The University of Ottawa’s apparent use of software that utilizes artificial intelligence to detect cheating during online exams is causing a backlash among students who say the technology is extreme and invasive.
The software in question is made by U.S.-based Respondus, which is currently giving schools a free two-month trial of its two programs aimed at detecting and deterring cheating.
The first program, called Lockdown, requires students to install a program on their computer which then severely restricts what else they can do during an online test, such as opening another browser or chatting with classmates.
The second program, called Monitor, accesses the user’s webcam, then uses an algorithm to flag suspicious behaviour by analyzing everything from the student’s eye movements to whether another person enters the room.
Fourth-year University of Ottawa student Oliver Benning got word of the school’s plan to start using the Respondus products after fellow students posted concerns about it on a reddit thread.
“I just found this to be not at all a comfortable thing for anyone to do to themselves,” Benning said. “We’re going to start eroding the expectation of privacy we have in our household by allowing certain monitoring practices to happen.”
Benning, who said he’s become a privacy advocate in recent years, started a petition calling on the university to immediately stop using Respondus products.
“I’m not saying the university shouldn’t have any kind of academic integrity measures for student assessments,” he said. “I just felt like it needs to be in the middle ground. This is just way too extreme.”
University conducting pilot
In a June 25 memo to teaching staff in the University of Ottawa’s faculty of social sciences, vice-dean of undergraduate studies Marc Molgat states that the university has recently acquired an online proctoring system through Respondus.
Despite that memo, in a written response, administrators wouldn’t confirm to CBC that the university is using Respondus products, and would only confirm it’s pilot testing some form of remote proctoring software.
“Rest assured that privacy and the protection of personal information will be of primary concern to us when assessing available tools. We will ensure to inform our community in due time,” wrote Isabelle Mailloux Pulkinghorn, the university’s media relations manager.
She added that students will be asked for their consent and professors will be free to choose if they use remote proctoring tools. If a student decides not to consent, their professor would then need to find an alternate way to evaluate them.
“At this point, there isn’t much that we can add,” said Mailloux Pulkinghorn.
However, the university’s own technical support website for instructors and students contains several paragraphs explaining how Respondus Monitor records video and audio of a student during a test, then analyzes the student’s actions, including eye movement.
In a statement to CBC Ottawa, Respondus CEO David Smetters wrote “the architecture for LockDown Browser and Respondus Monitor is designed with protection of student privacy as a basic requirement.”
He compared students using webcams for an exam to taking part in a Zoom or Microsoft Teams session.
“It’s up to the university to decide whether the benefit of using webcams for online learning outweighs the privacy concern raised by students.”
Equity also a concern
Beyond the privacy concerns, experts in university cheating have also raised the issue of equity when it comes to requiring students to film themselves during exams.
University of Calgary assistant professor Sarah Elaine Eaton, whose area of research is academic integrity, says many universities have been scrambling to address a jump in cases of academic fraud since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Some of them have sort of gone to a great arms race to get an online proctoring tool that’s available to them,” said Eaton. “That presents a number of complexities for students, and that some students don’t have the technology or they don’t have access to a stable internet [connection].”
Eaton said she also worries remote proctoring software and other programs designed to catch cheaters are reducing the role teachers play in fighting academic fraud.
“I caution against turning to technology as a solution to complex ethical problems,” she said. “We’ve seen over and over again that instructors still need to be part of the conversation.”