|Education and learning have been disrupted by the pandemic. / Photo by Juliya Shangarey via Shutterstock|
Education and learning have been disrupted by the pandemic. As of March 2020, UNESCO said that roughly half of the world’s population had to stay away from universities and schools due to the coronavirus. Nationwide closures were also in force in 102 countries. As a result, schools have flocked to the internet with a lot of effort and challenge not just for students but for the teachers and parents as well. But as schools go online, so do surveillance and tests, and this has been creeping students out.
Jackson Hayes from the University of Arizona is among the many students who signed up for an online class but had no idea it would mean being surveilled over a video chat by a proctor named Sharath. He told technology news platform The Verge that they were required to use online test-proctoring service Examity. This was before the pandemic and the instruction was written in their class syllabus.
To create an Examity account, he was asked to upload his photo ID and provide his phone number, email, and full name. He didn’t mind it at first but the process of creating the account got weirder. He said the platform stored the biometric template of his keystrokes as he keyed in his name again. He was concerned that the website looked like it was created in 2008.
A month passed and Hayes was preparing for his exam, but the Examity proctor wanted to watch over him through Zoom. He was hesitant to download it knowing about Zoom’s security issues. Soon, Sharath instructed Hayes to share his screen, rotate his webcam 360 degrees so the proctor can see the area around him, including the entire desk. Hayes obeyed and was then asked to answer security questions in a web browser. That was when he noticed one of the questions asked included credit card details and it was auto-filled, meaning that the web browser automatically filled out the commonly entered information.
The student was then instructed to grant Sharath access to his computer. Hayes said, “I was like, holy shit, this is not good.”
Another student named Takashi, who requested his surname not be published to avoid repercussions from his school, said that it is like a stranger is watching over you in an environment that is more private than a classroom.
Danger beyond technical inconvenience
Security expert Harold Li, who has been consulted by large technology firms and is the present vice president of ExpressVPN, said that the dangers of webcam proctoring services go beyond just technical inconvenience. He said it is a “huge security issue” for online students who are asked to install other software that they don’t vet themselves. They also have to give a stranger full access to their gadget. The whole idea creates a bad precedent as it would lead to dangerous security habits.
A vulnerability in the security could potentially give hackers the advantage of the technology’s remote control capabilities, such that proctors can use their authority to maliciously engineer the exam taker. For instance, the proctor may instruct the student to install malware or the proctor may leak the student ID and other data. Identity thieves can take advantage of the situation too.
Remote proctoring already existed even before coronavirus-related school closures. In 2006, McLean High School students in Virginia, USA even rebelled against the required use of internet-based plagiarism detection service Turnitin. They collected more than a thousand signatures to complain about it. At that time, McLean senior Ben Donovan said that the adoption of such a service is like drug testing every student or searching every car in the parking lot.
In 2015, Rutgers University in New Jersey also manded the use of remote online proctoring Proctortrack. Students revolted, causing the school to offer students the option to just take their exams in person.
Ministries of education have also raised their concerns on the apparent rush of using the said online learning strategy only because of school closures. They worry that it may only reach students from better-off families.
Even UNESCO said that lack of access to good internet connectivity or technology is an obstacle to learning, particularly for kids from disadvantaged families. About 17% of students in the US do not have access to computers at home and 18% do not have home access to broadband internet. Census data is provided by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. States with the highest percentage of student households that lack internet access include New Mexico (11.16%), Arkansas (10.48%), Louisiana (10.35%), Mississippi (11.35%), Oklahoma (9.35%), and Nevada (8.7%).
Features of some online programs
When selecting an online learning program that US students want to enroll in, the specific features they find most important are the available scholarships, grants, and/or assistants (31%) followed by courses offered year-round (27%). The 2018 Statista survey also shows that only 8% of the respondents stated that having many faculty members that teach full time or hold a doctorate is an important feature in the selection of an online program they want to enroll in. Only 9% said having the ability to work in teams with other students is important in an online program.
Understandably, others view remote proctoring as a necessary precaution and it provides validation for online education. On the other hand, some may feel uncomfortable and consider it an invasion of their privacy. This is why it remains a challenge to lessen, as much as possible, the negative impact of the pandemic on schooling and learning.
|Remote proctoring already existed even before coronavirus-related school closures. / Photo by Rido1 via Shutterstock|