Is Online TestMonitoring Here to Stay

When the coronavirus pandemic began, Femi Yemi-Ese, then a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, began attending class and taking exams remotely, from the apartment that he shared with roommates in the city. A former Division 1 football player, majoring in kinesiology, Yemi-Ese had never suffered from anxiety during tests. "Being in sports for as long as I was, and getting yelled at by coaches, I don’t get stressed much," he said.

He was initially unconcerned when he learned that several of his classes, including a course in life-span development and another in exercise physiology, would be administering exams using Proctorio, a software program that monitors test-takers for possible signs of cheating. The first time Yemi-Ese opened the application, positioning himself in front of his laptop for a photo, to confirm that his Webcam was working, Proctorio claimed that it could not detect a face in the image, and refused to let him into his exam.

Yemi-Ese turned on more lights and tilted his camera to catch his face at its most illuminated angle; it took several tries before the software approved him to begin. Like many test-takers of color, Yemi-Ese, who is Black, has spent the past three semesters using software that reliably struggles to locate his face. Now, whenever he sits down to take an exam using Proctorio, he turns on every light in his bedroom, and positions a ring light behind his computer so that it shines directly into his eyes.

Despite these preparations, "I know that I’m going to have to try a couple times before the camera recognizes me," he said. When we first spoke, last November, he told me that, in seven exams he’d taken using Proctorio, he had never once been let into a test on his first attempt. Adding sources of light seems to help, but it comes with consequences. "I have a light beaming into my eyes for the entire exam," he said. "That’s hard when you’re actively trying not to look away, which could make it look like you’re cheating." Proctorio, which operates as a browser plug-in, can detect whether your gaze is pointed at the camera; it tracks how often you look away from the screen, how much you type, and how often you move the mouse.

It compares your rate of activity to a class average that the software calculates as the exam unfolds, flagging you if you deviate too much from the norm. Meanwhile, Proctorio is also monitoring the room around you for unauthorized faces or forbidden materials. At the end of the exam, the professor receives a report on each student’s over-all "suspicion score," along with a list of moments, marked for an instructor to review, when the software judged that cheating might have occurred.

Last spring, during a Zoom meeting with a professor, Yemi-Ese learned that the software had flagged him for moving too much. "I feel like I can’t take a test in my natural state anymore, because they’re watching for all these movements, and what I think is natural they’re going to flag," he told me. His dread of the software only increased after he was kicked out of an exam when a roommate dropped a pot in the kitchen, making a clang that rang through their apartment.