Online proctoring has been a topic of much debate since its increased use during the COVID-19 pandemic. As universities consider which digital solutions to let go, keep, or develop further in strategic planning, there are opportunities to evaluate usage and consider the growing body of evidence around the ethics, impact and effectiveness of tools like this.

The Society for Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR) recently hosted a panel session chaired by Simon Buckingham-Shum, UTS Professor of Learning Informatics and Director of the Connected Intelligence Centre. A wide-ranging discussion brought together expertise from multiple institutions to explore a range of questions, arguments, and reflections on the potential future for remote proctoring and online exams. Some highlights from the discussion are summarised here.

How does online proctoring work?

Remote proctoring enabled us to do online exams, and with that has come heaps of different affordances […] you’re no longer just stuck with pen and paper – you’ve got all the advantages of computers, software…

Phillip Dawson, Associate Director of the Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning, Deakin University

Panellists noted that there are important differences between online exams and remote/online proctoring; students have undertaken online exams in schools and universities for many years now, for example in disciplines and subjects where screen-based work is the norm, and hand-written, paper-based exams are less relevant.

Remote or online proctoring, however, has more specific uses than simply ‘online exams’, ranging from verifying the identity and monitoring the behaviour of the student during the course of an exam (ensuring someone else isn’t taking the exam for them) to making sure they are not getting assistance from someone or resources that are not permitted. Proctoring technology may use human monitoring and/or AI to observe student activity in an exam, typically taken at home on a student’s own computer. AI can include tools like keystroke biometrics and face detection to verify identity, and pick up behaviour that may not be consistent with exam conditions and rules.

What about the student experience?

You have the students that will never accept remote invigilation and remote proctoring because they feel like it’s an invasion of their privacy, all the way to students who think it’s great because it gives them flexibility – so we do have that large spectrum [of attitudes].

Lesley Sefcik, Senior Lecturer & Academic Integrity Advisor at Curtin University

The panel had observed diverse feedback from students about online proctoring experiences, both anecdotally and through student survey mechanisms. Some expressed anxiety at the unfamiliar format for potentially high-stakes assessments, as well as concerns about privacy, ‘being watched’ at home and worrying about behaviours which might be interpreted by AI algorithms as ‘cheating’. Others felt more positively, embracing the opportunity to take exams in the comfort of their own surroundings, with the convenience of not having to travel to a central location.

In cases where online proctoring had been implemented over a period of time, students appeared to be more comfortable with the new processes and technology, with multiple opportunities to experience and practice. As UTS’s Amanda White notes in this recent post on demystifying online exams, putting efforts into open conversation and guidance for students can help them better navigate new systems and make informed choices about aspects such as privacy.

Ethics, privacy and student choice

Online invigilation should be one of the tools that people are allowed to choose if they feel comfortable with it. If they don’t feel comfortable with it, they should be given reasonable accommodations to do it a different way.

Jarrod Morgan, chief strategist and founder of ProctorU

Ethics and privacy often dominate discussions about online proctoring, and have been the topic of a number of academic papers in recent years (see further reading and references below). The panel acknowledged many of the problematic aspects of online proctoring, particularly where students are not offered alternative options (as was often the case during extended lockdown periods during the COVID-19 pandemic).

Other issues raised included a lack of transparency in some tools about how and in what form students are monitored, what happens to student data, and helping students to understand what happens if a breach in exam conditions is flagged. Some institutions are already tackling these issues when they select and implement proctoring technologies, including reviewing privacy and data aspects with legal teams.

What are the alternatives?

The other possibility here, instead of outsourcing the taking and monitoring of exams, is actually to develop different techniques for examining.

Jeannie Paterson, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Centre for AI and Digital Ethics, University of Melbourne

The panel noted that online proctoring had already been introduced in some institutions before the pandemic, offering an alternative to in-person exams for those students who were unable to attend a central location. Extensive adoption of online proctoring during the pandemic has potentially shifted the balance in the opposite direction, where online proctoring could become the norm, with exceptions made for in-person. Some argue that this raises different questions around inclusivity, with technology access, digital capabilities and even behavioural norms putting certain students at a disadvantage when it comes to assessment.

Whilst discussions around ethics, privacy and digital capabilities will continue to be important, the panel noted towards the end of the discussion that there are broader questions about assessment approaches and traditional exams that warrant further consideration. Alternative assessment methods, authentic assessment and approaches aligned with work-integrated learning are as much a part of the evolving conversation as the technology, ethics and processes of proctoring.

View the full video recording from the session below:

Further reading and references

Coghlan, S., Miller, T. & Paterson, J. (2021). Good Proctor or “Big Brother”? Ethics of Online Exam Supervision Technologies. Philosophy and Technology, 34(4), 1581–1606.

Lee, K., & Fanguy, M. (2022). Online exam proctoring technologies: Educational innovation or deterioration? British Journal of Educational Technology, 53(3), 475–490.

Selwyn, N., O’Neill, C. Smith, G., Andrejevic, M., & Xin, G. (2021). A Necessary Evil? The Rise of Online Exam Proctoring in Australian Universities. Media International Australia.

Feature image by Josefa nDiaz 

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