The Real Problem with Proctorio (and Suggestions for How to Fix It)

The Deputy Vice-Chancellor is right, the problem is about trust. ANU has, through its own actions, lost the trust of students.

A lot has been said about ANU’s decision to use a remote proctorial program to invigilate online exams. However, in my opinion, the discussion over technicalities such as whether or not Proctorio, or any other software, meets some technical standard of privacy or security misses the point of student concerns entirely. 

The real problem is a trust deficit. All that this episode demonstrates is the university’s true attitude towards students. 

I think that the real concern is not really about whether Proctorio complies with the Australian Privacy Principles (APPs) or EU General Data Privacy Regulations (GDPR), or whether the data is encrypted to some industry standard or anything like that. 

Throughout this protracted discussion, the university claims that it has listened to student concerns and addressed them. It claims that it will continue to engage with students to resolve concerns, and will continue to provide clear and transparent information to our community. However, the actions of the university administration, combined with the obvious student outcry, demonstrate that it has not listened to student concerns and it has not adequately addressed them. 

The university repeatedly dismisses student concerns without proper engagement with the substance of the concerns. Indeed, the most recent all-staff email sent by Professor Grady Venville, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), appears to accuse some students of breaching the student code of conduct. 

Proctorio, and other software like it, profit by selling a story—that students cannot be trusted. That given the opportunity, all students are likely to cheat and lie their way into getting degrees. A relationship built on distrust between teachers and students is not a sound foundation to be building on. If ANU wants to pride itself on its world class teaching, then it needs to trust its students. Surveillance, privacy and security concerns do not make for an environment that is conducive to teaching and learning. 

Trust goes both ways. ANU made many mistakes in its rollout of the program. If, for example, the ANU genuinely engaged with students, it would have done so from the very beginning, when it was first contemplated using remote invigilation software. Its privacy assessments would not be so dismissive or condescending towards student concerns. And it certainly would not threaten students with a breach of the code of conduct. 

The fact is that students do not trust the ANU to look after their data properly. The fact that only lecturers can access recordings taken of students during an exam does not alleviate this, because students do not trust lecturers to handle that responsibility correctly. Students do not trust that the institution, whom they have relied upon for their education and future aspirations, actually has their education at heart. 

We are living through distressing times, and the university has failed to take into account the human aspect of change management. 

So where to from here? The university is doubling down on its messaging, and clearly not appreciating the magnitude of student concerns. This is exactly the wrong approach. The university needs to address concerns by rebuilding the trust they have lost. 

I have several suggestions.

  1. ANU needs to recognise the significance of what they are asking

Recording information about a person’s face, body movements, bedroom, desks, surroundings, and to some extent, computer configurations has a significant impact on one’s privacy. 

  1. Provide genuine alternatives 

Many privacy standards, such as the APPs and the GDPR, place central importance on the concept of consent. Some terrible privacy assessments I have seen (not in relation to this particular circumstance) have waived all problems with privacy simply because the user consents to the use and collection of information. 

ANU students do not have a real choice—Proctorio was foisted upon them in the middle of a semester. The only other choice given is to defer taking exams to a later period, to do an in-person exam when restrictions on physical gatherings are listed. 

This is not a genuine choice. There is no way of telling when the restrictions will be lifted, it could be next semester or even next year.  Many students need to pass their courses to graduate at the end of this semester and at the end of the year. Students are forced to consent to a serious invasion of privacy if they want to graduate. There is no meaningful option to not consent.

Instead, ANU and course convenors need to develop genuine alternatives, such as alternative assessments or assessments that don’t simply test rote learning but deeper understandings about concepts and ideas. These types of assessments are much more difficult to cheat on than simple exams. 

The business model of companies like Proctorio is built on stifling educational and pedagogical innovation and building distrust between students and teachers, forcing teachers to use outdated forms of assessment that are ill-suited to modern circumstances. 

  1. Mandatory privacy training for convenors and lecturers 

Students need to be reassured that their convenors and lecturers know how to handle sensitive information, such as recordings of their bedroom and living areas. 

Convenors that wish to use Proctorio for their exams should go through mandatory privacy training to ensure they fully understand their obligations under the APPs and any other relevant policies or standards. 

They must be required to take a quiz or exam that tests retention of their knowledge of the APPs. Even better, the results of each convenor’s exam should be published for the students to see. 

Ideally, software such as Proctorio should be used to ensure that course convenors are not cheating on their exams. It is vital that the same academic rigour that the ANU prides itself on is applied to the mandatory privacy training, so that students can trust that the ANU fully understands and accepts the significance of its actions. 

  1. The university needs to apologise

In order to restore student trust, the ANU needs to demonstrate that they are truly listening to students’ concerns and not dismissing them. Unfortunately, the behaviour of the ANU administration has been less than ideal in repairing a relationship of trust. 

Jonathan is a current postgraduate student at ANU and currently tutors at the School of Politics and International Relations. He is also a former undergraduate student at ANU and the former Managing Editor of Woroni. All views expressed are his own.