‘My phone was vibrating, but there was nothing I could do’

Mara Foerster (EM)
Mara Förster Image credit: own photo

Mara Förster, a second-year Communications and Media student, sat her first online proctored examination featuring a two-camera set-up two weeks ago. “It was an open-book exam. I found it a very stressful experience. That second camera is a ridiculous violation of your privacy. During the exam I absolutely didn’t dare take my eyes off my screen, as they might think I was cheating if I did.”

Mara is blessed with a ‘tiny little study’ where she can sit her exams in peace and quiet. “There is a small desk, and behind me there is an empty shelf where I can place my phone. It can’t be positioned right behind you. It must be placed at a 45- to 90-degree angle. And you need a charger, because if you don’t use one, your battery will die during the exam. I tried to remove all personal objects from view. ProctorExam presents us with a brief instructional video that shows a student seated at a big, beautiful kitchen island. Not that realistic, if you ask me. If your situation differs from that one, their advice is to be ‘creative’.”

“The exams are causing tremendous anxiety,” Mara says, having spoken to her fellow students. “Before and after the exams, there will be a lot of concerned messages in WhatsApp groups. You have to perform a room scan and show your ears to the webcam. A fellow student who is a Muslim told me she hated having to do that. And there’s no break at any point, so you can’t go to the toilet. I have a fairly nervous bladder, but I’m not sure what happens if you really have to go.”

The two-camera set-up caused Mara even greater anxiety. “They tell you to open a ProctorExam app and then to put your phone in airplane mode, with Wi-Fi turned on. And you have to set your phone to ‘Do not disturb’, but even so I received several notifications on my iPhone. My mother rang, my friends sent me messages. It drove me nuts, but I couldn’t go to my phone, because that would make it look like I was cheating.” The online proctoring caused Mara to ‘sweat, feel afraid and feel angry’. “Please give us open-book exams rather than this panopticon. Surely this can’t be the only way?”

‘The helpdesk replied in French’

irene van kluijve
Irene van Kluijve Image credit: Own photo

Irene van Kluijve, who is doing a Master’s in Medicine, had to sit two exams from home at the end of her third year at uni, in May 2020. “They were the first proctored online exams administered by the Faculty of Medicine. The first one went very well, but things went south in the second one. The ‘share screen’ function kept being disconnected. At one point, it was disconnected once every five seconds, despite the fact that the circumstances were exactly the same as in the previous exam and I’d run a system test beforehand. So I sent a message to ProctorExam’s helpdesk. Initially, they replied in French. Well, I happen to speak a bit of French, but when you’re in the middle of a stressful exam, this is not something you want to happen to you. So I asked them if we could speak English. At first I didn’t get a reply at all, and later I received a reply in Dutch. The person I spoke to asked me to run the system test again. Meanwhile, the clock kept ticking. The test went well, so I was able to resume my exam, and eventually, I was able to submit it.”

A minor setback, you’d think – hardly something to worry about. But for Irene, it wasn’t as easy as that. “I received a letter stating that the system had notified the proctors that my screen had not been shared for an hour and a half. For now, there wouldn’t be any consequences, but if it ever happened again, there would be. That really upset me. I’m an honest student who had never had any dealings with the examinations board before, and suddenly I found myself having to deal with this. So I wrote a reply explaining the situation. I even sent them my browsing history and offered the board an opportunity to inspect my laptop. I received a ‘mildly empathetic’ response, telling me that they were very sorry for me, but that the notification was staying on my record. But when I threatened to take legal steps, I suddenly received sincere apologies, and the notification was struck off my record, although I do still have a warning to my name.”

The experience had a huge impact on Irene. “With my next exams, I was really afraid that things would go wrong again. It took a heavy toll on me, so much so that I actually considered doing my Master’s at a different university. My mother was offered an endowed chair at EUR, but she decided against it because of this situation. Because when you appear to be guilty until proven innocent, what does that tell you about the way this university treats its students?”

'Connection with the server was lost’

fleur van exel
Fleur van Exel. Image credit: Own photo

Her first proctored online exams went without a hitch, says Fleur van Exel, a second-year Econometrics student. However, during Term 1 of Year 2, all sorts of things went wrong. “When we sat our first exam, we found we weren’t able to upload images,” says Fleur. Uploading images is a must when sitting Econometrics exams, as complex calculations are hard to input on a computer and are therefore performed on paper instead. So students answer the questions by uploading photos of their calculations. “They told us they were working on it, after the exam had already begun. So I spent a lot of time entering all the calculations into the computer. They didn’t give us the green light to start uploading photos until less than half an hour before the end of the exam.”

Fleur believes that it took such a long time to find the solution because of the complicated procedure. “Students must first notify ProctorExam’s employees through its helpdesk. Then these employees must contact a lecturer. If the lecturer can’t be reached at that exact moment, it may take a long time.”

Things went wrong again in her next exam (programming). “We had to type our solutions in a server environment. But at one point, the connection with the server was lost. I was able to type the answers, but they weren’t being stored. At the end of the exam, you are given the opportunity to download all your answers. But the helpdesk wasn’t able to say for sure whether these were the most recent versions of my answers, or rather the answers I’d entered prior to the moment the connection was lost.” For that reason, Fleur typed all her answers again on her computer and forwarded them to the lecturer. She is not sure what exactly happened afterwards. “Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to inspect our exams. I scored a 7 in the end, so that wasn’t too bad.”

Fleur does understand why the university is using online proctoring. The problems ‘don’t really stress me out, but they are very distracting’. “Frankly, I don’t really understand why the university doesn’t simply modify our exams in such a way that we don’t need any proctoring. I hope it will no longer be necessary soon!”

‘We were unable to log in for an hour and a half’

Luna Becirspahic (EM)
Luna Becirspahic Image credit: Own photo

Second-year Public Administration student Luna Becirspahic: “Things went wrong pretty badly when I sat my first ever proctored exam. The students’ IP addresses had not been put on the whitelist, so we weren’t able to log in. It took an hour and a half for us to find the right number and for an employee to enter all our IP addresses so that we could get started.” Thankfully, the exam wasn’t too time-consuming, and everyone was able to complete it in the allotted time.

 

Last week, Luna sat her first proctored online exam involving a two-camera set-up. “Installing the telephone wasn’t much of a problem, because my sister has a tripod with a ring light, and I have plenty of space at my parents’ place. The exam went quite well, only the connection with my phone was lost at the end. I had answered all the questions by then, so I don’t think it will cause any problems.”

She would have preferred to sit the exam on campus, though, because she did encounter a lot of problems in her previous exam. “On that occasion, the ‘share screen’ function was disconnected about a dozen times. According to the helpdesk, it was due to a weak internet connection, but I live with my parents and we have a regular Ziggo plan. I ended up not sitting this exam on campus because it was quite late in the evening and I would have had to travel for an hour to get home. Proctoring does definitely cause me additional anxiety. So many things can go wrong: your battery may die, or you may lose your connection. I have two fellow students who’ve already received warnings because their connection was down for too long.”

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