Is Remote Proctoring the Future of Exam Based Education? Observations and Realities

Standardized tests have become a routine part of modern day education and naturally, they have their benefits and downfalls. Testing students on preset questions based on collective learning resources such as books, articles or class notes makes it a lot easier for teachers and educators to be able to obtain an idea about their students’ capabilities to learn and apply. However, there also exist complaints about this approach, namely how standard questions and procedures might very well underestimate the true intelligence the students possess because they are based on simplistic evaluations of such intelligence, using rather old and outdated methods. And yet another new complaint that arose recently is how students are put under unnecessary pressure when taking these exams at pre-specified locations, namely in test halls or university/college/test center rooms. Luckily, the emergent online systems and technologies of the world have produced a wonderful solution for such concerns: online remote proctoring. This method allows students to take exams at their preferred locations, while also implementing certain security measures such as webcams, microphones and sometimes online support assistants to ensure that students do not cheat using other resources or even impostors. Although the idea is striking and definitely has found applications for itself in certain areas of higher learning already, it still needs further investigation in the name of preserving dignity and integrity of education. Tests are important tools for evaluation and therefore cheating or similar unlawful activities should be avoided at all costs to ensure that both the students and the institutions receive the credit and value they deserve.

In today’s media, liberal approaches are embodied and embraced by numerous institutions and their journalists, which makes it possible for new ideas to emerge and get accepted. Susan Adams is one of such individuals and in her report for Forbes Magazine, the author speaks of the “massive open online courses” aka MOOCs as a new approach to education that is “beginning to change the model of higher education in the U.S.” Adams then refers to Colorado State University’s Global Campus, which has been established as an online university for working adults as a great example of success in this field.  She begins her argument by mentioning the university’s announcement regarding its ‘Introduction to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine’ and how three transfer credits will be counted towards attending students’ GPAs as a sound innovation. The course that is provided by Udacity, “teaches basic skills by having students build a Google-like search engine, using the programming language Python” under the supervision of professor David Evans  of University of Virginia, having attracted 98,000 officially registered students last semester. The system has become so popular over time that many question whether if such courses can replace regular full-time courses and college degrees. As similar systems emerge in other countries such as Germany and Austria, competitor firms such as Coursera are being hired by respectable institutions such as The University of Washington, with the institution requiring students to pay an extra fee and “do extra work with a University of Washington instructor” as part of the program. Even household names in education such as Harvard and M.I.T. have initiated a collaborative program titled ‘edX’ that makes it possible for students to “take their final exams at Pearson VUE’s international testing centers” which will take “online learning to the next level.” The reason why Pearson’s testing locations are preferred is that the company’s experienced and knowledgeable staff is expected to make sure that students will not be able to cheat on such exams, while also identifying such students easily and more safely. Although currently the mentioned programs can only hand out certificates of mastery for students who have finished such courses, their capabilities to certify such students is still limited and nowhere close to the level of actual college degrees. However, the main point that is to be made is that these systems make it possible for struggling students to experiment with new locations, which might very well increase attendance and success rates for such students. In addition, in remote parts of the United States and the rest of the world where access to such exams and tests is a serious issue, similar applications might bring such tests and exams to students’ homes or alternative locations to provide them with a chance to succeed in life.

The above-mentioned testing system has become so popular that “New York Times declared 2012 as the year of the MOOC” according to an article by Dr. Mariappan Jawaharial for The Huffington Post. The author also refers to the same systems, namely UdacityCoursera and edX as “the three leading MOOC companies” that “took the education world by storm and promised a lot.” Jawahrial refers to Sebastian Thrun, the co-founder of the Udacity system, who forecasts that in approximately 10 years, “job applicants will tout their Udacity degrees” while in 50 years Thrun estimates that “there would be about 10 educational institutions in the world providing higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.” However, the company has experienced some troubles with its approach, namely that the MOOCs are great tools for the top 5% of the student body whereas the remaining 95% are simply clueless or simply not interested, which led Udacity to change its course and focus. As opposed to the initiation stages of the company’s history, today the main motivation is to focus on “corporate and vocational training” and become “the online version of DeVry University.” However, apart from aspirations, there also exist possible complications. In the name of discussing such complications, the author refers to Ananth Agrawal, the current CEO of edX who had predicted that the universities that utilize the system would be offering purely online degrees in less than one year but such a premise did not materialize at all. A similar reality concerns Coursera, the brainchild of two Stanford professors, with large numbers of offered courses and attending students but minimal reflection on success rates. At this point, Jawaharial asks the question ‘what is the future of MOOC?’ to state that the system will stay in use for a long period of time but will have to transform some of its functions to be able to meet the requirements of higher education. The main problem at this point is that although large numbers of students enroll into such courses, only a small fraction actually completes them, with the rest merely “window-shopping.” The author then names a few exciting and promising aspects of the MOOC system, among which three stand out. These aspects are namely how the “10% completion rate still translates into thousands of students, much larger than a regular class,” how most courses are offered by great teachers and even those who do not complete the courses end up learning a lot from them and finally how “anyone can enroll with a simple click of a button in MOOC.” Therefore, Jawaharial’s conception of the issue seems to focus on both the shortcomings and the success stories, which is understandable when considering how fragile and ever-changing today’s educational sector is.

