By Tim Cushing
The COVIDian dystopia continues. After a brief respite, infections and deaths have surged, strongly suggesting the “we’re not doing anything about it” plan adopted by many states is fattening the curve. With infections spreading once again, the ushering of children back to school seems to have been short-sighted.
But not all the kids are in school. Some are still engaged in distance learning. For many, this means nothing more than logging in and completing posted assignments using suites of tools that slurp up plenty of user data. For others, it feels more being forced to bring their schools home. In an effort to stop cheating and ensure “attendance,” schools are deploying spyware that makes the most of built-in cameras, biometric scanning, and a host of other intrusions that make staying home at least as irritating as actually being in school.
The EFF covered some of these disturbing developments back in August, when some schools were kicking off their school years. Bad news abounded.
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.
So much for the sanctity of the home — the location regarded as the most private of private spaces, worthy of the utmost in Fourth Amendment protections. Unfortunately, the tradeoff for distance learning appears to mean students must give up almost all of their privacy in exchange for not being arrested for truancy.
School isn’t out yet. And there’s even more intrusiveness to report. It’s not just the stripping of privacy that’s adding to the dystopian atmosphere hovering oppressively over 2020. It’s also the Kafka+Orwell aspects of at-home monitoring, as Todd Feathers and Janus Rose report for Vice.
The first part of this aligns with the EFF’s earlier reporting: exam software developers are giving school administrators an insane amount of access to students’ devices.
Like its competitors in the exam surveillance industry, Respondus uses a combination of facial detection, eye tracking, and algorithms that measure “anomalies” in metrics like head movement, mouse clicks, and scrolling rates to flag students exhibiting behavior that differs from the class norm.
Then it just gets surreal.
These programs also often require students to do 360-degree webcam scans of the rooms in which they’re testing to ensure they don’t have any illicit learning material in sight.
Not surreal enough for Respondus and its customers, apparently. Instructions vary from school to school, but Wilfrid Laurier University students are given an entire gauntlet to run through just for the privilege of taking a test. One set of instructions seems to ask students to roll the dice on permanently damaging their ears.[O]ne WLU professor wrote that anyone who wished to use foam noise-cancelling ear plugs must “in plain view of your webcam … place the ear plugs on your desk and use a hard object to hit each ear plug before putting it in your ear—if they are indeed just foam ear plugs they will not be harmed.”
And there’s so much more! Instructors are taking the intrusiveness baked into Respondus’ exam spyware and adding their own twists. If these weren’t tied to education products, one might assume sexual predators were on the prowl. (One might still assume that, perhaps not even incorrectly. We’ll see how this all shakes out!)
Other instructors required students to buy hand mirrors and hold them up to their webcams prior to beginning a test to ensure they hadn’t written anything on the webcam.
Not every instructor is adding more evil. Some seem to be concerned about the software itself — mainly its reliability and its willingness to see everything unexpected as cheating. But it’s not much less dystopian to advise students on how best to ensure the school’s spyware functions properly during tests. Advice from profs includes telling students to keep everyone else at home off the internet while testing (presumably so no one pings out while submitting answers) and to avoid sitting in front of posters or decorations featuring people or animals so the spyware won’t flag them for having other people in the room during a test.
And it’s not just Canada. An email sent by an instructor at Arkansas Tech told students to engage in a whole bunch of pre-test setup just to assure this small-minded prof they weren’t cheating.
Before beginning an exam, students were required to hold a mirror or their phone’s front-facing camera to reflect the computer screen, and then adjust the webcam so the instructor can “see your face, both hands, your scratch paper, calculator, and the surface of your desk,” according to an email obtained by Motherboard.
If students failed to jump through all these distance learning hoops, the instructor would “set [their] exam score to 0%.”
The coupling of intrusive spyware with increasingly ridiculous demands from instructors has led to open, if mostly remote, revolt. Petitions have been circulated demanding software like this be banned. Feedback sites like ratemyprofessor have been bombed with negative reviews. Unfortunately, the schools have almost all the leverage. It’s not that simple to take your “being educated” business elsewhere, especially in the middle of a global pandemic.
That’s not to say there haven’t been any successes. Blowback from Wilfrid Laurier students forced the Canadian university to withdraw its demand that students set up their own in-home surveillance system by purchasing both an external webcam and a tripod. And some school administrators are at least responding with statements that indicate they recognize the people paying their salaries are unhappy. WLU administrators are promising to “look into” the reported problems, but it seems unlikely it will ditch its proctoring software. What it may do is clarify what instructors can actually ask students to do, which would address at least some of the complaints.
But half-assing it isn’t going to change the intrusive nature of the software itself. But, as noted earlier, students already well on their way to degrees or diplomas can’t just head to the nearest competitor. And there’s a good chance the nearest competitor is using something similar to reduce cheating, which means students will be jumping through one set of hoops just to find themselves jumping through another set at another school.
This pandemic isn’t going to be forever. If it’s in the best interests of everyone to remain as distanced as possible, schools just need to accept the fact that cheating may be a bit more common. Accepting the reality of the situation would be healthier for everyone. Making a bad situation even worse with pervasive surveillance and insane instructions from administrators is the last thing students (and teachers) need right now.