Is online proctoring a necessary evil, or could it be something else?

Online proctoring has been on my mind a lot as covid-19 has continued to stress higher education and push instructors to rapidly adapt face-to-face practices without much time to rethink course design in context of the online environment. A recent Educause quickpoll focused on online proctoring, surveying ed tech leaders at 312 higher ed institutions highlights an increased interest in online proctoring technologies (hat tip to D‘Arcy Norman who articulated the four types of online proctoring / invigilation tools). The results also convey the internal conflict that many feel about this technology, as illustrated in this chart:


Figure 3. Institutions’ Challenges with Remote Proctoring, from Educause COVID-19 QuickPoll Results: Grading and Proctoring, April 2020

Personally, I am a proponent of alternative assessments when feasible and appropriate, as well as frequent, formative assessments for their value in engaging students and supporting both learning and instruction. Yet I also recognize the value of a well-designed objective assessment when learning objectives focus on knowing, understanding, and applying.

Perhaps more importantly, I see how reliant higher ed is on objective assessments  — especially in introductory courses — and that standardized, summative assessments are fairly well entrenched in the culture of higher ed.

students in a classroom cheating on a test

One of the premises behind online proctoring is that being observed discourages or inhibits cheating.

With that in mind, how should we understand and interpret online proctoring technology?

  1. Is online proctoring an imperfect yet critical tool for ensuring the integrity and value of online education?
  2. Is online proctoring a “necessary evil” that we must endure in certain situations until better assessment measures are adopted?
  3. Is the utility of online proctoring outweighed by the negative impact it may have on student trust or certain student populations?
  4. Does the fact that some students will outwit any system undercut the value of online proctoring entirely?
  5. Or is online proctoring technology simply unnecessary because we have proven more effective assessment methods that inherently inhibit cheating?

I would love to hear your opinion.

I would also like to suggest a thought experiment:

Let’s say that objective and summative assessments aren’t going away any time soon (either because they remain valuable, or simply because change happens slowly in higher ed). What would a better / acceptable online proctoring service look like?

For example, would a better online proctoring solution be predicated on controlled research experiments that support the technology’s effectiveness?

Should an online proctoring service also help instructors explore alternative assessment methods, appropriate to their discipline and objectives?

Should an online proctoring service offer location-based alternatives so students worry less about an invasion of privacy in their homes and on their devices?

As someone who’s familiar with what it takes to run an ed tech business profitably, I’ll say that the above items would come at significant cost, and thus do little to reduce that most pressing challenge, as suggested by the aforementioned Educause quickpoll results. In that light, perhaps we can also important to consider what a better online proctoring technology would not do that most services currently take for granted?

For example, could an online proctoring product be designed to shift the scales away from strict invigilance toward student comfort?

Would the technology rely less on humans and more on AI to reduce the creep factor?

What else?