Curbing Cheating Online: Remote Proctoring

Cheltenham Banksy

A mural in Cheltenham, possibly by Banksy,is built around a phone booth, the glass shattered. Three men–one on the left and two on the right of the booth–wear tan trench coats and sunglasses. They spy on the phone booth with microphones and recording devices.

Why am I so fervently opposed to proctoring of online exams?

Because no matter how you do it–remote recorded surveillance, remote live surveillance, passive monitoring of software, or active locking down of browsers–if you are doing it for students who have been forced to transition from F2F classes to remote ones, you are making a demand on their privacy that they did not agree to when they registered for class. As long as they are not freely able to say no to it–which they can’t as long as you are holding their ability to earn credit in the class–then they cannot consent and so should not be asked to do this.

They have no reason to trust us. Eight percent of institutions that use remote proctoring for online exams conducted no accessibility review of the product they chose before they implemented it according to a poll from EDUCAUSE. Another 28% say that the products they are using do not meet their own standards for accessibility.In other words, we haven’t done our work to ensure that these are good products, so we should not demand that students accept that they are.

Even in an online-by-design course, such monitoring isn’t useful or necessary. It’s not useful because passive software monitoring and active locking down of browsers doesn’t prevent students from opening a second device to search for answers. In other words, if you are wealthy enough to have both a laptop and a smartphone, you can still easily cheat. The other two kinds of monitoring–recorded and live proctoring–are more effective, but they raise significant privacy concerns. Unless you understand and can clearly explain to students who records, views, stores, and deletes their data, you should not require students to use them. You also need to be prepared for the many kinds of exceptions you will be asked to consider. Can you ensure that students’ right to wear religious head coverings will be protected? If you are teaching during a stay-at-home order, how will you ensure that the privacy of people who share a home with your students is protected? In that situation, what will your policy be for other people who enter the space? If a student is called away by a household member in need (like a child who needs a diaper change)? In a typical semester, you can require that students take their exams in quiet spaces, but you can’t require that during a stay-at-home order without discriminating based on household composition

In other words: avoid these.

I regularly receive email from teachers who insist that they cannot teach without proctored exams. I understand their difficulty. Many of us have long taught in fields where our traditional assessments have been exams measuring students’ ability to quickly recall precise information without referencing an outside test.

Inbuilding an online-by-design course, you have an opportunity to question whether this is the most effective way to validly measure student learning or if other methods of assessment might better measure–or even produce–authentic learning.

(Hint: Yes, they will. Whatever we are preparing students to do with their degrees, it is likely not to recall information without referencing any other sources. They’re not professional Jeopardy! players.)

Non-proctored assessments (and why they discourage cheating) include things like:

  • open-notes, open-book exams using large test banks that are timed so that students must come prepared to take them and do not have time to look up information
  • collaborative exams, where students work with assigned group members to complete tasks (like write an essay)–and so where working together is not cheating at all
  • recorded presentations, including poster presentations and mini-TED Talk style presentations, where students must record their own faces delivering information
  • recorded presentations, like pecha kucha presentations and podcasts, where students must submit drafts of their work in advance of the due date and receive feedback that they incorporate (from peers or their professor)
  • projects where they work with real-life clients and must deliver a product to them (like a proposal for researching a problem within their firm using the resources the client actually has, a website or flyer, or something else)
  • recordings of interviews, plus drafts of interview questions, transcripts of the interviews, and reflections on them
  • final papers, which, again, can be assigned in stages so that students must turn in bibliographies, annotations of sources, outlines, abstracts, and first drafts
  • timed final papers that require students to use information located only within the LMS, such as comments that their peers have made on discussion board or to revise a previous paper to incorporate more recently-read texts
  • timed essays based on novel case studies
  • photo diaries or photo essays using images that students produce
  • performances on simulations
  • recorded demonstrations of a skill
  • evaluations of service-learning that incorporate feedback from the site supervisor
  • posters and infographics that demonstrate visual literacy
  • corrections of errors in sample work (such as locating and explaining the error in a proof in geometry or correcting errors in the translation of a newspaper article)
  • written explanations of how to solve a problem

What do all of these have in common?

They are a lot harder to grade.

This is a reason to embrace them.

