The central student council at the University of Amsterdam has undertaken rigorous steps that could have consequences for all of higher education: they have applied for a temporary injunction against their Executive Board because of online proctoring during exams. “Great importance should be attached to preventing study delays, but whether alternative testing is impossible, is a point of discussion,” says Pjotr van der Jagt, chairman of the student council, to the University of Amsterdam’s newspaper Folia. Today, Thursday 11 June, the judge will decide.
Online proctoring is also used at Maastricht University to prevent study delays. Rector Rianne Letschert refers to it as one of the “difficult themes at the moment. You know that you are asking a lot from your staff and students. The students’ interests come first, their diplomas must be guaranteed, but we also have our lecturers to consider [making new exams or marking hundreds of take-home exams puts great pressure on lecturers, ed.]. We must keep an eye on that balance, knowing that we cannot please everyone.”
The UM applies strict conditions and has not liaised with an external party, such as the American Proctorio, which is used by the VU Amsterdam, the University of Amsterdam and others. This was a huge relief to Raoul Winkens, who is in charge of data protection at the UM. “With external software, your computer is ‘taken over’ as it were. Then you need to have your facts straight as an institute. I immediately said: ‘Don’t do it’. You need to take more time for that. You cannot guarantee the quality and respect the students’ privacy at such short notice. Fortunately, it turned out that there was an in-house option.” It is a ‘light’ version with our own software, such as Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, Zoom and Testvision. Recording is not allowed. Also, you use your own employees as invigilators.
That latter appears to be easier said than done. The School of Business and Economics, one of the faculties to introduce online proctoring, recently carried out a so-called stress test. Technically, it was successful, says Huub Meijers, scientific director of SBE’s Institute for Education, but organising large exams proved to be a bridge too far. Our own staff lack sufficient training; there is simply not enough time for that. SBE works on the basis of six students per invigilator. Meijers: “For 450 students, we would need something like 75 people.” Besides that, because of the corona measures, you would need a lot of work space to proctor. We don’t have that. Invigilators need to have several sessions of Blackboard Collaborate Ultra open (one session for every student) and to do that, we need more bandwidth. People don’t always have that at home, Meijers explains. On top of that we don’t have enough equipment. Initially, there were to be approximately twenty subjects using online proctoring at SBE, now only eleven are left.
Is there really no alternative? No, say SBE, the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life sciences (FHML), and the department of Knowledge Engineering (DKE). “We carefully weighed the pros and cons,” says Mirjam Oude Egbrink, scientific director of FHML’s Institute for Education. We are talking about testing that does not require insight or application, but knowledge that you “can Google in a matter of seconds”, and so is very susceptible to fraud, she continues.
DKE uses online proctoring for about fifteen subjects, says dean Thomas Cleij. Mainly science subjects, “in which a mathematics problem needs to be solved in a classic way”. He defends the use by emphasising that the UM has chosen a method “without complicated IT trimmings. But even if we had decided to use an external party, I would still say it was justified, because we want to prevent delays.”
According to managers, you cannot prevent fraud. Cleij: “Even when you have an exam on location, students can commit fraud.” Oude Egbrink agrees: “We are trying to copy a normal situation with online proctoring, as it would be in the MECC, with invigilators, but anyone who wants to commit fraud, will unfortunately also find a way. Exams are never 100 per cent watertight.”
What are the students’ objections? In the first instance: privacy. Students throughout the whole country are worried about that, as can be seen by the large number of petitions and discussions within the educational institutes. Maastricht student party Novum has also started a petition. The students feel like they have been put on the spot: “The story was: online proctoring or study delay. That is a manipulative joke,” says Thomas Vaessen, student of Medicine and Law and a member of student party Novum. The party refers to this form of testing as “illegal and unconstitutional”. (Rector Letschert, by the way, denies that there is a breach of articles of the constitution, she said during the University Council meeting last Wednesday.)
“Students have no choice, so they go along with it; nobody wants a delay,” says Sangavi Sivananthan, chairperson of Novum and student at FHML. On top of which she feels as if she was “tricked into it” because this testing method turns out to be different in practice than it was on paper. She refers to the documents that she as a faculty council member approved. Fellow students who have already taken exams with online proctoring, complain about how it is carried out, she says. “Suddenly a second webcam was compulsory, which could be used to view the ceiling, their room, and even under the table. We didn’t know about that requirement.” According to Oude Egbrink, scientific director of the Institute for Education at FHML, that is not true. “This was included in the papers that were submitted to the faculty council.”
