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Balancing Online Proctoring Privacy for Students Can Be Done Better—Here’s How

Thoughtful handling of privacy issues should be at the core of proctoring solutions. Usually, however, this is not the case. For students, that adds a new layer of anxiety to exams and is spurring some to question the ethics of online proctoring software altogether. As one student says:

You know how in high school, when you’d be doing a test and a teacher would walk around and peer over your shoulder? That anxiety you feel for those 10 seconds? That’s how basically all of us feel all the time.

This feeling is common when human proctors continuously monitor students via webcam. But it also happens with fully automated systems that can flag movements, sounds, and environmental changes as violations.

I think my concern comes where now that schools are basically allowed into our homes, there's a lot of monitoring with the testing that's happening. With making sure that your eyes stay onto the screen if you're doing a test....There's a sort of a constant surveillance state that's happening, where it wasn't there before, when we were going to classes.

The restrictive requirements of some systems lead some students to take extreme measures to avoid being accused of academic dishonesty. In the fall of 2020, for example, several students taking New York’s bar exam urinated into containers at their desks because leaving their computers would be flagged as a violation. Such experiences show that online proctoring privacy issues go deeper than simply being “creeped out”; they can be a serious assault on dignity and seriously compromise a student’s right to learn.

One of the most pressing areas of concern for many students is data privacy. This includes both data collected legitimately during exams by proctoring software and data accessed by malicious actors.

Institutions must look toward third-party education partners to support online learning. However, untrustworthy partners can introduce new areas of vulnerability—and students know it. A New America report revealed that students are far more concerned about data being collected by third parties than by the institution itself. Even when they have developed trust with their institution and feel confident that it was adhering to the (FERPA) Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, they know data privacy violations remain a threat. Indeed, a number of proctoring solutions have gained notoriety in recent years due to poor cybersecurity practices that open the door for data breaches and criminal misuse of data.

Many students accept some level of data collection and may even see it as a fair trade-off for being able to participate in education remotely. However, as the New America report found, the level of acceptance is often proportionate to the transparency offered by the institution and proctoring solutions. Students want to know what data is being collected, why, and how it is being used. Can the proctoring system gain access to personal information unrelated to their tests, such as social media accounts, emails, and banking logins? What measures are being taken to prevent security breaches? Is data sold to third parties? Being transparent about online proctoring privacy issues ensures that students can make informed choices and feel empowered.

While online proctoring privacy issues can affect any student, online proctoring introduces unique concerns for students who are at higher risk for being flagged by poorly designed automated systems or for whom constant human monitoring is particularly uncomfortable. This includes neurodivergent students and those with certain medical conditions.

Sabrina Navarro, a student at California State University, Fullerton has suffered from a tic disorder since the age of 6. The disorder had never affected her education until the introduction of online proctoring; she worried that her tics may be perceived as violations by the software’s AI and cause her to be accused of cheating. But she also worried about being watched by a human:

Just the fact that professors might have access to seeing me ticcing, over and over again—it feels like an invasion of privacy with something that all my life, I’ve been pretty good at hiding.

In such situations, students may seek accommodations to avoid invasive proctoring. However, having to disclose a medical condition and submit personal medical records to an educational institution can be burdensome and violating, and some students, particularly those without a formal diagnosis or extensive treatment history, may not qualify. The result is new barriers to education that can affect students for years to come.

The privacy issues raised by online proctoring are significant. But a thoughtfully designed proctoring solution can address them to provide better exam experiences and protect student dignity. An effective solution will:

  • Listen to Students. Student input is vital when developing proctoring solutions. Proctoring software companies that engage students in an ongoing dialogue can create more comfortable solutions.
  • Protect Data. Online proctoring software should have limited reach into a student’s computer and the data collected should have limited uses, such as internal data analysis, auditing, and research. It should never be sold to third parties.
  • Communicate Privacy Policies. When information is given to students upfront, trust builds. A student-focused proctoring solution will have a privacy policy that helps students understand what data is being collected, why, and how it is used.
  • Offer Advanced Functionality. Many student concerns about online proctoring are the result of poorly trained AI and overly sensitive settings. Training AI on a large, diverse dataset and allowing educators to modulate sensitivity can improve accuracy and prevent flagging of benign behaviors, reducing student anxiety about incorrect flagging.
  • Include Human Insight. AI is an important first layer in remote proctoring, but it does not replace human wisdom. A human-in-the-loop system that sends only discrete events to humans for review removes the need for constant human monitoring while ensuring that students’ academic careers are not compromised by flawed technology.

Rosalyn was designed with these features to safeguard student privacy and promote fairness. Our innovative technology and commitment to radical transparency allow students to trust in the exam process and know that their dignity is protected every step of the way.

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