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“The Surveillant University”: Law Faculty’s Distinguished Visiting Lecturer to address controversial topic of remote proctoring

March 4, 2022 — 

With final exams a little over a month away, the last topic being covered in the Faculty of Law’s Distinguished Visitors Lecture Series could not be more relevant. Speaking on “The Surveillant University: Remote Proctoring, AI and Human Rights,” Dr. Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law and Policy at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law – Common Law Section, joins us at a virtual Robson Hall March 8 at 12:00 p.m. via Zoom. This talk is open to all members of the University of Manitoba community interested in human rights and exam surveillance.

Please register for this event.

Exam surveillance (also known as proctoring or invigilation) has traditionally been carried out by human proctors who supervise exams in a shared physical space, such as a classroom. More recently, universities have adopted technological tools for exam surveillance – in part to address the use by students of their computers to write exams, and in part to serve the growing trend in online and distance learning. In March 2020, the global COVID-19 pandemic drove learning online suddenly and on an unprecedented scale, leading to a significant boost in demand for remote proctoring services.

Remote proctoring during the pandemic has generated considerable controversy. Students have launched petitions, sought injunctions to prevent its use, and have taken to social and other media to express their distress over its impacts. Many have maintained that remote proctoring violates privacy rights, and that it raises serious issues of discrimination against women, racialized persons, differently-abled persons and those with non-conforming gender identities.

Dr. Scassa’s lecture explores the privacy and human rights issues raised by remote proctoring. It proposes a necessity and proportionality approach to assess what place remote proctoring has in the university context.

Before the talk, Dr. Scassa kindly shared some insights into the concerns surrounding remote proctoring, why it caught her interest and why we should all be concerned with it in this modern world of digital communication.

Robson Hall: How did you become interested in this topic of exam surveillance and the controversy surrounding it?

Dr. Teresa Scassa: I research and write about both AI and privacy law. When the pandemic shut-down took place in March 2020, universities were scrambling for proctoring solutions for exams in courses that had suddenly moved online. There was a great deal of media coverage about online proctoring – and considerable push-back from students – not just in Canada but around the world.  I thought it would make an interesting case study for some of the issues that interest me – and the fact that it was playing out globally was also interesting. In the end, it has been a useful case study. I note that much of the media focus has been on the technologies themselves and the companies that offer them. In the paper I will be presenting at Robson Hall, I focus on the role of the University in the ethical adoption and implementation of such technologies.

RH: What has been your own experience with remote proctoring as a professor?

TS: Although the University of Ottawa entered into a contract with Respondus, the Faculty of Law decided not to permit the use of the Respondus remote proctoring services for its exams. When I planned my fully online course for the autumn semester of 2020, I decided to move from a course with a final exam component to one that was evaluated on the basis of a series of assignments. I have actually found that the assignments are a much better evaluation tool, which has been interesting. 

RH: What are the most serious concerns raised regarding remote proctoring and are they well-founded?

TS: Many serious concerns have been raised about remote proctoring. These include concerns over data protection (the security of personal information and videos collected by proctoring companies); privacy (the intensity of the level of surveillance, the surveillance of private spaces); discrimination (issues around AI-enabled proctoring and racial biases; gender bias issues; issues for students with disabilities).

Students report heightened levels of anxiety, and there is some research now that supports this finding – with anxiety leading to lower test results.

These are the issues that have raised the most public attention — and this attention has focused on the companies that provide these services. However, there are also important issues for the universities that adopt and implement these technologies.

Implementations can contribute to or exacerbate discrimination. They can contribute to privacy and data protection problems. And, of course, universities have had to contend with issues of unequal access to technology — and to the private spaces that are required to take remote-proctored exams without being flagged for potential cheating because of movement in the room, or noises from another room.

Students who have poor quality internet access, older devices, who have responsibility for young children, or who live in more crowded accommodations have all struggled with remote proctoring.

RH: What key lessons do you hope your audience can take away from this talk?

TS: I propose the use of a necessity and proportionality framework to guide decisions about whether or not to adopt remote proctoring technologies – and how to configure/implement them. I hope that this will contribute a practical approach to lay the groundwork for sound policies and practices.

I also try to shift the conversation away from the remote proctoring services themselves and focus more on the agency of universities as adopters of these technologies.

I attack the simple analogies between regular in-person proctoring and remote proctoring and ask some basic questions about what we are trying to achieve with exam-proctoring, and whether the university has a particular role/responsibility in this context.

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