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McMaster students raise mental health, privacy concerns with anti-cheating software

McMaster University students say the online proctoring system is causing heightened anxiety, and they're also concerned about where this data can end up.

'There's only so much safety in the cyber world,' say students

Students say the online proctoring software is "another layer of anxiety and stress," especially given privacy concerns. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Students at McMaster University say the online proctoring system that captures video and audio is causing heightened anxiety among their peers — and they're also concerned about where this data can end up.

The software, called Respondus, can record students as they take an exam, including their webcam, microphone and any on-screen activity. Enabling the different features is up to the "instructor's discretion," according to the university's website.

"There's only so much safety in the cyber world," said Simran Dhindsa, a second-year life science student on the Student Representative Assembly (SRA), which governs the student union.

Dhindsa moved the SRA's motion to put out a statement saying they were disappointed with the school's lack of consultation with students and the "insufficient and unclear" information it provided. 

Simranjeet Singh, a third-year biomedical discovery and commercialization student, spoke about the difficult transition to online learning, which comes with new worries about bandwidth or a Wi-Fi connection that could drop while taking tests. 

"It just seems like another layer of anxiety and stress put on top of students," he said of the software.

He said students become preoccupied with nerves and are anxious that a glance to the side would cause the system to flag them as cheating. 

McMaster University said that "exams and other assessments are always stressful" and acknowledged that "online proctoring can add additional layers of worry on top of an already stressful situation."

The SRA is calling on the university to include them in making another decision on proctoring solutions. 

"We're hoping that we're able to give some of our input to the university before they make those decisions on our behalf," said Christy Au-Yeung, a fourth-year integrated science student. 

How will my data be used, ask students

They're also calling on the university to give more information on data usage and privacy concerns. 

Students described the terms of use that they sign off on as "ambiguous" and filled with "jargon." The terms say the data can be used for research purposes, Au-Yeung said, but it's unclear how that works. 

Since the terms can also be amended, the students say it makes them unable to give informed consent. 

The SRA wants McMaster University to tell its students they don't have to consent. (Shutterstock)

The data has a limited storage period, Singh said. But he wonders if his features would be analyzed and used against other people who happen to appear or behave like him. 

The current use is "mundane," he said, but there's no guarantee the software itself won't be sold and used for other purposes, like policing. 

Collecting 'as little data as possible'

Jodi Feeney, COO of Respondus Inc., said the company works with more 2,000 universities and around 2 million online exams are proctored weekly with its Respondus monitor. Millions more use the LockDown Browser — which stops students from visiting other websites — by itself, she said. 

"Our system collects/stores as little data as possible," she said.

Feeney said the U.S.-based company doesn't store information like email addresses, phone numbers, home addresses, or grades.

She referred CBC News to a PDF, which says Respondus doesn't review videos after the exam, sell or share data, or store biometric profiles on their servers. 

The university also said that "other than instructors, this data will only be shared with relevant university staff should an academic integrity issue arise."

But the terms of use, which vary by region and are available on the site, say "random samples of video and/or audio recordings" might collected and can be shared with "researchers under contract."

Feeney said the question of how data is used to enhance the system would "take hours to answer." 

No in-person exams

She said there are security protocols to deter and deal with a data breach. The terms say Respondus isn't liable if a breach occurs. 

Proctortrack, the software used by Western University, experienced a security breach, but not a data one. It said it didn't impact students. 

McMaster University hasn't conducted in-person exams throughout the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Respondus was its alternative to in-person proctoring, and the university website says it meets accessibility, privacy and security requirements. 

The school says its privacy office and information security office did an in-depth analysis of the risks before selecting Respondus. 

But the McMaster students aren't alone in their criticism. Last summer, students at the University of Ottawa expressed concerns that the software was violating their privacy. 

University isn't sufficiently addressing concerns, students say

University of Ottawa's website now says that "students can choose not to consent to using Respondus. In this case, instructors will have alternative options in place."

The SRA wants administration to tell students they don't have to consent. Right now, Au-Yeung said, it appears the students' only other options are to not take a course or to drop it, and risk having that reflected on their transcript. That isn't possible for everyone, she said. 

According to the website, students who don't have a webcam are being told to purchase one, with financial support from the school's student emergency relief fund. 

It's the SRA's second statement on the software this school year. 

Dhindsa said this one was prompted by a first-year chemistry midterm that ended in an "outburst" of stressed students, who were left "wanting to be heard." Someone had written a letter in January about the issues, she said, and addressed it to the the vice-provost. 

'Continually evaluated'

Adeola Egbeyemi, a third-year arts and science student who seconded the motion, said some professors at the school have been choosing not to use Respondus, or not use it to the fullest extent.

An FAQ page was posted in the fall, she said, but it didn't answer a lot of the students' questions. 

"It sort of stresses how this has been an ongoing thing all year," said Egbeyemi. "Even though the university addressed it once, it definitely wasn't sufficient enough."

The SRA says Respondus shouldn't be used unless all other options are considered and researched. The website says the school reviewed seven "online proctoring solutions" before choosing this one. 

"The software will be continually evaluated throughout the one-year license agreement," according to the website. 

Options other than proctoring

As alternatives, students say they've had professors hold open-book exams that are based more on applying their knowledge. They've also had classes solely with assignments. 

The university says it encourages instructors to "consider all options for assessment before choosing to use online proctoring."

Egbeyemi said it isn't the SRA's responsibility to come up with alternative forms of testing. But what is their responsibility, she said, is to communicate these concerns. 

"We hear you. We share in your disappointment, and we feel the struggle and want to advocate to the university to do better," said Egbeyemi. "As students reps, it's our whole job."

The university said students can reach out to the privacy office or the office of academic integrity with any specific questions or concerns in those areas, to university technology services for technical support, and to the student wellness centre to receive support for test anxiety.

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