Colleges are racing to sign deals with ‘online proctor’ companies that watch students through their webcams while they take exams. Education advocates say the surveillance software forces students to choose between privacy and their grades.
By Drew Harwell April 1, 2020 at 10:00 a.m. EDT
When University of Florida sophomore Cheyenne Keating felt a rush of nausea a few weeks ago during her at-home statistics exam, she looked into her webcam and asked the stranger on the other side: Is it okay to throw up at my desk?
He said yes. So halfway through the two-hour test, during which her every movement was scrutinized for cheating and no bathroom breaks were permitted, she vomited into a wicker basket, dabbed the mess with a blanket and got right back to work. The stranger saw everything. When the test was finished, he said she was free to log off. Only then could she clean herself up.
“Online proctor” services like these have already policed millions of American college exams, tapping into students’ cameras, microphones and computer screens when they take their tests at home. Now these companies are enjoying a rush of new business as the coronavirus pandemic closes thousands of American schools, and executives are racing to capture new clients during what some are calling a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.AD
The live proctors these companies hire ensure test-takers abide by a strict set of rules. They watch the students’ faces, listen to them talk and can demand they aim their cameras around the room to prove their honesty. Some companies also use facial-recognition, eye-tracking and other software that purports to detect cheating and rates the students’ “academic integrity.”
Looking off-screen for too long, for instance, can raise a test-taker’s “suspicion” score, potentially leading them to fail the exam. The companies sign contracts with the schools, which cover some of the cost, though many charge students, too: One company, ProctorU, charges students about $15 per test, while another, Proctorio, offers a $100 “lifetime fee.”
“It’s insanity. I shouldn’t be happy. I know a lot of people aren’t doing so well right now, but for us — I can’t even explain it,” Proctorio’s chief executive Mike Olsen said in an interview. “We’ll probably increase our value by four to five X just this year.”AD
The explosive growth casts light on what could be a pivotal moment for mass surveillance in the United States as privacy concerns clash with the unprecedented realities of a modern pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of students have been sent home from universities, and millions of high school students have seen their local schools closed for the rest of the year.
With more schools pushing to track students’ locations across campus and their testing behaviors at home, education advocates worry the systems are invading students’ personal lives and reducing the practice of learning to a forensic investigation, where students are presumed cheaters until proven upright.
“To take a test you need to let a stranger have a video recording of your room? Are you kidding me?” said Bill Fitzgerald, a researcher at the nonprofit group Consumer Reports who specializes in education technology.AD
“These platforms exist because they are selling a narrative that students can’t be trusted,” he said. “The people who have the most to lose here are the students, and they’re the farthest away from the decision. … Students are paying tens of thousands of dollars to have their higher-ed institutions sell them out.”
Students bothered by the system’s intrusive eye previously were given the option of taking their exams the old-fashioned way, in a classroom or a testing center. But with campuses shut down, students’ participation has become effectively mandatory — just before their final exams.
The systems have already unnerved students like Neil Buettner, a 28-year-old Marine Corps veteran and student at Harford Community College in Churchville, Md., who was incensed by the demands made by the online proctor service Honorlock before taking his microeconomics exam.AD
“It’s talking about how it wants to access my computer, my microphone, the webcam. Monitor what’s in the room around me, scan my room. It wants to scan my ID!” he said in an interview. When his professor said he had no option to take the test in person, he opted instead to drop the class. “It’s just a huge step backward,” Buettner said. “Everyone’s giving up their freedom just for the virus.”
Those concerns have not dented the appeal of companies like Proctorio, which staffs four sales offices in the United States and Europe and oversaw more than 1.2 million students during the December peak. Olsen said he expects their business could more than triple by the school year’s end.
The company, which typically adds 100 new universities as clients in a single year, is now fielding about 120 leads a day. Big universities that would normally churn through a months-long negotiation now want to rush deals through in a matter of days. And reluctant administrators and professors, he said, are suddenly finding “they’re being forced” to try it out.AD
The coronavirus lockdowns have also forced some companies to allow their proctors to work remotely instead of in a supervised office — raising alarms among privacy advocates over who’s gaining access to students’ bedroom video streams. One company, Examity, whose proctor centers in India were recently closed, has posted job listings for full-time contractors who would start watching test-takers as early as this month.
The software’s invasive demands on students have also sparked fury among some professors. A faculty group at the University of California at Santa Barbara wrote a letter to campus leaders last month that argued that the adoption of ProctorU could turn the university into “a surveillance tool.”
“We recognize … there are trade-offs and unfortunate aspects of the migration online that we must accept,” they wrote. “This is not one of them. We are not willing to sacrifice the privacy and digital rights of our students for the expediency of a take-home final exam.” (A ProctorU attorney responded with a letter threatening legal action over the group’s “defamatory correspondence.”)AD
ProctorU’s chief executive, Scott McFarland, said the skeptics are outnumbered by newly interested school leaders: On a single day last month, his office fielded nearly 1,000 calls from educators asking about the service. The company, he said, has worked largely with colleges and private high schools, but the pandemic has opened the possibility of expanding into grade school exams.
“It was a slow wave, but this changes everything and makes it more like a tsunami event,” he added. “There’s just so much opportunity in places we haven’t really chased before.”
At the start of a ProctorU test, students are told to show the proctor their student ID cards, their rooms and the tops of their desks to prove they don’t have any cheating material at hand. During the test, the proctor listens through the student’s microphone to ensure he or she does not ask for help from someone out of view.AD
The proctor gains access to the test-takers’ computer screens and receives alerts if they do something unacceptable, like copying and pasting text or opening a new browser tab. A video system analyzes the students’ eyes: If they look off-screen for four straight seconds more than two times in a single minute, the motion will be flagged as a suspect event — a hint that they could be referencing notes posted off-screen.
