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Professors need to develop alternative ways of testing that don’t require the use of a proctoring software

The University of Ottawa’s decision to authorize the use of proctoring software Respondus Lockdown has been met with significant pushback from students and professors alike. The Fulcrum has reported on the nuisances associated with the use of Respondus for students, and we believe that the use of a proctoring software such as Respondus is a flawed and lethargic solution to curbing academic fraud. 

We understand that academic fraud poses a legitimate threat to the credibility of the University of Ottawa, and that mass academic fraud could put the legitimacy of every U of O student’s education in jeopardy, but monitoring exams with software such as Respondus Lockdown is not the answer to mitigating academic fraud.

At the end of the winter semester — when all were hastily forced into lockdown — adapting long-form multiple choice answer exams for professors barely two weeks before the start of the April exam period was nearly impossible. But with months of preparation for the 2020-21 school year, professors should be able to adapt their courses to not require the use of proctoring software such as Respondus.

Respondus, in particular, poses a number of accessibility issues for students. The software cannot be run on a number of operating systems  — students who use Linux operating systems or Chromebooks are straight out of luck. With Chromebooks being computers on the lower end of the price spectrum, they are commonly used by lower-income students, meaning those students likely won’t have the financial resources to buy a $190 Windows license or a new computer that runs Windows 7 or macOS–the minimum operating system requirements for the Respondus software.

Students who currently don’t have a desktop or laptop with a webcam will need to purchase an external webcam. This is another expense for a student population already burdened by unemployment and reduced hours due to COVID-19.

We are also concerned with the level of access that Respondus has to students’ personal computers. It is unclear how much access the software exactly has to a user’s computer. In some cases, the software cannot be downloaded as it is flagged as ‘malware’ by some antivirus software — a worrisome sign. 

According to Jill Scott, the University of Ottawa’s provost and vice president, academic affairs, our concerns are unfounded, as the U of O “conducted a privacy assessment and Respondus met (their) stringent information security requirements as well as (their) policies on the protection of personal information. All personal information is kept for one year only and may only be accessed by the uOttawa instructor administering the exam or their designate.”

For Dr. Timothy Lethbridge, the vice dean of the faculty of engineering and an expert in software engineering, “that’s excessive, generally speaking, privacy rules say you should keep confidential information for the minimum amount of time that you really need it for.”

Training professors on the use of Respondus will be another challenge, as those who wish to use it are provided an English-only training video by the University of Ottawa. This is a concern The Association of Part-Time Professors of the University of Ottawa brought up on twitter. 

Students are opposed to the use of Respondus

In a letter addressed to University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont, elected officials of 18 recognized student governments (representing more than three-quarters of the U of O student population) eloquently presented their concerns about Respondus software’s level of access to students’ computers. 

“Student leaders and representatives, harbour serious hesitations regarding the reliability of Respondus. We are not sure what information Respondus can collect, or to be more precise, what it cannot collect. This confusion is only amplified upon reading Respondus Terms of Service” 

The Respondus Terms of Service read as follow:

“Unfortunately, no data transmission over the Internet is 100 per cent secure, and Respondus does not warrant the security of any information collected using its services. By agreeing to these Terms, [the] Institution agrees to use Respondus Monitor at its own risk, and agrees that Respondus shall not be liable if a security breach occurs, if the site malfunctions, or if information is misused or mismanaged in any way to Institution’s detriment or to the detriment of a student, staff member or third party, whether by Respondus, Institution, or an unauthorized third party.”

“We are extremely concerned by the fact that, at the present time, students do not have any assurance that the software will not collect more information than what is needed,” wrote the 18 recognized governments. “For most students, letting this kind of spyware access to their personal computer is a major violation of privacy.”

The 18 recognized student governments notably include the University of Ottawa Students’ Union, the Computer Science Student Association, the Engineering Students’ Society, the Common Law Student Society, and the Science Students’ Association. 

The Fulcrum’s Editorial Board shares these concerns with the elected student government officials. 

Students have also struck back at the university by creating a number of petitions to show collective opposition to the use of Respondus Lockdown. 

One of the most popular petition is “Stop UOttawa Surveillance”, started by Natalia Maximo, a fourth-year computer science student. The petition is exclusively designed for University of Ottawa students to show their displeasure at the university’s decision to allow the use of Respondus.

The petition’s website is open source and allows students to voice their concerns. A number of intriguing statements regarding students’ privacy, their anxiety, as well as the dangers of the software can be found on the site. 

Maximo believes that Respondus’ software is not only invasive but presents accessibility issues for those with anxiety or learning disorders. 

Respondus asks students to reveal all of their surroundings to assure professors that they do not have any device or person hiding in the room to help them during their exams. This is a blatant violation of privacy. 

Respondus records students for the duration of the exam; students can be flagged for cheating by the software if they look around their room or if loud sounds are caught by the student’s computer microphone. Not only is this another major breach of students’ privacy, but it actively discriminates against students with ADHD who cannot be asked to stare at a screen for the full duration of a three-hour exam. This can also be challenging for students who need to attend to the needs of a pet, or who live in a small apartment with roommates or family who may be speaking to them during the exam. This is without even speaking of possible screen-fatigue, a point the 18 student governments astutely brought up in their letter.   

Some faculties are discouraging and banning the use of Respondus 

Some of the university faculties will not be encouraging or outright banned the use of Respondus for exams; those faculties are the faculties of engineering and both civil and common law. These faculties are showing leadership by giving their students the best chances to succeed, their decisions should be emulated by the U of O’s other faculties. 

Sadly, other faculties are in favour of Respondus despite its many flaws. The faculty of science is one such faculty; they have attracted the ire of students, and rightfully so. 

Opposition to the use of Respondus by faculties sends a clear message to students that their faculty wants to innovate and find new better ways to conduct evaluations without using regressive proctoring software.

Alternative evaluating methods the way to go

Many professors have begun innovating already, finding new ways to evaluate students’ performances in their courses. Dr. Lethbridge has decided in his course, Introduction to Software Engineering (SEG 2105), to focus the course on individual assignments that better test the students’ skills. 

Depending on the faculty, those can be done by way of take-home exams, online labs, short quizzes, extensive research reports, and projects that give students the opportunity to use relevant course knowledge to develop a product; the possibilities are endless, and up to the imagination of professors. 

“By shifting away from the classical evaluative model, such as standardized tests and evaluations, the University has an opportunity to re-think post-secondary education as a whole,” wrote the 18 recognized student governments in their letter to Frémont. “Such a shift will automatically discourage academic fraud, and reduce the necessity for a proctoring software such as Respondus.” 

We encourage professors to defy the conventional and come up with new and innovative methods of evaluating students — methods that won’t force students to download a proctoring system that is flagged as malware by certain operating systems and can be defeated by a simple pair of tinted sunglasses.

Editorials are written by the Fulcrum’s fourteen-person editorial board and express the opinion of the board. To share your own views, email editor@thefulcrum.ca