On Classrooms and Surveillance States

In what would seem to be a growing trend on Twitter, students are posting screenshots of syllabi, e-mails from professors, and feedback on assignments. In many of these screenshots, professors appear unkind, unreasonable, and not even the slightest bit aware of the circumstances in which we find ourselves currently. (I am not going to post examples here because I have no interest at all in inciting or encouraging a retaliatory flame war against students.)

Many of the snippets that have been making the rounds are positively horrible, and they will make your skin crawl. I saw one the other day in which a student was told that she would be dropping a entire letter grade for the semester because she used the wrong title in an e-mail (she referred to her professor as “Ms.” instead of “Dr.”). I will never understand those who think about grades in this way.

One of the things that many are complaining about is the proliferation of so-called “proctoring software” on college campuses. For those who haven’t heard about this phenomenon: proctoring software is designed to discourage and prevent students from cheating on exams. How it works is that when an exam is linked to the proctoring service, students are monitored via their webcams while they are testing. Proctoring software can be made to detect any number of “suspicious behaviors,” including fidgeting, glancing at a phone, or even just looking around at things that aren’t your computer screen. Proctoring software can tell if there is someone else in the room with you, and it can be made to flag your exam if you get up from your chair.

When a student submits an exam, the software generates a report that looks like the following (this one seems to be a combination of the proctoring software and the professor):

Before I go any further, let me state unequivocally and for the record that I am not a fan of proctoring software. While I understand the desire to encourage honesty in the classroom (whether face-to-face or virtual), I do not think that this type of approach is helpful in the long or short term.

Proctoring software encourages faculty to turn their online or hybrid classrooms into surveillance states. It sends a message to students that we believe them to be dishonest people. And if your goal is to facilitate an environment in which effective learning can happen, the first step is to build a measure of mutual trust. Proctoring software builds suspicion and paranoia, not trust.

All that being said, students (and others) need to be aware that some instructors may actually have no choice in whether or how to use this software. Many colleges have adopted proctoring software because their accrediting agencies have required that they do so. The rationale is simple: the proliferation of the virtual classroom necessitates that we at least confirm the identity of our online students.

To give an example: at my college we have proctoring software, and for courses that are purely online we are required to use it at least once, to have students confirm their identities (they do this by holding up any photo ID to their webcams). That requirement is new for us this year, and I can say with certainty that the only reason we have it is because of our accrediting agency.

So how do you comply with a requirement like this while also sticking with your principle that students should be trusted and not baselessly suspected of attempting to cheat? That’s an important question, and one that we would do well to discuss (I do not claim to have the “right” answer). My first purely online course this year (since we adopted our proctoring software) will be during our winter term. My plan right now is to comply with the requirement by giving my students one quiz using the proctoring software so that they can confirm their identities. The quiz will be simple, probably one question asking them to type in their name (or something similarly low stakes). Once that box is checked, we won’t use the software anymore, and for two reasons: 1) I trust my students, and 2) I have no desire to invite myself into their bedrooms to watch them take their exams. Most of my colleagues feel the same way, at least from what I can tell from the conversations I’ve had.

As the academic year progresses, I suspect we will be seeing more screenshots of proctoring software reports on Twitter. There will be many (like the one posted above) from classes where the professor is not only requiring students to take all quizzes/exams using this software, but is also using the software to carefully and meticulously analyze their students’ behavior during testing. In these cases, I hope that those screenshots prompt serious conversations among faculty about the importance of academic integrity as well as trust. Because we need to be in the business of trusting our students and encouraging them to trust us. This does not mean that every student in every class will be honest about the work they submit. But, we cross those bridges if and when we reach them.

So, when you see a screenshot like the one posted above, please keep in mind that some may be using software like this at the requirement of their colleges and universities. Some may not have a choice. The reports generated by this software are gruff and draconian, and it may well be the case that the instructor of the class is as horrified at the sight of them as you are.

Those who find themselves in a position where they must use software like this would do well to be open and honest with students about the situation. Tell them what to expect. Maybe even let them know that if, by chance, a piece of tape happens to fall over their camera during testing, you won’t hold that against them. Accidents do happen, after all, and all of us are still getting used to all this technology. “Am I still on mute?” Etc.

Virtual and hybrid classrooms are not new, but in the COVID and post-COVID era they are going to become even more prominent. Like any new development, this one will bringboth opportunities and challenges. My hope is that those of us in higher ed can respond to these collaboratively so that we can figure out how best to serve our students in this crazy and unpredictable world of ours.

Ph.D. in Christian Origins, Associate Prof. of Religion @FerrumCollege. Thoughts on Early Christianity, religion in the US, politics, and teaching.