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Concordia student Chelsea Okankwu outside her downtown apartment in Montreal on Dec. 13, 2020.Stephanie Foden/The Globe and Mail

Moments before the online exam was set to begin, the testing software asked Chelsea Okankwu to take a photo of herself to verify her identity. Not enough light, said the message on her screen. She stood in front of a window with no luck. She brought over a lamp, and when one lamp wouldn’t suffice, she brought in a second.

She had already submitted photos of her desk and her room at the program’s request. The software’s aim, she supposed, was to ensure she couldn’t cheat by having answer sheets taped to the walls. It was an intrusion she resented but saw no way around. But the minutes were still ticking away and the software failed to recognize her.

Adjust your glasses, the message on her screen suggested. Ms. Okankwu, who is Black and of African descent, wasn’t wearing glasses. After about 10 minutes of futile efforts, she wrote, “I’m a person of colour,” in the online help window. Moments later, she was able to begin.

The use of what is known as proctoring software has boomed in 2020, driven largely by a pandemic that has pushed higher education online. In-person exams pose risks of spreading disease, so instructors have sought alternatives to one of the most enduring tools of evaluation. Online proctoring provides at least some monitoring of test-takers. And with students stuck at home, there is increased potential for cheating.

But many students and professors are asking whether online proctoring causes more problems than it solves. Algorithms that fail to recognize Black faces are just one issue. These kinds of programs are also seen as an intrusion on private space, with their demands that students photograph their surroundings, often their bedroom.

Behaviour deemed unusual by an algorithm can be flagged as concerning or prompt further investigation. Students say the sense of being watched by an unblinking eye is nerve-racking and antithetical to the mission of higher education. Now, they’re mobilizing to push back.

Ms. Okankwu’s exam didn’t go as well as she had hoped and she never got an explanation for what had happened. To be forced to scramble simply to identify herself at a moment of stress felt unfair, she said.

“I just felt like the only one being disadvantaged, being put in that mindset before an exam,” said Ms. Okankwu, a fourth-year student in accounting at Concordia University in Montreal.

Afterward, she met with the professor, who apologized and sounded genuinely dismayed. The professor said she wouldn’t use online proctoring for the final exam, Ms. Okankwu said.

Sarah Mazhero, academic and advocacy co-ordinator at the Concordia students union, has been speaking to university administration to relay student concerns about the invasion of privacy and the climate of suspicion that these technologies foster.

She said one of the common complaints is that students of colour aren’t recognized by the electronic systems. Students also complain that they worry about being flagged for looking away from the monitor too much or shifting out of view of the webcam, which adds anxiety at an already stressful time. Going to the bathroom, for example, can raise a flag in some cases.

“You might not have the best atmosphere [in which] to take an exam … maybe you move, or your eyes wander,” Ms. Mazhero said. “This is what really scares students.”

Across the U.S. and Canada, students have been trying to persuade university administrators to stop using proctoring software, often with petitions. Queen’s recently held a virtual town hall to address student concerns. At Concordia, there have been discussions between student leaders and the administration.

More than 3,500 people have signed a petition calling on Concordia to look for other means of assessing students. The university said it encourages a variety of evaluation techniques but offers online proctoring in part to preserve academic integrity. It said it has heard of potential “recognition difficulties,” and has discussed the issue with the software company directly.

University administrations would be in an untenable position if cheating were to be widely known to go unpunished. And cheating is still happening.

Sarah Eaton, a professor of education at the University of Calgary, studies academic dishonesty. Throughout the pandemic, she’s convened a Zoom meeting she calls “integrity hour” with college and university staff across the country who compare notes on trends in cheating. Although statistical evidence of increased cheating isn’t yet available, the anecdotes pile up, she said. It’s not about one incident or one school, it’s systemic.

“It’s a phenomenon that’s happening across every school in every country right now, and that’s an increase in academic misconduct during the COVID-19 crisis,” Prof. Eaton said.

There are so many ways to cheat, she says. There are sites where exam questions are solved. There are services that write essays to order. The cheating industry is estimated to generate more than $1-billion a year in spending, Prof. Eaton said.

To take one recent high-profile allegation, an instructor sent a message to a first-year math class at the University of British Columbia saying more than 100 students were suspected of cheating on a test. The instructor said he would be recommending expulsion, but an investigation will take weeks or months to play out and there will be a range of possible penalties, likely stopping short of expulsion for a first offence.

“In Canada, we have a story about one school, like UBC, and suddenly people think, ‘Oh, this is a big scandal,’ “ Prof. Eaton said, but the issue is much bigger, in her view.

“This is happening at scale. Other countries are talking about it. We are so far behind it’s embarrassing.”

Vivek Nalawade has a PhD in chemistry and works part-time as a private tutor in addition to his job as a lab technician. This spring, he said he received several inquiries from students asking if he would take exams on their behalf. One offered $50 per test. Others asked him to name a price. He could’ve made a lot of money, he said, but he refused the offers immediately.

“I don’t think it’s ethical,” he said. “Teaching is something that I’m passionate about. … If someone says help me cheat, I would never allow my students to do that.”

If academic integrity is a concern, however, there are questions about how best to address it in student evaluations.

With the controversy surrounding online proctoring software, professors are looking at alternative methods. McGill University, to cite one prominent example, has decided against using the software.

“Our approach was to promote and support types of assessments that would not require online proctoring; for example, take-home and open-book exams,” said Cynthia Lee, a McGill spokeswoman. “Turning to online proctoring as the solution to final assessments would have focused resources and attention on student surveillance at the expense of improving assessment strategies and techniques.”

David Murakami Wood is the former Canada Research Chair in surveillance studies at Queen’s University. He said he has followed the debates about online proctoring closely and has advised against the practice. He said he’s troubled that students at some institutions have been placed under scrutiny or face unnecessary worry about being permitted to go to the bathroom because the software may flag their behaviour.

He said it’s also well known that artificial-intelligence systems struggle to identify people with darker skin. To put it bluntly, he said, “they don’t work, and they don’t work for particular groups of people.”

“We’re talking about essentially digital racism,” Prof. Murakami Wood said.

The alternative is simply to use other methods of evaluation, he said, which can require some creativity and change to teaching practice, but is better than surveillance.

“I’m really pleased that students are fighting back,” he said. “It’s become the new normal so quickly. And I think this is why students are so annoyed. They haven’t ever been asked if this was something they wanted.”

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