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Thursday, December 3, 2020

Anti-cheating software privacy concerns

After taking midterm exams on Honorlock, Western students ask for other options

Honorlock can read access certain data and content of the user. // Screen captured by Tony Mueantonthian

By Tony Mueantonthian

Some Western students have privacy concerns about taking their midterm exams through Honorlock. 

Honorlock is an online proctoring service built to protect academic integrity in online assessments. Honorlock’s hybrid proctoring model combines AI and machine learning with live proctors to prevent students from cheating during an exam and uses webcams to monitor students during testing. 

The company experienced triple-digit growth in 2019, including proctoring exams for three of the 10 largest universities in the U.S.

Paul Cocke, the director of communications at Western, said there were nine classes that initially signed up to use Honorlock during the spring quarter, but three classes have decided not to use the service after receiving negative feedback from students or struggling to set up the exam on Honorlock.

Jane Barr, a third-year Western student taking Fundamental Marketing Research, said she is concerned because users must download an Honorlock extension and install it on Google Chrome to take an exam. 

“I understand that my professor doesn’t want people to cheat on his exam, but to download an extension on the browser and let the program access to my computer is quite invasive,” Barr said.

Cocke said that Western’s contract with Honorlock was thoroughly reviewed to ensure compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal privacy law that applies to colleges and universities.

“Over the past few years, Western has had 5,775 Math Placement Assessment exams taken using Honorlock,” Cocke said. “These were students who chose to use Honorlock instead of going into the testing center to take the proctored Math Placement Assessment.”

According to the company’s guide for students, after the browser extension has been installed, the program will ask the students to verify their identity by taking a photo of their face and upload it to the system with a photo of a government-issued photo ID. 

“A few students have voiced concerns about privacy of their personal information, but the only personal item they display is their Western photo identification, the same requirement for taking exams at the testing center,” Cocke said. “Faculty have the option to turn off items like room scan, if they wish.”

A room scan is a feature that can require students to scan their room by rotating their camera 360 degrees to make sure that the testing area is secure. Instructors may also require students to share the contents of their entire screen and close any other applications on the computer during the test.

Mackenzie Myhr, a third-year Western student also taking Fundamental Marketing Research, said the webcam is her main concern for taking a midterm exam because she cannot move her eyes off the screen without risking an alert to Honorlock staff once she looks away from the computer, which may signal that a student is checking a phone or another device for answers.

“I heard that the professor in this class is tough on the students who try to cheat during an exam, but this is kind of too far in my opinion,” Myhr said.

If students look away from a screen for a period of time, or move away, Honorlock warns that “our live virtual proctor will pop in to assess the situation, make sure there isn’t an academic violation, and help you get back on track with your exam.” Instructors are also notified after the exam and can review the recording of any flagged incident.

“My professor told me that it is OK if someone pops up during an exam, which is kind of uneasy,” Barr said. “My professor said it doesn’t matter what the software said, but if I get off from my computer, the exam will pause and send the red flag to my professor.”

Barr and Myhr said that their professor did not let them know about taking an exam by using Honorlock until shortly before the midterm. 

“I didn’t see anything about the use of Honorlock during an exam on the syllabus,” Barr said. “We received an email from our professor about Honorlock only 24 hours before the midterm exam started.”

Daniel Purdy, the instructor of the Fundamental Marketing Research class, did not address the questions about the timing of the announcement, but referred inquiries to the university’s director of communications. When asked to confirm the timing of the announcement, Cocke noted that the university and the Faculty Senate do not attempt to control classroom management to that degree. 

“The criticism of an individual faculty member for ‘only providing 24 hours notice’ is not based on any factual standard,” Cocke said. “There is no standard on how far in advance a faculty member should alert students to the use of Honorlock, or any remote proctoring method for that matter,” Cocke said.

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