When a remote proctoring company offers teaching advice

A stethescope on a medical chart with a pen in the background

Even though the overall state of the educational technology industry is grim, I still believe that there are technologies that while not perfect, do support learning. They can allow students to collaborate, help organize materials, or provide platforms for discussion and creation. Remote proctoring is not one of these technologies, in my opinion. Its sole function is to surveil, to report suspicious behaviors, and otherwise police students. Despite this, I have been watching with concern as remote proctoring companies have been trying to get into the game of providing pedagogical advice to instructors. Here is how it works: a company creates its own instructional support resource with some familiar terms from educational literature and practice. It is suspiciously devoid of references to the literature* and asserts the indispensability of proctoring to the teaching strategy the resource promotes, the implicit message being that you need their product in order to teach. Let’s break down a recent eBook (and similar blog post) from Honorlock, a remote proctoring company, on the topic of “Online Authentic Assessments.” Authentic assessments are those that ask students to apply their knowledge to intellectually worthy tasks that mimic real-world activities, in contrast to traditional exams.

The resource is presented in three parts, the first two addressing the definitions and design of authentic assessment, and the third addressing the need to virtually proctor these assessments and a guide for how to do so using Honorlock’s product. Even though authentic assessment has a rich basis in the peer-reviewed literature, including with respect to online learning, the resources have no citations whatsoever. Some “pros” offered for authentic assessments include that they provide students opportunities to apply their knowledge to “real world” situations, they provide students with a “variety of ways to demonstrate their skills and knowledge”, and they can be more engaging for students. One “con” offered (in contrast to other perspectives on authentic assessment, more on this later) is that “protecting academic integrity is tricky.” The subsequent proctoring guide suggests that students participating in authentic assessments such as a nursing student “identifying the parts of a stethoscope, [demonstrating] how it works, and [presenting] one way they believe it can be improved” need to have their physical environment monitored for forbidden aids and have their behavior monitored for suspicious conduct. At least to me, it is clear that this resource exists to underscore the need for proctoring (according to the company), even though it is disguised as a teaching resource.

Going beyond the overall lack of any real pedagogical content, it is possible to understand resources like this as a response to and an attempt to cloud the arguments of educators who have suggested authentic assessments as an alternative to proctored assessments specifically because they are more applied than timed exams and are not very susceptible to cheating. I know this genre well because I myself have written and coauthored various articles and posts that address this very subject. Our argument is: “Remote proctoring is harmful to students, expensive, discriminatory, and often doesn’t work, so we should avoid using it in individual classrooms and avoid providing any institutional support for its use. For those instructors who are concerned about cheating, consider using authentic assessments, which have many benefits and are less susceptible to cheating.” This seems simple enough. Honorlock’s content takes the form of and uses the familiar language of the “teaching tip” genre (you can find posts of this nature aimed at faculty on most university websites) to respond to only one part of our argument, that authentic assessments are less susceptible to cheating. Their response seems to agree that authentic assessments have some benefits, but claims that they are susceptible to cheating, and thus their product is needed.

Seeing a proctoring company try to co-opt the concept of authentic assessments for its own benefit got me angry, but also made me feel like we who want to fight against remote proctoring need to put the “pedagogical alternatives” argument on the back burner. By that I mean, we should focus more on the direct harms of remote proctoring technology that should end the conversation about whether to use it, regardless of the relative pedagogical value of different assessment types.

Here are some of the harms: Proctoring tools must be installed on and take partial control over students’ personal computers, ask to see the inside of their private living spaces, and demand authority over who can enter a student’s private space while they are taking an assessment. They have been shown to discriminate against students of color, and label certain behaviors as suspicious in a way that can harm disabled students. I (along with many other educators) believe they have no place in a classroom. It is not OK to surveil students in the way these products do just because there is a risk of cheating. I think we who do instructional support work need to be more explicit that we oppose remote proctoring technology, rather than just suggesting “good pedagogy” that might help avoid it. This approach might at least help avoid companies trying to position themselves as being “on our team” by using our buzzwords to legitimize and market themselves.

*Thanks to my colleague Autumm Caines for pointing this out

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