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Students, unions raise privacy concerns about third-party proctoring services at U of T

UTSU report suggests students should be able to opt out of using these services
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MIRKA LOISELLE/THE VARSITY
MIRKA LOISELLE/THE VARSITY

Students and student unions alike have raised privacy concerns about the use of third-party proctoring services at U of T. In response to the concerns, issues, and questions they raised, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) created and released a report regarding online third-party proctoring services at the university.

The report comes in response to numerous complaints that were brought to the UTSU by students through a survey the UTSU conducted over the summer, as well as emails to UTSU Vice-President Public & University Affairs Tyler Riches throughout the year. 

U of T’s agreements with services 

U of T has agreements with ExamSoft, Examity, and ProctorU, enabling the university to use their services. These agreements are not available to the public, and decisions to implement these services are decided at the divisional level. 

In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson wrote that ProctorU and ExamSoft are largely used in the professional programs, but that “it is the decision of individual faculties or divisions whether to use these services.” 

The spokesperson added that U of T has “clear guidance” that, when ensuring academic integrity on evaluations, online proctoring should not be the first or only option instructors consider, and any issues flagged by these services are “reviewed in the first instance by instructors.”

“The University is supporting instructors as they consider innovations in online assessments, in addition to online proctoring,” the spokesperson concluded.  

Concerns about third-party proctoring services

Students have raised privacy and technological concerns regarding these third-party proctoring services. In terms of privacy concerns, there have been breaches of students’ personal information and data, specifically from ProctorU, as well as issues with the level of intrusion that the proctoring services require to operate. Technological issues often include internet and wi-fi access and connectivity, as well as problems with running software. 

In an email to The Varsity, Riches pointed out that the issues that come with these proctoring services can “put… assessments at risk and cause anxiety for students.”

Lily Vienneau, a first-year humanities student, has used ProctorU for her midterms and final exams. In a written interview with The Varsity, she recalled that her experience with ProctorU was “very anxiety provoking and uncomfortable.”

Vienneau found the third-party proctoring services “quite intrusive,” writing that they “ultimately violate the privacy of a lot of students.”

ProctorU offers two options for exam proctoring: a live proctor and an automated one. In both instances, students are required to submit a photo of themselves and a photo ID, and their webcam and screen are recorded for the duration of the test. 

In the case of a live proctored exam, students are required to show their proctor all four walls of their bedroom, their desk space, and ensure that their cellphone is out of reach. The software also allows proctors to briefly take remote control of students’ computers to ensure that no other programs are running on the computer. 

The software flags a number of behaviours during a test, including students looking off screen, talking out loud, and being out of camera view. Students are also not allowed to have anyone enter their test-taking area during the exam.  

“In the situation we are currently in, school is more difficult for many students as it is and we don’t need these intrusive and violating services to increase levels of anxiety and fear across the student body,” Vienneau wrote. 

Another student, Bea Kraljii, who is a third-year student double majoring in physiology and global health, shared her thoughts and experiences with ProctorU in a written interview with The Varsity, describing the experiences as “negative overall.” 

She expressed, “it’s really frightening to go into an exam knowing that someone on the other side of the screen that you CANT SEE is tracking your eye movements [and] getting an in depth look at your personal space.” 

They make you show the camera around your room and in a mirror,” Kraljii added.

She wrote that at the beginning of the exam, the proctor would log in to the students’ computers and change their settings, and students had a difficult time reverting these settings back to their original state after the exam.

In addition, students faced with a sudden emergency who would like to change their scheduled exam time with the proctoring service may have to pay a fee in order to do so, according to Kraljii.

On the University of Toronto Reddit community, one user shared an experience they had with third-party proctoring services, alleging that a proctor pointed at their friend’s hijab and said to “remove that scarf around your head.” There have been other reports that proctoring has disproportionate negative effects on racialized students at U of T.

Report’s findings 

The UTSU’s report addresses various proctoring issues, including transparency, accessibility, data breaches, and privacy during examination periods. It covers the three recognized proctoring services at the university — ExamSoft, Examity, and ProctorU. It also touches on Turnitin, a built-in plagiarism detector on Quercus, which students have the option of opting out of using. 

The report was distributed to central and faculty administrators and student unions in early January. 

To compile the report, the UTSU reached out to faculty and student unions across U of T and connected with the Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation and the Office of the Vice-Provost Students. 

Riches noted that the UTSU found that third-party proctoring services are not used as much at U of T compared to other postsecondary institutions in Canada. 

This stems, in their understanding, from U of T university administrators often discouraging the use of proctoring services. However, these services “are still being used by some faculties and departments and have caused some students to raise concerns,” Riches wrote. 

Since the report’s release, Examity has made an information privacy notice available on the Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation website. ProctorU and Turnitin also have information notices on the centre’s website, while ExamSoft does not have one.

Although Riches called the report “illuminating [on] how third-party proctoring services are used at U of T,” they said there are “many other tangible changes [that] have [not] occurred” following the publishing of the UTSU’s report. 

Particularly, there have not been any discussions about giving students the right to refuse the usage of third-party proctoring services, which Riches remarked was “disappointing.”

“There is certainly room for better policy and transparency around these services, but now it’s easier to understand the scope of the issue,” Riches summarized. 

Calls for change, greater attention

Regarding the UTSU’s stance, Riches wrote that the union “believes that students should be able to refuse to use third-party proctoring services.”

Ikran Jama, President of the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU), also presented the ASSU’s stance in an email to The Varsity, writing that the union “is against the idea of courses using third-party proctoring services.” 

Jama noted that there are “blurred lines” surrounding what is counted as an academic offence. In particular, one of the ASSU’s concerns is that some students are unable to access a quiet and private space, causing them to be unfairly flagged. 

Likewise, Vienneau pointed out the many equity issues that could arise from using third-party proctoring services. “Not everyone is in living situations during this time that comply with the ‘detection’ features of these services,” she wrote. 

The ASSU hopes that “greater attention” can be brought to these proctoring issues, so that more departments and instructors choose not to use these services.

“I feel so much more engaged in my learning when instructors are supporting growth and a safe learning experience rather than using outside surveillance to monitor us,” concluded Kraljii.