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Wisconsin Spotlight | Sept 21, 2020

MADISON — A bit of Big Brother is coming to a college test near you.

Some professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are now using Honorlock, an automated proctoring service recently added to the university’s “suite of digital teaching and learning tools.”

The Artificial Intelligence test monitor is designed to guard against cheating on exams. In a pandemic in which the traditional classroom is often closed off, proponents of the technology applaud the solutions. But students, parents and some privacy advocates are voicing concerns about the growing use of automated proctoring services on college campuses across the country.

Asked last week about whether UW-Madison was using such monitoring systems, a university official pointed to a campus press release. A source had reached out to Wisconsin Spotlight and said the university had been using a proctoring service for a few months and some parents were concerned.

Indeed, the press release notes that some instructors are using Honorlock, which helps instructors “create a responsible, fair test-taking environment online, where students can demonstrate their own independent learning.”

“Yet instructors still retain responsibility for reviewing students taking the quiz or exam, setting parameters for the test-taking environment, and determining when academic misconduct occurs, as they would in an in-person classroom,” the university asserts. “Only instructors review the information captured during an exam or assessment.”

Honorlock was used in more than 3,000 exams in UW-Madison courses over the summer, according to the university. The press release claims many instructors and students found Honorlock was easier to use than expected.

“Like all centrally supported tools, Honorlock has undergone a systematic and rigorous vetting and approval process including our campus legal and technology experts,” the press release states.

But cybersecurity experts say there is reason to be concerned.

In early April, The Washington Post reported on the growing lineup of online exam proctoring services and the privacy problems they can create.

As the Post reported, many systems require access to a student’s webcam, microphone, screen and browser. Some use facial recognition or eye tracking and artificial intelligence.

Honorlock, according to UW-Madison, uses a Google Chrome browser extension and artificial intelligence (AI) to track and/or limit student activity during a quiz or exam. It denotes, or flags, “certain behaviors or unusual activity during an exam.”

The university press release hastens to point out that the browser extension only operates while a student is taking an exam, and can be uninstalled thereafter — if the student chooses. Only instructors review “unusual activity” to determine whether academic misconduct has occurred.

One student said the systems are like “a one-sided FaceTime.” 

Some online exam proctoring services demand to monitor a student’s room or screen, and grab browsing and search histories.

“It’s a set of ‘features’ that borders on what might be called ‘spyware’ in the cybersecurity world,” Sean Lawson, associate professor in the Department of Communication at University of Utah wrote in a column for Forbes. The problem, Lawson said, is that universities are accepting this kind of ’spyware’ as part of the new norm of the coronavirus era.

UW-Madison says the Honorlock system professors use does not “directly monitor secondary devices, such as tablets or phones, or network traffic other than the student’s on their own computer.” But it’s still monitoring. 

At least there’s no charge to students for the proctoring service, according to the press release.

Lawson notes that faculty and students and some universities are pushing back on what they see as privacy infringements.

“Many university administrators have responded by pointing to the unprecedented nature of the current situation as warranting the expansion of surveillance measures,” Lawson wrote. “Others point to the widespread use of proctoring tools and the assurances made by the software vendors, as if to say, ‘it’s O.K. because everyone else is doing it too’ and ‘if something goes wrong, it’s on the vendor, not us.’”

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