It’s not just the tutorial group meetings and lectures that are different because of the COVID-19 pandemic; exams have also been adapted. Hundreds of students together in the MECC is now impossible. And online proctoring? That can be used if there is really no other alternative, the Executive Board of Maastricht University emphasises. Compared to the proctoring (digital testing under supervision) in spring, it has now been outsourced to the American company Proctorio. Surveillance software is used to analyse student behaviour. Students from the University Council are critical.
During the first wave of COVID-19, the UM chose its own variant - proctoring light – with testing being carried out with the university’s technology and its own staff. But it proved to be too complex and too much of a burden for staff. Besides, software such as Blackboard Collaborate or Zoom was used, while this is not suitable for online proctoring. To make matters worse, a first-year exam for 1,200 SBE students, which was held mid-June, was declared invalid because answers had been shared in chats.
The UM has now resorted to the American company Proctorio, which uses software to analyse student behaviour. Students must stay in view of the webcam. Walking in circles in your room is therefore not a good idea.
According to Ingrid Wijk, director of the University Library, who has taken on the co-ordination of online proctoring, the software records a number of aspects and ‘flags’ any suspicious circumstances. These images are looked at by supervisors, employees of one’s own faculty. There will also be random checks of ‘non-suspicious’ footage. Wijk: “Situations that supervisors mark as potentially fraudulent, will be passed on to the gatekeeper committee. This consists of members of the examination committee concerned and the chairperson of the examination committee of a faculty that does not use proctoring.”
Proctorio is used in many Dutch universities. A complaint was even filed against the University of Amsterdam by the student council because the surveillance software was in violation of the privacy law GDPR. They lost the case. According to the Amsterdam court, the use of proctoring does not constitute an unlawful breech of privacy. The students have appealed against the judgment.
The UM is all too aware of the objections, says a report on the so-called Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA), which was shared in a University Council committee meeting last week. The personal data processed by Proctorio is sensitive, consisting of study results, details on ID cards and passport photographs. In a processing agreement with the company, “which is acceptable to the UM,” says Wijk, the UM has stated that no personal information may be shared with any third party. The contract is for a year, with the hope that in-person exams will be possible again by then.
One of the most critical opponents of online proctoring, is Thomas Vaessen, student member of the University Council on behalf of Novum. It was his party that started a petition already in spring because of the violation of students’ freedoms and rights. At the time, he referred to this form of testing as “unlawful and unconstitutional” and spoke of “Orwellian developments”.
Now, during the meeting of the University Council committee, he again questions the proportionality; is proctoring really necessary? He reckons that the UM should try harder to find alternatives. Yasmin Hashish, student council member on behalf of SHAPE/Ouranos, comes up against a different matter: one of her lecturers said at the beginning of a block that there was no need for proctoring, but the education office eventually decided at the end of the block that there was. Who makes the decisions, she and Vaessen wonder?
According to Vaessen, there are a number of risks attached to online proctoring, as have been summed up in the DPIA. “It is possible, for example, that ‘bad’ students [those who have failed an interim test or practical, ed.] are subjected to further inspection. And what if someone is wearing a headscarf or is displaying promotion material for a political party on his or her wall? Would that influence the assessment?”
The report also states that “irregularities” are automatically recognised on the basis of an algorithm, he says after the council meeting when asked, but “on the basis of what logic does the algorithm work? People don’t know that yet.” How can you then explain that to a student who stands before you because of ‘suspicious movements’, is what he means. And how do you defend yourself as a student, says Vaessen. “Imagine you have a shadow in your room and the system flags it, because there is ‘a second person’ in the room. How does the exams committee deal with that? This is also not clear in the report.”
So far, UM students have not complained much about the use of proctoring, the report on DPIA states. There is one known case in which a student sent an e-mail concerning the “non-guaranteed privacy manner of the ID check. The answer given by the faculty satisfied the student.”
Wendy Degens, Yuri Meesen