I am wary of arguments that online learning will replace F2F education. For starters, our students don’t want it to. But I am concerned that administrators will seek cost savings within online programs by allowing enrollment that is too big to allow instructors to provide valuable and timely feedback. It doesn’t have to be the case that online courses are MOOCs, but they do allow the infrastructure to pass students through them without authentic assessment (watch a video, read a chapter, take an exam, and never get any feedback or engagement). So we must fight against that.

One way to prevent that is to set the standard that all online courses must include a signature assignment that can be assessed without proctoring and that requires synthesis of content from across the course and from the specific section (so students in section A will write different papers than students in section B because they had different conversations), the production of new knowledge or application of knowledge to a novel situation, or multiple steps with the opportunity for feedback. All of these are ways to curb cheating that don’t require proctoring.

A final thought to those who insist on proctoring: If proctoring wasn’t an option, what would you do? Like, if we did not have the technology to proctor, how would you assess learning? Would you just say that math or engineering or chemistry cannot be taught? No–you’d find a way to assess student knowledge and skill without proctoring.

So do that.

And if you really, really, really can’t (like, no one in your discipline in the whole world has figured this out), allow students to schedule live proctoring at a testing center if they prefer it to online testing.


While some of the suggestions above work to address the issue of ringers–students who take the course on behalf of another–not all do. A future blog post will discuss the problem of ringers.

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3 thoughts on “Curbing Cheating Online: Remote Proctoring

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  1. Once again, I have almost the complete opposite viewpoint as Rebecca.

    If you don’t proctor exams, there is no guarantee that the person who gets the grade is the same person being evaluated. When this link is broken, then grades become meaningless, because anyone can cheat. And if anyone can cheat in any class, then the diploma becomes meaningless as well.

    I teach math, and a lot of my students are engineering majors, and if we don’t know that they know the material (which is the whole point of testing and grading), then everything they do afterwards is suspect.

    The next time you’re driving over a bridge, ask yourself: Did the person who designed this bridge know their math? Or did they botch the calculations? You might be the person on the bridge when it collapses. Are you willing to take that risk?

    Cell phones contain chemicals that are toxic. Did the person who designed the cover know enough to make sure that they don’t leak? Are you willing to risk your life based on someone who might not have learned what they were supposed to?

    Now, accidents will happen. But hiring someone who doesn’t have the knowledge is negligence waiting to happen.

    In some job interviews, applicants are given a task to perform, to see how they solve problems, etc. But if this is the main criterion that a business uses to make hiring decisions, then a college degree is unnecessary, and mentioning it is redundant. You will be able to learn that by just watching videos at places like Khan Academy. Goodbye, college!

    One last comment: In courses where essays are required, the consequences of someone turning in someone else’s work aren’t fatal, so *maybe* that is a situation where not proctoring students will work.

    1. I also teach math–or, rather, stats. So I know that what I’m suggesting we do is both difficult and possible.

      For example: Case studies. You give students a real life problem that someone solved using statistics. Only there is an error in it. You ask them to find the error, explain why it produced the wrong answer, the consequences of relying on that wrong information (what would be the repercussions of it down the road), and how to correct it. In a class of 50, I’d use a pool of 5 of those questions, one drawn at random per student. Feed students one question at a time on a timed exam and don’t allow backtracking. Keep the exam window short. It becomes very difficult that way for students to collaborate.

      What that doesn’t prevent is a ringer, but if you combine it with other kinds of assignments, you’ll be able to see if the same person is doing the work.

      Still, someone could enroll on the student’s behalf and do all the work (just like they could in a large lecture class where IDs aren’t checked). And in those cases, as I argue in my post about ringers, I think it’s fair to use live proctoring, but that needs to include the option of allowing students to use a testing center or other kind of proctoring that doesn’t require video recording.

      1. It’s also possible to use software like WeBWorK to generate different tests for different students, where the computer will also do the grading.

        My main argument appears to be the basis for a later post of yours, about ringers.

        BTW, statistics is Voodoo Mathematics. The fact that there are two different formulas for calculating standard deviation is an instance of this. Another (which even statisticians will admit is flaky) is resampling, where you take the data that you’ve collected, and then use that to predict what you would get if you collected twice as much data.

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