Online test proctoring services cause concerns about equity, privacy

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The transition to distance education meant institutions had to find a new monitoring system for assessments.

At the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, instructors of select courses at Delta College started requiring the installation of LockDown Browser and Respondus Monitor, electronic test tracking and proctoring software.

Graphic by Hannah Workman.

This decision was met with data privacy and equity concerns from the student body, including members of the Associated Students of Delta College (ASDC).

“Across the state, we’ve heard horror stories about these specific programs,” Colm Fitzgerald, president of the ASDC and student member of the California Community College Board of Governors, said.

According to Respondus, the developer of the software, there are two key components to their method of test tracking: LockDown Browser, which prohibits students from opening new tabs during assessments, and Respondus Monitor, a separate web application that is meant to enhance LockDown Browser.

When an assessment requires the use of Respondus Monitor, LockDown Browser will access Respondus Monitor prior to the beginning of the assessment.

Respondus Monitor uses the student’s webcam to record a video while they complete the assessment and flag suspicious activity, such as background noise or the student’s eyes shifting away from the computer screen.

Fitzgerald said there are serious issues with both LockDown Browser and Respondus Monitor.

“We heard a story from a student who was taking a test with this software that’s extremely restrictive,” Fitzgerald said, in reference to a state meeting. “He was in the middle of the test when his little brother walked in the room and when he looked at his brother to tell him to get out, he failed the test.”

Fitzgerald said it is extremely common to hear stories like this at state meetings and meetings on campus.

He said Respondus Monitor causes equity concerns because most students don’t have the luxury of having a quiet, private space to complete assessments, especially those who are disadvantaged.

Student Monica Woodall said she doesn’t have a space at home where she can take assessments uninterrupted.

“I take care of my elderly parents. I look up frequently during exams in case one of them falls or needs help. It’s worse than having a newborn,” she said. “If I got flagged for cheating, it would be very messed up.”

LockDown Browser and Respondus Monitor also cause equity concerns related to access to broadband internet connection and technology.

Installation requirements for the software include operating systems Windows 10, 8 or 7, macOS 10.12 to 10.15, or iOS 11.0 or higher.

A 2020 survey by the California School Boards Association (CSBA) found that one-third, or 33 percent, of the survey’s respondents indicated that “less than half” or “a small minority/none” of their students have broadband home internet access or similar.

In addition, 50 percent of respondents reported that “less than half” or “a small minority/none” of their students have access to multiple internet-capable devices at home.

In an effort to combat students’ lack of broadband internet connection and technology, Delta offers free Wi-Fi in most campus parking lots from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m Monday through Saturday.

Delta also purchased Google Chromebooks and other laptops for students to borrow during the semester.

However, Fitzgerald and other students said this didn’t eliminate the problems tied to the usage of LockDown Browser and Respondus Monitor.

“They gave out Google Chromebooks, but those couldn’t even run LockDown Browser,” Fitzgerald said.

With the issues seemingly piling up, Fitzgerald said the ASDC knew it had to take action.

“When we became aware of these issues, we did a couple of things,” he said. “The first thing we did was write a letter, with the input of our Legislative Affairs Committee and Equity Committee. We all worked together to make sure that the institution knew we were upset.”

The ASDC also requested to be invited to the Academic Senate meeting on Oct. 7 to express concerns to faculty.

At the meeting, the ASDC learned LockDown Browser and Respondus Monitor were a part of the same subscription service, and the latter was being tested by the institution.

When the institution was made aware of student concerns, Vivie Sinou, dean of Regional and Distance Education, made the decision to end the institution’s subscription.

However, it has been discovered that some professors are still utilizing LockDown Browser as it is a free feature that came with the purchase of the subscription.

“LockDown Browser isn’t as big of an equity concern compared to its counterpart, but it still is an equity concern,” Fitzgerald said. “If there’s an equity concern, then we have to annihilate it.”

Fitzgerald said the ASDC is still working on ensuring faculty are made aware of students’ concerns and understand how “ineffective” LockDown Browser is.

“I have a laptop on my desk, a desktop, and my phone,” Fitzgerald said. “I could cheat on two different devices while LockDown Browser is running. It just doesn’t make any sense at all. It only hurts the people who have to succeed and are struggling the most right now.”

Some faculty members like Bethany Acquistapace, a biology professor, share different sentiments.

“Professors are doing everything they can to ensure equity and diversity,” Acquistapace said. “We are not perfect and are rapidly catching up with the technology learning curve, but I promise we are doing our very best to help students.”

Acquistapace acknowledged the issues with compatibility between the Google Chromebooks the institution distributed and LockDown Browser, but said the institution is working to provide students with updated laptops and tablets.

Until then, it’s important for professors to be flexible in their courses, she said.

“A reasonable and fair professor is going to ensure all students can take the exam,” she said. “I worked diligently with students who did not have the technology to ensure they could take the exam. No one missed an exam due to the lack of resources or conflicting schedules.”

Acquistapace said proctored assessments are necessary and while LockDown Browser isn’t ideal, it’s the best proctoring method professors could use due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I do not believe that all students cheat or even consider it, and the majority of them want to do well on their merit,” she said. “The use of LockDown Browser takes the temptation away, and the use of a webcam adds an extra layer of accountability.”

While student Matthew Machuca said he understands assessments need to be proctored, he feels uncomfortable with the idea of allowing a third-party administrator access to his computer.

“I personally would not install LockDown Browser on my own computer. If I had to use it for a class, I’d simply run it in a virtual machine,” Machuca said.

Student Alyssa Origer agrees with Machuca’s concerns about privacy, but also said LockDown Browser would hurt students with disabilities such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“If you accidentally look away because of ADHD, it’ll flag you,” Origer said. “If professors want to make sure we aren’t cheating, they could just hold a Zoom meeting and monitor us themselves. This would be more understandable than having a faulty algorithm decide whether we are cheating or not.”

On Oct. 21, Lisa Stoddart, a nursing professor and president of the Academic Senate, presented her recommendation at a meeting with the senate’s executive board to not support the use of LockDown Browser and Respondus Monitor.

Stoddart, who is also the mother of a second-year Delta student and aunt of a university student, said her decision for the recommendation comes after seeing the effects the software has had on students firsthand.

“My son’s trying to do his work at home while I’m also trying to give lectures and work, and sometimes he’ll warn me to not walk near him because he has to take a test,” Stoddart said.

She also said her nephew and his roommate must take turns taking their assessments in the shower because it is nearly impossible to avoid noise or movement interference in their small dorm.

“If they’re both having to take a test at the same time, they can’t sit at their desks because their backs will be in view of the other person’s camera,” Stoddart said.

The experiences of her son and nephew offered Stoddart a new perspective.

“It really opened my eyes,” she said. “We’ve got to help the students. They’re trying. If my son and nephew are having these struggles, it’s not just them, it’s all of our students. We have to be flexible.”

At the meeting, it was decided that a special committee would be formed to review and research other proctoring services, while taking student equity into consideration.

Stoddart sent a faculty-wide email out on Oct. 22 to begin the process of convening faculty members who are interested in serving on this committee.

Fitzgerald will serve as a student representative on the committee.

“Our goal is for Delta to take a position on this matter while having the faculty and students involved,” Stoddart said.