was founded in 2008 as an innovative solution to ensuring academic integrity with online exams. The website lists more than 350 partner universities and colleges, including SJSU.

Franklin Hayes, ProctorU's media coordinator, said he doesn't see any reason for students to be concerned about their privacy.

“We’re a business," Hayes said. "We’re a customer service business, so it’s really not advantageous for us to violate that trust because then we wouldn’t have any business.”

Hayes compared the privacy invasion of ProctorU to having a cable guy at your house.

"You wouldn’t necessarily want to have your credit card or your lingerie over the couch, you know what I’m saying?" he said.

Hayes explained that the way ProctorU monitors students depends on the needs and instructions of each institution.

Information stored from a session can range from a screenshot to a video of the entire session, depending on the instructions the proctors are given. Hayes said videos can be kept on servers for up to a year.

Proctors working at one of the four U.S. ProctorU centers are often recruited from local universities and community colleges, Hayes said. 

He said that there are no specific qualifications for employment, other than a general understanding of how to use technology and being older than 18-years-old.

Proctors can monitor anywhere from three to six students at one time, Hayes said.

For closed book tests, the Proctors are instructed to watch the eye movement of the students they are monitoring to look for indications that they are cheating, Hayes said. They follow a chin-to-forehead rule for keeping a student onscreen.

“That means that the student’s face from chin to forehead is visible on camera at all times,” Hayes said.

Looking down or to the side violates this rule, he said.

If a proctor thinks a student may be cheating, something that Hayes said is based on the discretion of the proctor, evidence is collected in the form of video and screen shots and submitted to the course instructor for review.

William Armaline, director of SJSU's human rights program, said he believes programs that monitor students are ineffective, and sees such programs as a part of  "larger standardization efforts."

"Surveilling a student, via a camera or standing over them … it's not about a student's learning at all," Armaline said.

Mary Poffenroth, Nguyen's Bio 10 instructor, said that from day one students in her online class "are given more than due diligence of being told exactly what is entailed in the class."

Materials she provides on Canvas include ProctorU's privacy policy and frequently asked questions, as well as her syllabus which states that students will be required to pay for a service called ProctorU for each exam.

The syllabus doesn't describe anything about webcams and personal information, but it does contain a link to the company's website.

"(If students) aren't participating and they aren't doing their part of reading the materials, watching the videos, reading the canvas announcements that go out, there's really nothing that I can do," Poffenroth said.

She said she doesn't see a need to add more details into the syllabus or change her current policies.

Instructors can provide students with everything "short of just giving them the exams, and it takes the student to pick up those materials, to read the materials and to be engaged in the class," Poffenroth said. "That I cannot control."

Nguyen said he is also concerned with the type of personal information he was asked to provide to ProctorU.

In addition to showing the remote proctor his driver's license and entering in his student ID number, Nguyen said he was asked to answer four personal questions about himself.

One was to pick a family member's name out of a list of names.

Nguyen said that his uncle's name was on the list, although he isn't sure how they had his name since he's never willingly shared that information in a public context.

The questions, Hayes said, are a security measure that is also employed by some credit card and insurance companies.

He said all of the information is compiled from public records and databases by Acxiom, a data-brokering company.

"We're looking for something that you are, something that you have and something that you know," Hayes said, explaining the comprehensive verification process.

Gregory Feist, associate professor of psychology, said in an email that he used ProctorU while teaching a combined SJSU and Udacity course.

"It's really the only way you can give exams on an online class," Feist said. "Although Dr. Heiden in our department taught an online course and didn't proctor exams and says that the performance was essentially the same as (face-to-face) classes."

Demerris Brooks is the University's Ombudsperson, the advocate for the rights of the community.

She said that in addition to the new complaints she's received about ProctorU, students have brought other concerns to her attention about copyright policies of other services classes now commonly use such as TurnItIn.

"With some complaints, students take issue with the far-reaching access in regard to privacy, and what students see almost as surveillance of sorts," said Brooks. "So what we need to figure out is if the technologies used are fully vetted and approved by the University."

Because of students' discomfort, Brooks said she thinks the University should be providing alternatives to these types of services.

Out of the 400 or so students who've taken Poffenroth's online Bio 10 class since she began using ProctorU in 2012, she said that only a small handful have raised concerns about either cost or privacy.

“I think a lot of times when there’s any company that’s out there, any product, any service, any store, any restaurant, whatever it is, people are going to come to their own assumptions," Hayes said. "So that’s a big part of why we try to be as transparent as we are."

Nguyen said he won't take another test using ProctorU, no matter the consequences for his course grade.

He said he is willing to work out another arrangement such as taking the test in his instructor's office, but over spring break Nguyen found out that Poffenroth will be taking a partial leave of absence for the rest of the semester for personal reasons and that will no longer be an option.

He said he has already spoken to the head of the biology department about his concerns as well as the ombudsperson.

Nguyen said that the entire situation has made him feel powerless.

"You can’t do anything about it," he said. "It’s either you go along with it or you're going to fail."

8 thoughts on “Online proctoring raises privacy concerns

  1. If ProctorU has a data leak or is hacked, and that personal information – including Mr. Nguyen's CA ID # (which legally ProctorU is not allowed to keep on record at all!), his telephone number and address and other information – and his voice and likeness – are stolen, I would think that a civil suit could quite handily name the instructor as partially liable in the case of identity theft.

    After all, she was made aware of the possibility of a leak and didn't feel it was important to give students any additional information about the service.

    Has she done her due diligence? Does she know that the company hasn't had such hacks in the past?

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