Remote proctoring: a failed experiment in control

By Ben Blum-Smith, Contributing Editor

Due to the global health crisis, a huge amount of instruction that was happening in person a year ago is now happening online. One theme highlighted by this change is the question of control. When students are in buildings with us, we[1] have a high degree of control over the environment in which instruction takes place and the materials the students have access to. We even have a significant level of power over students’ movements and choices, at least while they’re in front of us. This is most obvious in primary and secondary school, where there is usually a whole “disciplinary” administrative apparatus designed to support instructors’ ability to dictate the movements and choices of students. But even at college and university, where for example there is often no explicit rule against a student getting up and leaving the classroom or building at any time, physical and social aspects of the classroom setting serve as a mechanism of influence. Continuing the example, to leave a classroom in the middle of class you have to physically stand up and collect your stuff, which means everybody knows you’re not coming back, and then face everyone as you walk past them on the way out. The instructor will certainly notice, will probably be hurt, and won’t necessarily respond kindly. It’s very rare for students to do this—in fairness, this is probably (hopefully) mostly because they don’t want to—but it’s very rare even when they do.

A fundamental aspect of the switch to distance learning is its disruption of all the usual structures and processes by which this control is exercised. In our running example, you can leave a Zoom class just by clicking “Leave”, with no need to awkwardly face anyone and a reasonable likelihood, depending on the size of the class, that the instructor won’t even notice. To cover your bases, you can instead leave without leaving—just mute yourself, turn off video, and go about your business while remaining formally in the meeting.

For a different and much-discussed example, while we are used to being able to design students’ environments rather meticulously during exam proctoring to head off both distraction and temptation, there is no analogous form of control over the exam environment built into distance learning.

How are we collectively responding to the challenges this change presents?

Remote proctoring: an experiment in control

One major approach has been to use surveillance technology to try to claw back the lost control. For example, “remote proctoring” of exams has exploded, with colleges and universities spending millions of dollars on software that monitors students via webcam. When colleges first moved to distance learning last spring, 54% of institutions surveyed by the higher education IT association Educause said they were using remote proctoring software, while another 23% said they were planning on or considering it.

This is not going over especially smoothly. Objections have been raised to the disturbing privacy implications of video-monitoring students in their homes—

—the inevitable glitchiness of the technology—

—its inequitable glitchiness—

—the stress and anxiety of having involuntary body movements scrutinized—

—and needing to jump through extra hoops in the already high-pressure situation of an exam—

—and the list goes on. This article in the Washington Post (also linked above) does some more comprehensive reporting, including revealing that law students who sat for New York’s first online bar exam in October urinated in their seats to avoid violating the online proctoring rules.

The pushback goes beyond individuals on Twitter. There is organized resistance from students and parents. The press has joined the fray. Nonprofit organizations have too. In some cases the decision to implement remote proctoring is being blocked or reversed by faculty. Lawmakers have gotten involved.

Nonetheless, usage of online proctoring services has continued to grow.

How did it come to this?

Why is this turning into such a fight?

From one angle, this question is entirely rhetorical. In preparing this blog post, I read a large number of tweets from students about their experiences with remote proctoring software. The main thought/feeling I was left with was horror that academia has embraced this Faustian deal. Surveilling students in their homes and subjecting them to suspicion based on automated interpretation of their involuntary body movements is transparently creepy, unfair, unreliable, and harmful to students. They are stressed out, and it’s making them do worse. Concerns about cheating are real, but they look petty and tiny in the face of these harms.

In view of this, I think students (and their allies in the professoriate, the press, etc.) are fighting back because remote proctoring is a travesty. What, are they going to take this lying down? They should be fighting back! It’s natural that they’re fighting back. I hope their fight grows. I’ve decided to join it by writing this. I hope you will too.

That said, I would like to proffer an additional explanation that I believe illuminates the situation from an angle that is useful to educators. Remote proctoring is meeting resistance because it is going against the grain of the situation.

The global health crisis has forced us online. The online format presents the institution of education with a new challenge—the disruption of its usual mechanisms of control. The wide-scale adoption of remote proctoring software during the pandemic is, in my view, an attempt to wish that challenge away rather than confronting it. Online proctoring companies are selling educational institutions the fantasy that it is possible to recreate the important elements of in-person testing online. It’s a transparent falsehood, but we want to believe, because the alternative—a deep and serious reconsideration of testing in view of everything that has happened—feels like too much. The changes in our own and our students’ lives already forced by the pandemic are hard enough to wrap our minds around! And we have to rethink testing too?

From this point of view, the pushback was to be expected because institutions implementing remote proctoring are straining against reality. Reality always strains back.

Surrendering to reality and asking good questions

The reason why I think this angle might be useful to educators is that it seems—well, to me anyway—to point in a freeing, and expansive, direction. There’s some relief available for us in admitting that remote teaching cannot recreate a reasonable in-person exam environment. When we admit this, what can we start imagining instead? How can we work with the situation, rather than against it?

More broadly, I think that surrendering to the reality that we don’t have as much control over our students when they’re far away encourages us to ask productive questions about the functions our control was serving in the first place, and how else these functions might be served.

In Spring 2020, when we first went online, circumstances conspired to compel me to relinquish some forms of control I didn’t even fully realize I was holding onto, leading to an experiment in letting go whose results surprised me. I hope to describe this experiment in a future blog post. In the meantime, here are some other folks, from both math and other disciplines, investigating the sorts of questions I have in mind:

  • James Tanton, at the very beginning of the move to distance learning, offering the idea that the new constraints are an invitation to re-envision the mathematical work we ask students to do.
  • Francis Su, last April, fundamentally reconsidering the goals of his final exam.
  • Mays Imad, in June, on the basics of trauma-informed teaching in the context of a pandemic.
  • Jeff Suzuki, in August on this blog, with some thoughts on “internet resistant” problem design.

If you know of other writing addressing these types of questions (or have done some yourself), please comment with links!


[1] By “we” I mean the collective consisting of all educators, including instructors at all levels, administrators, etc., and the institution of education writ large. This is an intentionally broad and encompassing meaning. Some of below pertains to decisions individual instructors make in their classes, while some of it pertains to decisions made by people acting as part of institutional bureaucracies, but I hope it is useful to see either kind of decision (and everything in between) as informed by a conversation we are all a part of.

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