The feminist case against remote proctoring?

an image of the top of a set of colored pencils

In January 2023, the founder of the assessment platform QuestionMark hosted the CEO of the remote proctoring company Proctorio on a podcast dedicated to interviewing “assessment luminaries.” As part of a longer discussion about who he believes remote proctoring helps, the Proctorio CEO said:

“Think about your working mothers. Think about people with disabilities, whether that’s physical. Think about people who have a certain career, or path, or live somewhere, the rural student1. These people who are trying to get a better education, trying to improve their skills, go get a certification, they didn’t have a voice in this education concept. They couldn’t participate. And so remote proctoring has really enabled a large group of people throughout the world to join in and start taking assessments in a trusted with integrity way at a university…”

Working and single mothers are commonly invoked as examples of students who benefit from online learning offerings. Theoretically, the flexibility afforded by studying from home or a location of one’s own choosing provides opportunities to fit learning in with the already high demands of work and looking after children. Theoretically, readings can be completed while a baby naps or on a break at work, lecture videos can be viewed on weekends when children are being watched by friends or family. The reality for working and single mothers in distance education is of course much more complicated than university and edtech promotional materials would have it seem. Research about the experiences of working mothers in education, and even in particular in the realm of distance education, indicate the distraction and a lack of a private and quiet space in which to complete course activities are the norm. 

In a study I found quite illuminating, researchers at the University of Maine, Orono, all of whom were working mothers and students, took the time to do what few other commentators on working mothers in distance education have: they asked to observe working mothers during typical study sessions for their classes. While this study did not include any students who were being asked to use remote proctoring software, the findings have obvious implications for scenarios where it is being required. One student reported picking her study location based on the amount of distraction that she could tolerate for the activity at hand. Homework could be completed in a common areas with some distractions, but “if she was studying for an exam, she would relocate to her vehicle to concentrate with fewer distractions.” Lest this seems like an extreme example, cars are commonly reported study locations for the working mothers interviewed in this paper. Returning to the claim that remote proctoring supports working mothers, recall that Proctorio exams must be conducted on a laptop computer, running a specific browser, with a quality internet connect, and without any extraneous noise or people (when the “recommended” settings are enabled). The inherent biases of remote proctoring software have been well-documented at this point, so I wish to focus on the idea that they provide “access” or “opportunity” where there was little before. My contention is that remote proctoring only provides “access” to mothers (and parents more generally) so long as they are willing and able to separate themselves from that role while they use the product.

Sometimes access, or some other type of benefit, is offered with so many strings attached, so much demand for control, that it is dehumanizing. In her landmark 1972 article in Ms. Magazine activist Johnnie Tillmon wrote that the welfare system, which ostensibly exists to help single mothers with the basic expenses of life with children, demands control over the recipient’s life in exchange for money. The Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program refused to support a household that included an adult man, taking control of welfare recipients’ social and sex lives if they wished for their kids to eat. Some welfare recipients were required to be sterilized to remain eligible for welfare. In Tillmon’s words, “you trade in a man for the man.” Welfare activists, largely black single mothers, saw this system of control for what it was, and fought for rights for women receiving welfare. In many ways, proctoring companies with their rhetoric of access and opportunity also demand control over students’ lives and a say in their behavior in exchange for the “access” to education, albeit in more indirect but undoubtedly harmful ways.

Here is a story of a student’s experience with a remote proctoring tool that (I believe) quite convincingly dispels the notion that remote proctoring software straightforwardly provides “access” to education. The story is based on true events but modified to protect the identity of the teacher who relayed it to me and their student, who I’ll call “Marie.” I want to also clearly note that this student’s experience is with an unnamed remote proctoring company, not Proctorio.

Instructors during the pandemic took up remote proctoring options because of widespread fears of increased cheating (often taking advantage of special offers and free trials). Marie, a single mother who was both working and studying (and also overseeing remote schooling for elementary school-aged children) was required to use a proctoring service for an exam. While taking the exam, she was flagged for eye movement abnormalities, and a warning appeared on the screen. This distracted and scared her. She lost focus on the exam at hand, and began thinking about what the camera was seeing inside her apartment, and what it thought of her head and eye movements. When she was warned again about her eye movement, she thought of her kids sleeping in the next room. Understanding that the program would certainly flag her children if they were present during the exam, Marie had decided to take the test after putting them to sleep. But, as parents everywhere know, putting a child to bed far from guarantees that they will not need you again soon after! The anxiety of this moment was enough to seriously distract Marie, resulting in a much lower grade than she was aiming for.  Her instructor spoke to her about the flags, asking her to try to keep her eyes on the screen next time. After this experience, she felt she would not be able to succeed on the next test unless she took it outside the home. At the time she was free to take it, the library was closed, so she resorted to booking the cheapest hotel room she could find, and hiring a babysitter, expenses that she could hardly afford.

Obviously the company that makes this software would claim “user error” on the part of the instructor and the student created this problem. Perhaps the student and the instructor could have talked about the constraints on her time and space, and the instructor could have understandingly disabled the settings that disallow additional faces or looking away from the camera. However, the need to take these steps in the first place demonstrates how the product is not designed for a working mother at all! The idea that many educational technologies and platforms are tacitly designed with a white, abled, male user in mind is well summarized by Tressie McMillan Cottom’s idea of the “roaming autodidact,” or an imagined student who is “self-motivated,” and “simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, culture, history, and markets. The roaming autodidact is almost always conceived as western, white, educated and male.” However, a product like the remote proctoring software in this story does not just assume that the user is a “roaming autodidact,” in some cases it actually requires them to act like one in order to avoid suspicion of cheating or extensive negotiation with the instructor. This is the price (in this case, a literal price in the form of the cost of babysitting and a hotel room) of “access.” We need to be very suspicious of companies and industries that want to position themselves as allies of parents. While there are many excellent ways to support student parents, I don’t think any one them would require the student herself to suspend their parental duties and identity the way remote proctoring does.

  1. Problematizing the claim that remote proctoring supports disabled or rural learners is not my focus here, but this is indeed a very problematic claim.

Photo by Tanbir Mahmud on Unsplash

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