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Crowded exam halls echoing with pencil scratches, rustling papers and supervisors’ footsteps have been replaced with solo tests in bedrooms or at kitchen tables – sometimes under a webcam’s glare.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced postsecondary instructors to overhaul how they assess students’ knowledge. Some have turned to remote programs that can detect potential cheating by tapping into a test-taker’s computer webcam and microphone.

Such online proctoring software has met resistance from students at many institutions.

The University of British Columbia’s student society wrote a letter to the school’s administration this summer urging it to end its relationship with software provider Proctorio or, if it continues to use the program, add more oversight and safeguards.

Georgia Yee, UBC Alma Mater Society vice-president, said Proctorio has raised privacy concerns, made students feel “creeped out” and amped up anxiety. She said she’s heard of test-takers with darker skin tones, religious head coverings or disabilities being flagged.

“We’ve definitely heard many, many instances of students describing having panic attacks … or feeling deeply, deeply uncomfortable and, in a sense, also feeling coerced into the software.”

UBC administration has released “guiding principles” that address some of the concerns, but Ms. Yee wants a tougher stand.

Mike Olsen, CEO of Arizona-based Proctorio, said he sympathizes with students and teachers who have been forced out of their comfort zones with the abrupt switch to online, but “the university has got to maintain some level of integrity.”

Usage of Proctorio surged tenfold between April, 2019, and April, 2020, Mr. Olsen said.

Proctorio operates as a browser extension, so students don’t have to download anything and can easily disable it after a test. It offers a broad menu of features to faculty, so teachers can opt for less invasive means of monitoring. They can also choose to allow extra time or accommodations for students who need them.

“We try to coach the institutions,” Mr. Olsen said. “What we do very, very intentionally is say ‘the power and the control of those different settings is on the faculty.’”

Proctorio also leaves it to the faculty to interpret recordings and determine if anything nefarious took place. “We don’t have some magic black box algorithm,” Mr. Olsen said.

He added his company has endeavoured to be more active in informing test-takers how long their data is being retained and where it is being stored.

Sarah Eaton, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education, said research shows there was less cheating online than during in-person courses before the pandemic.

But there’s anecdotal evidence that cheating is up in the COVID-19 era, she said. “A key factor that’s been documented over and over again related to misconduct rates is student stress,” she said.

Prof. Eaton said the pandemic should push educators to rethink their approach.

“When teachers or profs give a test or an exam, there’s usually one variable that’s supposed to change – and that variable is supposed to be the student’s knowledge,” she said. “It’s an academically sterile environment.”

Now, students are in their own homes, where some might lack a quiet work space or reliable internet connection.

“It’s like it’s contaminated,” Prof. Eaton said. “But people are still testing as if all of those other conditions were still stable.”

James Skidmore, who directs the University of Waterloo’s Centre for German Studies, has been teaching online for 15 years. During the pandemic, he’s held webinars for some 800 educators around the world who have had to overhaul their teaching methods.

Prof. Skidmore said there will always be some cheating, but also that fostering respect is the best deterrent. “I didn’t go into teaching to be a mall cop,” he said.

“You need to create a community with your students … so that they don’t think of you as just some bot marking exams off somewhere else.”

Prof. Skidmore prefers assessments in which students can apply their knowledge and think deeply about the material rather than show they’ve memorized facts and figures. It’s harder to cheat, plus “it’s a much richer learning experience.”

Todd Cunningham, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, said instructors and students should discuss ahead of time whether there are any barriers that would jeopardize their performance in a remotely proctored exam.

“During these times we need to find solutions, because we can’t just put everything on pause,” he said. “But in finding those solutions, it also comes with an understanding that we need to be compassionate.”

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