With the practice of packing hundreds of students into large lecture halls to take exams made impossible this semester, many classes have moved to using virtual proctoring services and left some students and professors wary of how much privacy these services actually provide.
Kelly Blanchard, a professor of economics, said she has used multiple online proctoring services in recent years. This year, she noted the University has contracted with the proctoring service Respondus.
Respondus offers two formats to proctor exams, Blanchard said. The first, Respondus LockDown Browser, requires students to download a screen-locking browser that bars them from visiting other websites during exams. The second version, Respondus Monitor, uses the lockdown browser, records video and sound from students’ computers and flags suspicious activity through artificial intelligence programming.
Blanchard said she teaches 1,500 students using these online proctoring services. When these services don’t work properly or malfunction, she said, it makes her job much more difficult.
“It has been really difficult to act as the IT expert,” Blanchard said. “I’m sure for students who are saying, ‘I can’t download this,’ or ‘my computer’s giving me this error,’ or ‘this is not working the way it’s supposed to work,’ all of that is very frustrating.”
Grace Fowler, a freshman in the College of Engineering, said that her Calculus II course uses an online exam proctoring service called Examity, which works similarly to Respondus.
She said many of her classmates reported Examity crashing during exams. Along with issues with the services themselves, she said classmates in different time zones reported difficulties with exams as well, like when she said a student had to take her exam at 4 a.m. because the exam was not available at any other time.
Fowler said her course offers both in-person and online components, with in-person students given the option to take their exams in a classroom.
“I don’t know if there’s a better way to make sure (students are) not cheating,” Fowler said. “I feel like things could be adjusted so they’re open-note, just so it’s fair to everyone.”
Blanchard said Respondus Monitor automatically flags any interruptions during their exam and will flag students who do anything considered “questionable” like looking away from the screen or leaving the room as high, medium or low priority based on how large the disruption to their test taking was.
She said that since she permits her students to do work on scratch paper, everyone who looks away from their screen to work out problems was flagged for having a low-priority disruption.
“The way that artificial intelligence automatically prioritizes the flags in the video is really helpful,” Blanchard said.
She can then use University-provided proctors, who usually monitor in-person exams, to watch the videos of the flagged students and alert her of anything that she should review personally to assure that they were not cheating.
“There have been plenty of high-priority flags that I decide are nothing,” Blanchard said.
She said some students have reported their laptops dying during exams, causing their proctoring time to be interrupted. She said when this happens, she encourages her students to be upfront about what happened.
“That’s what I told them to do if there’s some situation that you’re afraid is gonna get flagged, explain it to the camera,” Blanchard said.
Blanchard said she recognizes that not all faculty might offer the same policy though and might automatically assume being flagged equates to cheating.
She cited live proctors from other proctoring services as something she wished Respondus offered. These protocols can provide students with immediate technical support, if needed. Blanchard said she wished the University provided additional IT support.
“In general there are certainly problems that are frustrating to me as much as they are to students,” she said. “But it’s not like anyone has been mean about it. But if students had to pay for it, I am confident that there would be more pushback.”
Eugene Spafford, a professor who teaches cybersecurity and privacy, said he considered using Respondus last semester, but ultimately opted against the program.
The Respondus browser seems like a reasonable approach, he said, but he’s a little more wary of the video-recording options because he is unsure where those videos end up.
“The amount of certainty given is probably not worth the invasion of privacy,” Spafford said. “The more that you expect to install on somebody’s computer, the more likely it’s buggy or creates the same kinds of problems.”
Spafford said he felt the best option for his course was to offer an exam that had more questions than the students could feasibly answer within the time frame and then curved the grade to make up for this; if students didn’t know the material or tried to cheat, they would have less time and answer fewer questions.
“My goal as an instructor is I want to be fair,” Spafford said. “If you learn the material, I want you to get a good grade, but I don’t want it to be affected by people who are doing something unethical.”
Spafford said he wants to avoid live recordings to make sure he isn’t making things especially uncomfortable for students during this time of uncertainty. He said that he, like everyone else at Purdue, is trying to learn how to best operate under the pandemic restrictions.
“We don’t have magical answers here,” Spafford said. “We’re still trying to figure it out, so we keep the value of a Purdue degree strong, so we’re fair to all the students who do the hard work.”