Editors’ Choice: Our Bodies Encoded – Algorithmic Test Proctoring in Higher Education

Cheating is on the rise, we can’t trust students, and the best strategy to protect academic integrity is to invest in massive surveillance systems. At least, that’s the narrative that ed-tech companies catering to higher education are selling based on their products and marketing campaigns. One of the products that’s currently being adopted by colleges and universities is algorithmic test proctoring — essentially software designed to automatically detect cheating in online tests — but we haven’t had enough critical conversation about what values are embedded in these systems and the potential harm they can cause students. If I take a test using an algorithmic test proctor, it encodes my body as either normal or suspicious and my behaviors as safe or threatening. As a cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical, white man, these technologies generally categorize my body as normal and safe, and because of this, they would not endanger my education, well-being, employment, or academic standing. The majority of the students on my campus don’t share my identities and could have a very different experience being read by test proctoring algorithms. We need to understand the potential ways that algorithmic test proctoring can discriminate against students based on their bodies and behaviors, why higher education is willing to endanger students in the first place, and what we can do about it.

What It Is and Why It’s Here

Over the last fifteen years, higher education has been increasing the number of online courses and programs it offers. While the methods for cheating in online classes are often the same as those used in-person, the institutional fear of increased cheating from online students has encouraged a new and lucrative market for ed-tech companies. Common online cheating methods include using unauthorized information aids while taking a test and/or having someone besides the student enrolled in the class take the test on their behalf, practices that predate both the internet and online tests. While in-person test proctoring has been used to combat test-based cheating, this can be difficult to translate to online courses. Ed-tech companies have sought to address this concern by offering to watch students take online tests, in real time, through their webcams. If the outsourced test proctor sees any evidence of cheating, as defined by the company or the institution, they can flag the behavior to be reviewed later by the course owner. After tests are completed, a course owner will be made aware of any flagged behavior. It is ultimately up to the course owner, not the test proctor, to determine if flagged behavior is a violation of academic misconduct and, if so, how to address it. Some of the more prominent companies offering these services include Proctorio, Respondus, ProctorU, HonorLock, Kryterion Global Testing Solutions, and Examity.


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This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief Dan Howlett based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: