How to Balance Student Trust and Online Exam Monitoring

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David Ryan Polgar is a Tech Ethicist and Founder of All Tech Is Human 


“With great power comes great responsibility.” This popular maxim, well-known from the world of comic books, is central to the delicate balancing act educators face when teaching online. Removed from the physical setting of a classroom naturally monitored by a professor and other students, online teaching presents complicated ethical dilemmas about what technological tools to use when trying to reduce cheating 

In other words, how do educators balance the need to reduce cheating while also building an online classroom environment built on trust? Anti-cheating monitoring software, such as Proctorio, are marketed as tools to ensure the integrity of online tests. At the same time, anti-cheating software is a form of surveillance that can negatively impact students’ sense of trust and privacy.  

“When you don’t trust your students, surveillance is what you fall back on,” says Bill Fitzgerald, a privacy researcher at Consumer Reports, speaking to Inside Higher Ed in an article about the various privacy concerns raised since Covid-19 has dramatically increased online teachingOnline proctoring service ProctorU reported in August 2020 that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they caught students cheating on fewer than 1% of the exams they administered. Just 5 months after shutdowns forced students out of physical classrooms, that figure jumped to more than 8%. 

Privacy concerns around the Proctorio monitoring software are what led to a student petition at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign six months ago. In January, the university announced that concerns around privacy, data security, accessibility and equity warranted the discontinuation of its use of the software after the Summer 2021 term. The university noted that “[s]ome of these concerns are specific to Proctorio, while others seem to arise to a more general philosophical opposition to remote exam administration and/or proctoring.” 

Balancing trust and monitoring with students online is not just about ensuring that the technology is deployed in a respectful and fair manner. It’s also about answering the foundational question of whether its appropriate to use the monitoring tool to begin with. When determining if and how monitoring software should be used in an online classroom, there are three main questions to answer: 


Should this piece of software be used in the classroom? 

Another well-worn maxim, featured prominently in the film Jurassic Park, is the guidance that “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.” Emerging technology related to monitoring online teaching presents educators with a myriad of options regarding tracking software and facial recognition. But as the student petition from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign argued, employing the monitoring software in the online classroom would be a “violation of a student’s privacy.” The petition noted that the software could view the content of students’ screens, access their downloads and read the data from websites they’d visited. 

So, before you determine how best to use a piece of technology for your online teaching, its best to first decide whether its appropriate to use the software in the first place. Making this decision involves weighing the inherent trade-offs of trust that happen when deploying any level of monitoring—the very act of monitoring is a judgment call made around how much you trust your students. While it’s easy to conflate Gen Z’s openness in how they communicate on social media with a disregard toward privacy as a significant concern, student activism around monitoring tools suggests an important distinction between social media sharing thats determined by the individual versus monitoring tools that are required. 


If you determine that a piece of software is not appropriate for your online teaching, what are suitable alternatives? 

The reason why anti-cheating and proctoring tools are used in the online classroom is for an important purpose—maintaining the integrity of tests. However, that legitimate concern presents a spectrum of possible questions about how to best maintain the integrity of tests. For example, can monitoring be done in a less intrusive manner? One option for educators is to rely on Zoom-based proctoring that is more reminiscent of the typical surveillance structure of a physical classroom. This focuses on watching students but not tracking them, a key distinction that may strike a better balance between trust and monitoring. 

Educators should also consider altering the types of tests given in an online environment. Project-based learning and take-home exams that lean on critical thinking as opposed to memorization are often better suited for online environments where information is instantly accessible. As the statement from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign noted, “many instructors have opted for alternative forms of assessment that do not require remote proctoring, and we recommend that instructors consider these alternative forms for the Spring semester.” 


If you determine that a piece of software is appropriate for your online teaching, how can you ensure accessibility, equity and data security? 

The same FERPA regulations that apply to the physical classroom also apply to the online classroom. A major concern for colleges utilizing monitoring software is the obligation to ensure the integrity of the data and how it’s disclosed. When dealing with monitoring software vendors, this means that the college should be the owner of the information and that disclosure of the data is controlled by the collegenot the vendor.  

Accessibility of the software must be a top consideration when determining how best to use monitoring tools for online teaching. Educators should ensure ADA compliance and the flexibility of any proctoring software to be adaptable for student needs. Another consideration with employing monitoring software in the classroom is that students do not have the same level of technology and internet access, which can be problematic when software requires webcams, high-speed internet and high processing power.  

So before using monitoring tools in an online teaching environment, its important to consider: 

  • If the technology should be used  
  • The availability of alternatives  
  • How to ensure equity, accessibility and data security 

By going through these three key questions, educators can be better positioned to strike the delicate balance between trust and monitoring students online. 

To learn more about Tech Ethics and how it impacts online teaching and learning, watch David’s webinar recording.