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University of Alberta students call for end to online exam monitoring

Many classes at the University of Alberta use online proctoring services to monitor students as they write tests and catch suspicious activity. But with final exams approaching, some students are calling for an alternative.

Some students worry about writing final exams with remote proctoring

Students at the University of Alberta are raising concerns with online exam proctoring programs they find invasive. (David Bajer/CBC)

Some University of Alberta students are calling for an end to the use of online monitoring services meant to prevent cheating, as final exams approach.

This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the university to use remote learning, many U of A classes have used online proctoring services like Smart Exam Monitoring and Exam Lock.

They run in the background of students' computers while they write tests, monitoring movement to flag anything that could be a sign the student is cheating.

"Fundamentally, what this software does is it tries to prevent cheating. But all it does instead is make it so that you're more scared and the assessments themselves are less effective," said David Draper, University of Alberta Students' Union vice-president academic.

Student representatives have raised concerns about e-proctoring since May.

Draper said the type of suspicious activity it flags include things as simple as students reading questions aloud, going to the bathroom or people walking in the background of the camera's view, a problem for people living with roommates or family.

They also have led to equity issues, Draper said.

He's heard from students of colour who say the programs sometimes don't recognize their face, asking them to move to rooms with better lighting.

He's also heard from students with disabilities about e-proctoring not working with accessibility programs that are provided by the university, such as screen readers.

"It sends a message to students about who is welcome within a university and who this university caters to," Draper said.

"Online proctoring, in my opinion, does more to enforce compliance and does more to enforce structural and systemic views of what somebody should look like, rather than actually enforcing academic integrity."

Concerns over e-proctoring post-secondary exams

6 months ago
2:13
David Draper from the University of Alberta Students' Union demonstrates how to log on for a remote-proctored exam and why students are concerned about the assessment tool. 2:13

Some also see it as invasive.

Inaara Kanji, a second-year criminology student, has had to use online proctoring in many of her classes this year. Privacy is often the main concern for her and other students, she said, with many questioning the security of the video recording them writing tests in their home.

"Online proctoring really just feels like you're trying to avoid getting caught for something that you didn't even do," Kanji said.

University strikes task force

A blog post by University of Alberta president Bill Flanagan on Jan. 28 announced a task force on remote teaching and learning that would include students and instructors, with a goal to reduce online proctoring in the spring and summer term.

"We know that this is a challenging time for everyone and continue to remind members of our teaching and learning community to reach out if they are experiencing added challenges or barriers because of the COVID-19 emergency," said deputy provost Wendy Rodgers on Tuesday.

Lucas Marques, vice-president external at the U of A's International Students' Association, said he's frustrated the university hasn't acted more swiftly.

Marques spent the fall semester studying from home in Brazil. The four-hour time difference was enough for him to sometimes be awake past midnight writing tests.

With some students having to do this while living in a timezone more than 10 hours away, Marques said more students are feeling fatigued and burned out this year, especially as they see the high price of their university tuition come with a seemingly declining quality of education.

"Students need help now," Marques said. "They have midterms around this time of the year; this semester is almost ending, and just now we are starting to get some sort of talks into it."

Some schools were worried last summer that studying from home could lead to more academic dishonesty. But Draper says from what the students' union has gathered, students aren't cheating more often, but are instead are getting more confused over what is and isn't cheating.

Similar concerns about online proctoring services have been raised across Canada, including at the University of Manitoba, the University of Regina and Carleton University.

Other schools have rejected using it. The University of Calgary opted not to use online proctoring for exams this semester, citing privacy issues with technology that records people in their homes.

Increasing burden on instructors

Tim Mills, vice-president of the Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta, has been teaching online for several years. He said he's used remote proctoring in the past, but finds it too awkward and invasive.

Last fall, Mills worked in a support role to help staff adjust to remote learning, including using remote exam proctoring. He said the burden on instructors this year has been difficult after provincial budget cuts led to larger classes and an increased workload.

On top of this, Mills says, it's been hard for professors to find the best way to assess their students to the same standard as the structure of their in-person courses.

"We don't have that substantial training or the time to build up the experience to deliver these alternative formats the way we would want, or even, I think, to really understand all the ins and outs of remote proctoring," Mills said.

David Draper, vice-president academic of the University of Alberta Students’ Union, worries about how often online exam proctoring is used. (CBC)

Draper is happy to see more students and staff raising concerns to the university, but he said the onus should be on administration to restrict use of online proctoring and promote alternatives.

And while the university's task force is a positive step, it can only offer recommendations or guidelines, but students need to see more action, Draper said.

"It's been eight months more or less since we started talking about these issues and we know the issues," Draper said.

"We know the problems, we don't need to scope them out anymore. We don't need to do the research on it, it's already been done."

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