Poor Internet connection
Furthermore, Sivananthan is worried about students in other time zones. She is not the only one. During the last faculty council meeting at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, under which DKE falls, this subject was on the agenda thanks to student member Jurriaan Berger. He also brought up the matter of time zones. “Is that being taken into consideration?” Also, what happens if students have a poor Internet connection that unexpectedly fails for longer than thirty seconds? Does that make the exam invalid? What are the alternatives if students really don’t want to? There is a lot of uncertainty among students and that can lead to stress, was Berger’s conclusion.
In the meantime, DKE has a hefty 14-page document with instructions, answers to practical questions and do’s and don’ts (make sure you have a second pen and plenty of paper to write on, do not go to the toilet during the exam, make sure there is nothing hanging on your wall). Students must prove their identity with a student or identity card beforehand, which is followed by a ‘check of the surroundings’. Protocols at the other faculties are different. There was an appeal for a UM-wide protocol at the University Council meeting last Wednesday. Rector Letschert said that she would take that into consideration in the evaluation. The Executive Board gave permission for the use of online proctoring until 31 August. After an evaluation, a decision will be taken about its use in the new academic year.
Concerning the introduction of online proctoring at the UM – what was the process, were the university and faculty representatives involved?
It was sometime in April when rector Letschert spoke to the vice deans of the faculties regarding the state of affairs in education. Faculties have the authority on testing policies, she said when asked. “That is not done via the Executive Board.” In those discussions, online proctoring came up, there were ideas, “some were even already talking to external parties. I said: ‘Wait, let’s all be on the same page regarding this form of testing, not everyone doing it their own way.” The rector insisted that the student representatives in the faculties were consulted. That had not happened yet. Also, should this not be possible because of lack of time during the regular faculty meetings, it would have to be done in a ‘special’ meeting.
Such meetings were held, but always behind closed (virtual) doors and often rushed. As was the case at FHML, where the first online proctoring exam was to be held on Thursday 30 April. Juul Hennissen, medical student and chairperson of the student fraction, received an e-mail from the board just one week before that. “It asked us to approve the attached documents.” He and his fellow council members did subsequently have ‘a few’ questions. Three full pages, in fact. They had a meeting on Tuesday, “everything was discussed. I had faith in it,” says Hennissen. There were points of criticism, but most were “solved or explained” on the spot. Two questions remained. One: What can be done about unequal opportunities, because one student lives in a noisy student house with an unstable Internet connection, while the other lives at home with his parents with excellent Wi-Fi? Two: What happens when students have objections, for example concerning privacy? Is there then an alternative test method? Eventually, the student council members agreed, on condition that all students would be clearly informed beforehand that should it not be possible to take the exam from home or if they had objections, they could contact the faculty and a solution will be sought. This was agreed, says Hennissen. “All in all, we were listened to, but it is a pity that the prompt to involve us had to come from central management.” When asked, Oude Egbrink, scientific director of the Institute of Education at FHML, answers that students who have serious problems with online proctoring because of the situation at home, will be given the opportunity to take the exam “on campus”.
Was it a clumsy manoeuvre to ‘forget’ to include the students in the decision-making process? Rector Letschert: “To put things straight: faculties are doing their utmost. There is a tremendous amount of work, and then your mind is not on including others. It is awkward that it did not happen, but I understand how things went.”
The employee and student representatives have the right of approval with regard to the parts of the Education and Examination Regulations (EER) that do not relate to content-specific matters, minister of Education Van Engelshoven wrote in answer to questions in parliament about the matter. In principle, this also applies to online proctoring. But: “Should the continuity of education and examinations require such, the representatives can also be involved afterwards.”
According to Oude Egbrink from the Institute of Education at FHML, council approval is not required, because the EER only deals with the main lines of test methods in a programme. “The details are filled in for each part of the education programme in exam plans, and these are discussed with and approved by the Board of Examiners for every test period.”
Dean Cleij also saw no ‘formal’ need, but still invited the students to an online meeting. “I like discussing matters like these.”
Letschert herself held a discussion on online proctoring in the University Council Education and Research Committee a few weeks ago. Confidential, because, she says, the note also referred to IT security issues. “You don’t want sensitive information to become public knowledge.” Last Wednesday, the subject was discussed in the public part after all. The accompanying note was still not shared with the press. According to insiders, however, it does not contain any IT-sensitive matters.