“It’s not quite like a normal exam,” says EUC-student Linde, who recently sat an online exam for a subject entitled Impact Evaluation. However, she didn’t necessarily mind the experience. In the weekend before the exam, she was requested to install a Chrome extension. “By doing so you consent to your monitor being shared with the proctoring company for the duration of the exam so that they can check whether you’re cheating.” Just before the exam, Linde was told to go to the toilet, as she wouldn’t be allowed to do so during the course of the three-hour examination. “When the exam began, I had to show my ID to the camera,” Linde explains. “And I had to make sure they could take a good look at me. Then I had to show them what tools I was going to use during the exam. In my case, it was a few pens, a calculator and a brief summary that we were allowed to use. The only thing that appeared on screen was my face, so they couldn’t see what else was on my desk.”
Kind of chill
“It was kind of chill, actually,” Linde goes on to say. “I’d prepared a salad and had got myself a drink. My roommates weren’t at home, so the house was quiet and I was able to contemplate my answers out loud. At first I made sure I wasn’t doing anything weird. But it’s not like Skype, where you can see yourself on screen all the time, so after a while I forgot I was being recorded. Another thing that helped was knowing that you aren’t being watched in real time. All they do is register abnormal behaviour. By the way, I did often stare out the window while thinking. I heard later that that may be considered possible cheating.”
Rather far-reaching method
‘Proctoring’ means ‘monitoring’. Online proctoring is an aspect of online exams, i.e., exams taken by students on their own laptops or desktop computers. In order to make sure the students aren’t consulting books or websites or cheating in any other way, their computers are taken over by the proctoring company for the duration of the exam, under the responsibility of Erasmus University. “In other words, EUR keeps an eye on what happens on students’ laptops and hears every sound in the room,” says Jeroen Jansz, the Director of EUR’s Community for Learning and Innovation (CLI). On behalf of EUR, the CLI looked into various online proctoring options, which resulted in EUR concluding a contract with a Dutch company called ProctorExam. This company will monitor the exams administered by those faculties that are interested in online exams.
“It’s a rather far-reaching method that raises all sorts of questions about privacy,” Jansz admits. Students are required to place their mobile phones behind them. Prior to the start of the exam, the phone will scan the room. Since the phone will go on scanning the room during the exam, any changes to the room will be noticed at once. If someone enters the room, or if the student tries to stick post-it notes to his monitor, the software will know.
Significant breach of privacy
“Yes, that constitutes a significant breach of privacy,” Jansz admits. “But it’s the only way to maximise reliability.” The proctoring company has put firm rules in place. “In close consultation with ourselves, obviously,” Jansz goes on to say. “For instance, the contract stipulates that the footage, as well as the students’ answers, are stored on a secure server located in Europe by means of a secure connection. They will be retained there for six weeks, to allow us to investigate matters if a student is suspected of cheating.
Disturbances to the room or other suspicions of cheating show up on screen at once. If that happens, the proctoring company will flag the student in question, after which the examiners can watch the footage at once and determine what was happening.”
Naturally, technology may fail, too. “Students are expected to have their stuff in order,” says Jansz. “Which is tested prior to the exam. If there’s an outage on the student’s end – for instance, if the Wi-Fi is turned off in the house – the student will be held accountable. If there is a general internet disruption, the exam must be administered again.”
EUR is not the only Dutch university to use online proctoring. Amsterdam VU University, the Delft and Eindhoven Universities of Technology, Leiden University and Wageningen University & Research have all begun recording online exams, as well. In order to answer students’ questions about how the coronavirus-related measures are affecting their studies, the National Student Union (LSVb) has created a special e-mail address where students can direct their questions.
“Many students are concerned about their privacy,” says LSVb’s Roos van Leeuwen. “It’s a new method. They are insecure. They’re wondering how it all works and where the data are stored. But they also wonder if they can refuse to sit an exam that involves online proctoring, or whether they’ll fail the course if they do. And they’re worried about what exactly is being recorded in their homes. If that’s something you’re concerned about, we advise you to make sure that you have no photos, religious symbols or other personally identifiable things on the wall. Also, students should be able to refuse to sit exams like this at all times, in which case they must be presented with an alternative way to take their exams. I’m not sure all students are aware of that, though, and how many universities are able to make such arrangements at this point.”
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When the first online exams involving online proctoring were administered at EUR, an alternative was offered. As a result, third-year EUC student Arjîn was able to sit the epidemiology exam in a lecture room rather than at home, although the lecture room only had limited capacity. “Obviously, EUR is complying with EU privacy regulations, and they’ve explicitly told us how long our data will be stored, so I’m sure that’s all right.”
The main reason why Arjîn opted to come to campus and sit the exam there was because of personal principles and beliefs. “We’re asked every day to grant companies such as Google and Facebook permission to use and sell our data, but we’re never quite sure we know what we’re actually consenting to, much less who is in charge of the data and to whom they are being sold. Obviously, I understand that the purpose of online proctoring is not to use metadata in such a way that they will be able to sell us something later, but I do wonder if it’s ethical to ask students to use software that uses metadata to check whether they’re cheating. In short, I was really glad the university allowed us to sit the exam in person, at EUC. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option for our international students who went abroad to be with their families during the coronavirus crisis.”
Urgent bathroom break
For her part, Linde wasn’t too concerned about her privacy and the use of her metadata. “We were allowed to cover our ID numbers on our ID cards, as long as our family names were visible, so I thought that was quite all right. And all they would have seen in the background was my radiator and a white wall. I was simply incredibly relieved that we were actually able to sit the exam and that I’m not going to fall behind in my studies.” Nevertheless, she would prefer to sit her exams in a proper lecture room again once the coronavirus crisis is over. “It does get kind of distracting after a while, working in your own bedroom. And I had to submit my exam early because I urgently needed to go to the toilet.”