To ensure the right student is taking the exam, the software uses facial-recognition software to match them to the image on their ID. Random scans are performed throughout the exam to prevent another test-taker from jumping in.
The company also verifies identities with a typing test: A student may be asked to type 140 words at the beginning of the semester, then again just before testing to verify the speed and rhythms of the student’s keystrokes. Any discrepancies can be flagged for closer inspection.AD
A human proctor watches every second of an exam, though the student cannot see the proctor’s face. In previous versions of the software, the student could see the person watching them, but “the creepiness factor always sort of came up,” McFarland said. If a proctor suspects cheating, they alert a more aggressive specialist, known as an “interventionist,” who can demand that the student aim his or her webcam at a suspicious area or face academic penalty.
Proctors typically work out of one of 11 centers across Alabama, California, India, Jamaica, Panama and the Philippines. But with many of those offices closed, the company said, it is opening backup centers in Canada, hiring more than 100 new workers and instructing many proctors to work from home.
ProctorU, which oversaw 2 million tests last year from more than 750,000 students, has compiled years of data on students’ 15 “behavioral cheating types,” McFarland said. Students’ tests are live-streamed and recorded for later review: The worst offenders, McFarland said, have had their videos edited together into what he called a cheating “Hall of Fame.”
ProctorU’s competitors offer similar anti-cheating surveillance with different strategies. Honorlock, a Florida-based company that CEO Michael Hemlepp said has seen “a massive spike in inquiries,” uses software that looks for “attempted dishonesty” and then sends in a human proctor for further review.
Proctorio goes further, using a completely software-driven approach. After students consent to letting Proctorio monitor their webcams, microphones, desktops or “any other means necessary to uphold integrity,” the system tracks their speech and eye movements, how long they took to complete the test and how many times they clicked the mouse. It then gives professors an automated report ranking test-takers by “suspicion level” and the number of testing “abnormalities.” Students deemed untrustworthy by the computer are color-coded in red and given an icon of two shadowy figures, reminiscent of the “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon of Mad magazine fame.
Chris Dayley, the director of academic testing services at Utah State University, which uses Proctorio, described the software with a laugh as “sort of like spyware that we just legitimize.” And though many students despise the feeling of being watched, Olsen, the company’s chief executive, said the discomfort is worth it if it helps protect the tests. “We’re the police,” he said.
In an age of social distancing, the companies are racing to show they have the solution to colleges’ testing crisis. Their websites include coronavirus-related advertisements, introductory pricing offers and condensed contracts to, in Honorlock’s words, “eliminate need for legal intervention and liability concerns.”
Asim Ali, the executive director of the Biggio Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning at Auburn University, said the school is preparing for a surprise onslaught later this month of more than 200,000 final exams to be overseen by Honorlock and ProctorU as the sprawling Alabama campus empties out for the rest of the spring semester. The systems will cover virtually every test taken by the university’s more than 23,000 undergraduates, whether they had previously consented to the technology or not.
“It is a crisis situation,” Ali said. “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
But some professors and privacy advocates worry the frenzy is leading colleges to approve big corporate data grabs that could leave their students exposed.
“Students are asked to agree to these decisions, but they have no meaningful power not to consent,” said Guy McHendry, an associate professor at Creighton University, which has used Examity for some proctored exams. “And because we’re doing this with such urgency, we don’t really have time to ingest all the implications of what these companies will do.”
The company said it shares test-takers’ browsing history, searches and online interactions with a group of website analytics providers, which it does not name. The company also said it retains the right to share all video and audio recordings of the students with their schools to ensure “no exam protocols were violated.” Student data is retained “for as long as necessary,” the policy states. (McFarland, the company’s chief executive, said it does not sell any information to third parties.)
Education advocates say they are concerned about how the companies and schools will use this increasingly intimate view of students’ private lives. They also question whether the systems will unfairly penalize students for things that are out of their control: technical glitches, nervous tics or other housemates walking into view. “All of this surveillance,” said Audrey Watters, a writer for the blog Hack Education, “is just not ideal for this very human practice of teaching and learning.”
On message boards, students claim to have been flagged for stretching to grab a pen or letting their eyes wander during a long exam. One student said on Reddit that their professor had accused them of cheating during an Honorlock-proctored exam because they had been looking off-screen while working out a math problem by hand.
On TikTok, students have posted videos about being relentlessly watched by proctors, “having a mental breakdown” during an exam, and crying as the test timer ticks down. Others have shared ways to cheat (“the hat,” “the yawn”) and joked about being caught dancing provocatively on camera.
The mass move to an experimental testing system has left some administrators concerned about what happens next. David Cillay, the vice president for academic outreach at Washington State University, where final exams are scheduled for early May, said he worries about students in rural corners of the state where Internet connections are spotty. “We’re moving into this environment, in the middle of the semester, when we haven’t prepared students to understand all of the technology,” he said.
But many college leaders say there’s no time for hesitation. Mihran Aroian, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said he expects that hundreds of new students will be taking tests for his Foundations of Organizational Behavior and Management class in coming weeks through ProctorU, and that he has no backup plan for students who are uncomfortable with the company’s demands.
The virus, he said, could mark a “tipping point” for American education. “We can’t assume everything is going to be normal after the end of this,” he added. “It’s a whole new world.”