CUNY Students Raise Concerns About Online Proctoring

Photo by Christin Hume via Unsplash.

While taking his first quiz of the fall semester, Baruch junior and an alternate delegate at University Student Senate Yehuda Wexler slowly moved his head to the left to check the remaining time, hoping he wouldn’t get flagged by his anti-cheating software. 

To combat academic dishonesty this fall, some professors across CUNY are requiring students use proctoring software for assignments, quizzes and exams. According to the Sept. 1 update of the university’s guidance for academic continuity, CUNY was in the midst of contractual negotiations with two types of proctoring software called Respondus and Proctortrack and hopes to administer one of them by midterm season. If they contract with Respondus, the program will be added to Blackboard, whereas a contract with Proctortrack will be distributed to individual campuses. 

At Baruch, some professors are requiring students to install Proctorio, a proctoring program that monitors eye movements, scans rooms and records video and sound. Although CUNY has yet to finalize a university-wide contract, students were asked to pay a one-time fee of $15 to install it. Proctorio, as well as other potential software, has raised privacy concerns among CUNY students like Wexler. Concerned students from Baruch and Brooklyn created a petition still circulating among CUNY students calling attention to privacy violations with Proctorio. The petition is at 28,000 signatures as of Oct. 5. 

On Sept. 1 CUNY announced students can’t be forced to agree to the terms and conditions of a proctoring software. “In the event students do not accept the terms, faculty must provide students reasonable assessment accommodations,” states the university’s guidance for academic continuity. CUNY did not respond to The Envoy’s request for comment about the petition or students’ privacy concerns. 

The university nearly implemented the software in the spring semester, during which classes went online and cheating seemed to increase, but then decided against it. At the time, the New York Post reported that the reason CUNY didn’t use Respondus is because it would have required individual students to accept the terms of agreement, not the university.

For Wexler’s asynchronous management class, he was forced to download Proctorio and accept the terms and conditions to take his first quiz. Proctorio’s extension requires students to accept terms and conditions, which allow the program to manage, store or change data like screen content, downloads, privacy settings, keystroke movements and more. “Proctorio is a direct and abhorrent violation of privacy at every conceivable level,” the petition states. “CUNY colleges must create solutions to test-taking that does not violate students’ right to privacy, especially in their own homes.” 

“This course will use Proctorio,” Wexler’s management professor states in the syllabus. “As your instructor I’ve chosen the secure exam settings required by this course, and only I will make a judgement as to any potential academic integrity violation.” 

Proctorio validates students’ identity through ID and face scans, evaluates their room, monitors eye movements via webcam and records sounds and reports anything suspicious to instructors. “I’m uncomfortable with it,” Wexler said. “It’s an invasion of privacy on our own personal laptops.” 

Some CUNY courses heavily rely on Connect by McGraw-Hill, an online learning platform that rolled out Proctorio this fall. The software enables “instructors to support academic integrity and assessment security, with features like preventing students from navigating away from a test environment, verifying students’ identities and monitoring them as they complete assignments,” it says on McGraw-Hill’s site. In August, Proctorio’s CEO Mike Olsen posted student chat logs on Reddit which raised major privacy concerns according to The Guardian

Following CUNY’s announcement on online proctoring, Baruch’s provost reiterated it in an email to faculty on Sept. 14. “The central office concluded that we may not compel students to participate in online proctoring,” said John McCarthy, interim provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “Given the scale of the courses most likely to be in need of online proctoring,” he writes referring to large courses, “providing an alternative will be a challenge.” Baruch created a team of students and faculty to look into alternatives for online proctoring. 

“I’m thankful to the students that signed and shared the petition. It made a difference,” said Wexler, who is no longer being monitored by Proctorio for his quizzes and exams. Following the complaints, his professor is no longer forcing students to install Proctorio and providing instructions on how to get refunded. Earlier this week Wexler emailed Proctorio for his refund.

At other colleges some professors have warned students that proctoring software will be required as soon as CUNY makes a decision. However, students like Aharon Grama from Brooklyn College are frustrated because they weren’t notified before registration that their course would require online proctoring. Grama, a sophomore, serves as the chief of staff for the undergraduate student government at Brooklyn College and as a USS delegate. 

Grama was one of the organizers of the petition. He noticed CUNY students complaining on Reddit about professors requiring Proctorio and when a student approached him with a petition, he helped edit it and spread it around CUNY colleges on Discord, a messaging platform. “We started seeing it all over Facebook, Whatsapp groups, and even Tiktok,” Grama said. Eventually the petition was backed by the USS and several campus student governments from different colleges including Hunter.

When CUNY announced the update on proctoring, “We knew this was in response to what we did but we were never mentioned,” said Grama. “In a way we won, but we’re still fighting for student privacy,” he said. A big concern for Grama is students getting pressured to opt in for the software by other students or professors. 

USS Vice Chairperson Kesi Gordon, who is also on the task force overseeing university-wide online proctoring, released a statement addressing proctoring. “Overall the task force will consider proctoring tools that have similar features and that is least intrusive, because we are aware of test anxiety and other issues that may arise while testing,” Gordon writes to students. She also mentioned the tool will be free, professors can choose whether or not to implement it, and moving forward, courses using it should inform students before enrollment. 

Student privacy is also a major concern of Gordon’s. “As we await CUNY’s decision on a remote proctoring tool, we will continue to advocate for the protection of student privacy,” she writes in an update to the petition. 

Proctoring software, whether it is Proctorio or Respondus, discriminates against disabled students, said Baruch freshman Joshua Greenberg who has Asperger syndrome. His math professor will require students to use a proctoring software once CUNY finalizes one, and Greenberg is against it. “For students with disabilities, there needs to be a way that if we need to stretch our legs it won’t flag us,” Greenberg said. “Eye contact is a big issue, I can’t guarantee I can keep my eyes still for two hours.” Whatever software CUNY uses, Greenberg suggests they include a feature to allow students with disabilities to have their legally entitled breaks during exams. 

At Hunter, at least one chemistry professor implemented Respondus in the spring and continues to use it this fall according to students. The professor required students to download the lockdown browser feature to use during exams and quizzes, but not the remote monitoring feature. Instead, the professor used Zoom to proctor students through a second device which recorded them and the original device they’re taking the exam on. Hunter College did not respond to The Envoy’s request for comment. 

Hunter will work with CUNY and explore Respondus. It’s up in the air whether Hunter will add the software program to Blackboard but the college is exploring the option. “As we work to determine if this is the right fit for Hunter, we are also continuing to review of other solutions we could consider,” it states in Hunter’s guidance for faculty.

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