Naturally, one of the primary concerns for educators and administrators alike is the issue of cheating because online test taking makes it very easy for students to cheat from an initial look. Sean Coughlan for BBC News reports on the issue to ask the question, ‘how do you stop online students cheating?’ to investigate into the issue. The author refers to the possibility of taking an exam in one’s own home “under the watchful eye of a webcam or with software profiling your keystrokes or your syntax to see whether it really is you answering the questions,” to state that this possibility has already become a reality for some students. Online education is a serious reality in countries such as the United States with millions of students already attending courses and taking exams “from some of the most upmarket universities” to learn crucial subjects to apply them in real life. As costs and debts associated with traditional education keep on increasing, “the online university has been seen as a way of reaching many more people for much less money,” making it a very attractive option for people lacking financial capabilities. However, according to Coughlan the main challenge is knowing for sure that students are not cheating during their exams and also verifying that it is actually the real student taking the exam and not someone else. The article continues by referring to ‘home exams’ being given out by The Open University in the United Kingdom as “a pioneer of distance learning.” In this system, students’ computers can be locked down to deny access to other materials, while webcams can be utilized to verify student identities. Coughlan then refers to the promising ‘online identity’ function, which utilizes numerous personal parameters associated with individual users, such as identifying typing speeds and rates by using standardized sentences and expressions. As the system records such information to be associated with specific users, it makes sure that irregularities do not slip by. In other words, after a student has submitted the respective parameters for evaluation and in the case that the typing speed or rate is significantly different than the provided sample, the system notifies the personnel to pay attention to the given situation at hand. In addition, the author refers to specific testing halls, which are equipped with the necessary technologies to ensure that no cheating takes place along with human staff to also pay direct attention on the behavior of the participants for catching irregularities and taking note of undiscovered cheating methods. Therefore, as technologies become more advanced and institutions become more aware of students’ strategies and tactics, the issue of cheating will lose significance to make way for more credible and reliable testing procedures to be applied in such programs.

Speaking of such technologies, Natasha Singer for The New York Times reports on a new popular one, namely ‘Proctortrack’ by Verificient Technologies Inc., which has brought about innovation along with complaints so far. For starters, the system demands that the students put their faces and knuckles to the webcam to record their features for verifying them later on. Additionally, the software also puts a live video of the student in a small window on the screen, which is quite irritating to constantly watch, as more and more students come through with complaints about the excessiveness of the procedure. The institutions however, insist on using the system because such a verification and monitoring system is crucial for their operations and the integrity of their degrees. As more such institutions began to utilize Proctortrack, some have kept their purposes limited to identifying students while utilizing other techniques such as specific software that blocks out all the other applications on the computer to ensure that no cheating or interactions take place during the exam. Apparently, the anti-cheating software is a must for these systems to work properly. Singer refers to how such schools are seriously competing with one another in the given online-education market because the size of the market is growing at an unbelievable rate, with its total value rising from $25 billion in 2012 to $32 billion in 2013 which renders technological investments necessary. The article also refers to a popular application, ‘Turnitin’, that is being used by a variety of higher education institutions today, which “scans students’ papers for copied passages,” due to the fact that pliagarism is a serious issue on college campuses today. The author then refers to a locally American software titled ‘Stoplight’ developed at Utah Valley University in Orem by the school’s own employees that “uses academic and demographic details about students to predict their likelihood of passing specific courses,” in turn providing school’s professors with “class lists that color-code each student as green, yellow or red.” Referring back to Proctortrack, Singer states that the software “uses algorithms to detect unusual student behavior” such as “talking to someone off-screen” to detect cheating and create categories of high and low integrity student types. According to the author, who has considered a large library of complaints, two of the most common ones are that the software requires the student to sit upright all the time, while remaining directly in front of the webcam all the meanwhile, which both demand physical resistance and effort. And finally, the author states that the system is rather raw and unexperienced with simple issues, such as light changes that are able to flag the exam for a violation, meaning that it is only a startup project as now that demands further research and innovation.

It is not only the United States and her struggling students that require such innovation and the United Kingdom ranks second on the list of developing online-education markets, according to an article by Jessica Shepherd for The Guardian newspaper. The author states that “exams come to the bedroom with new invigilation software” thatallows students to sit tests at home while computer lock, webcam and microphone ensure they can’t cheat.” While reporting nothing new, Shepherd takes notice of this promising new trend in England with significant numbers of students failing their courses because they cannot make it to their tests or simply do not wish to do so, considering them to be too much of a hassle. One of the main motivations for any educational system is to motivate students to learn and succeed and although the mentioned mentioned system, Securexam Remote Proctor, is relatively new in England, higher education institutions such as The University of Wales Institute, Cardiff are already experimenting with it. Quite promisingly, some of its services such as anti-cheating software are becoming standardized with more such innovations to arrive shortly. The technology was developed by Software Secure Inc. and operates through a separate apparatus that is plugged into the students’ computers. The initial step is to take the student’s fingerprint to verify their identity which is followed by the initiation of a 360-degree webcam application to monitor the participant along with a microphone to record sounds. Much like in the prior discussed systems, the computer also block out any other application from running during the test period, especially internet based applications which allow the students to find related information online regarding the test subjects. Naturally, there exist university invigilators who “can then watch the footage, whenever they choose to,” in the name of making sure that nothing extraordinary is taking place. Unlike the United States, the British educational systems are rather traditional and therefore they do not include as much technological input as their competitors in countries such as the United States and Japan, which is encouraging and motivating several officials, such as Mark Pelling, the senior learning development officer at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. Pelling states that he has been very impressed so far by the system’s functions and advantages, as he believes that “this [the Securexam Remote Proctor system] could change the way we do assessment.” Apart from the comfort and security the system provides for students and institutions alike, it also makes it possible to eradicate the constraint of finding large enough examination halls, especially during busy times of the semester, such as the midterms and finals, which can easily lead to tests getting postponed, cancelled or students under-achieving due to physical issues.

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