Proctorio’s client base grew by more than 500% between 2019 and 2021 despite a flurry of complaints, pushback at top universities, lawsuits, and accusations of bias (Nora Caplan Bricker/New Yorker).
Femi Yemi Ese was a junior at the University of Texas at Austin when the coronavirus pandemic started. He began to attend class and take exams remotely from his apartment, which he shared with other students in the city. Yemi-Ese, a former Division 1 football player majoring in kinesiology had never experienced anxiety during exams. He said that despite being in sports for so long and getting yelled about by coaches, he doesn’t feel stressed.
He initially didn’t notice that Proctorio was being used to administer exams in several classes, including one in life-span and another in exercise science. Proctorio is a program that monitors test-takers in order to detect signs of cheating. Yemi-Ese first opened the application and placed himself in front of his laptop to take a picture. Proctorio refused to allow him to enter his exam because it couldn’t detect any faces in the image. Yemi-Ese switched on more lights and tilted the camera to capture his face at the best angle. It took several attempts before the software allowed him to start.
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Yemi-Ese is Black and has used software that consistently fails to locate his face for the past three semesters. He now turns on all lights in his bedroom to make Proctorio recognize his face when he sits down for an exam. He said that despite all his preparations, he knew that he would have to test a few times before the camera recognized him. He told me last November that he hadn’t been allowed into any test in seven Proctorio exams. Although it seems to work, adding light sources can have negative consequences. He said, “I had a light beaming into me for the entire exam.” “It’s difficult when you actively try not to look away. It could make it seem like you’re cheating.”
Proctorio is a browser plug-in that can detect if your gaze is directed at the camera. It tracks how many times you look away, what you type, and how often the mouse moves. The software compares your activity rate to a class average, which it calculates over the course of the exam. If you do not conform to the norm, the software will flag you. Proctorio monitors the area around you for any unauthorized faces or prohibited materials. The professor will receive a report at the end of each student’s “suspicion score” along with a list marking the moments when cheating may have occurred.
Yemi-Ese discovered last spring that the software flagged him for too much movement during a Zoom session with a professor. He said that he feels like he can’t take a test with me in my natural state because they are watching for movements and flagging what I believe is natural. After his roommate dropped a pot into the kitchen, making it sound like a loud bang, his fear of the software grew. Proctorio claims that it does not ban users from exams because of noise. He had already lost half an hour by the time he was allowed back to the test and his heart was racing. He said, “I had to calm down.” Proctorio would send the video to him “to say that suspicious activity was taking place” if he displayed any signs of anxiety. It’s not seeing things because of my skin’s pigment.
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Yemi-Ese suffered a drop in grades during the pandemic. This problem he blamed in large part on Proctorio. While he was being evacuated from his house by the February storm in Texas, Yemi-Ese took several tests and had to leave with a group of friends. He was deprived of his normal light setup due to the circumstances. Yemi-Ese struggled to be admitted to all Proctorio exams by the end of his senior years. He managed to get his grades back up to pre-pandemic levels even in classes that required Proctorio. He said, “After I realized that nothing was going to change,” he added.
Proctorio and ProctorU were among the remote-proctoring firms that benefited immediately from college campuses closing in March 2020. A survey of college teachers was conducted in the early stages of the pandemic. Ninety-three percent expressed concern about students being more likely to cheat on online tests. These companies provide live proctoring that is underwritten by artificial Intelligence. ProctorU stated in December that it had administered approximately four million exams in 2020, up from 1.5 million in 2019. Examity also told Inside Higher Ed that Examity’s growth in spring was thirty-five percent higher than pre-pandemic predictions.
Fully algorithmic test monitoring–which is less expensive, and available from companies including Proctorio, ExamSoft, and Respondus Monitor–has expanded even faster. According to Proctorio, the number of its clients increased by more than five hundred percent, from four hundred in 2019 to twenty-five thousand in 2021. The company also claims that its software administered approximately twenty-one million exams in 2020 compared to four million in 2019.
There have been many complaints about the rise in online proctoring. Nearly thirty thousand signatures have been collected in a letter to protest. Anti-online-proctoring Twitter accounts popped up, such as @Procteario and @ProcterrorU. One student tweeted that a professor had emailed him asking why I had the highest flag from Proctorio. Excuse me, ma’am. I was having a breakdown mid-test and kept pulling out tissues.” Another complained that he received an urgent text from a parent during an exam. He then called back on speaker phone to let his prof know that I wasn’t cheating. The student said that the proctor had a video of her crying.
Another anecdote highlights the biases inherent in proctoring software. Students of dark skin complained about the inability to recognize their faces by the software. Students with low income have been flagged by the software for not being able to connect or taking tests in shared rooms with their family members. Proctorio’s ID Verification procedure has been used to identify transgender students. It requires them to pose with an I.D. for a photo. It may also be known by a former name. Test-takers were asked to remove any non-religious hair coverings during video calls with ProctorU live proctors. This policy has been criticized by Black women online. Students using Wi-Fi at public libraries also had to remove protective masks.
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Jarrod Morgan, chief strategy officer at ProctorU, said that his company needed “relational” changes rather than technical ones. He said, “What we will admit is that we haven’t done a good enough job explaining why we do it.” Sebastian Vos, C.E.O. Sebastian Vos, the C.E.O. of ExamSoft denied that ExamSoft’s product did not perform well with dark-skinned individuals. He stated, “a lot of times there are issues that get publicized that don’t actually issue.”Six U.S. senators wrote letters asking for information about “the steps your company has taken in protecting the civil rights of students” and showing proof that their programs secure the data they collect “such as images [of a student’s] homes, photos of their identification and personal information concerning their disabilities.”
Proctorio responded with a lengthy letter defending its practices. The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint against five proctoring firms on December 9th. They claimed that they illegally collected students’ personal data. Recent cases have seen several students from Illinois sue their institutions over the use of the software. They claim that the software violates their privacy rights under a state statute that protects residents’ biometric data.