COVID-19 has disrupted almost everything. Most schools in the United States wrapped up the 2019-2020 school year with zero students in their buildings, hoping to slow the spread of the virus. Distance learning is the new normal -- something deployed quickly with little testing, opening up students to a host of new problems, technical glitches, and in-home surveillance.
Zoom replaced classrooms, online products replaced teachers, and everything became a bit more dystopian, adding to the cloud of uncertainty ushered in by the worldwide spread of a novel virus with no proven cure, treatment, or vaccine.
Schools soon discovered Zoom and other attendance-ensuring options might be a mistake as miscreants invaded virtual classrooms, distributing sexual and racist content to unsuspecting students and teachers. These issues have yet to be solved as schools ease back into Distance Learning 2.0.
Then there’s the problem with tests. Teachers and administrators have battled cheating students as long as testing has existed. Now that tests are being taken outside of heavily controlled classrooms, software is stepping in to do the monitoring. That’s a problem. It’s pretty difficult to invade someone’s privacy in a public school, where students give up a certain amount of their rights to engage in group learning.
Now that learning is taking place in students’ homes, schools and their software providers seem to feel this same relinquishment of privacy should still be expected, even though the areas they’re now encroaching on have historically been considered private places. As the EFF reports, testing is now being overseen by Professor Big Brother and his many, many eyes. All of this is in place just to keep students from cheating on tests:
Recorded patterns of keystrokes and facial recognition supposedly confirm whether the student signing up for a test is the one taking it; gaze-monitoring or eye-tracking is meant to ensure that students don’t look off-screen too long, where they might have answers written down; microphones and cameras record students’ surroundings, broadcasting them to a proctor, who must ensure that no one else is in the room.
Mass biometric surveillance has finally come home. Like equally intrusive productivity software used by employers with work-at-home employees, this proctoring software treats people’s private spaces like classrooms. What would be upsetting to adults is targeting minors. And, unlike company employees who may have the option to pull the plug on their employment rather than be subjected to this, students generally don’t have this kind of flexibility. For many, it’s either this school (and its spyware) or nothing.
All this data and content being gathered on minors is subject to almost no public oversight. The software deployed by schools demands tons of personal info from students before it can even be used by them. And that’s just the beginning of the invasive data collection. As the EFF points out, some school software collects additional info, such as computer and software information. Other log URLs visited and how long students stay on certain sites or web pages.
It’s unclear what happens to all this information proctoring companies are gathering on minors. But there doesn’t appear to be anything preventing them from using this information however they please.
Some companies, like ProctorU, have no time limits on retention. Some of this information they share with third parties. And when student data is provided to the proctoring company by an educational institution, students are often left without a clear way to request that their data be deleted because they aren’t considered the data’s “owner.”
Even if you can ignore the dystopian mass biometric collections targeting minors, you’re left with the logistic issues. Some schools/software may think they’ve caught a cheater when all they’re really "caught" is someone struggling with a less-than-ideal internet connection or dealing with compatibility issues. Or maybe the perceived "cheating" is nothing more than uncooperative siblings wandering into rooms where testing is taking place.
Granted, controlling off-campus testing to limit cheating is a noble goal. It’s also an impossible one. Schools haven’t eliminated cheating in environments they completely control. The tradeoff here doesn’t appear to be acceptable. Students are being asked to give up a whole lot of privacy in exchange for minimal gains in remote testing integrity.