York says goodbye to most online proctoring software

Students have been raising concerns since last March, particularly about potential discrimination and privacy issues. (Courtesy of Pixabay)

Starting in Summer 2021, York will bid farewell to much of its controversial usage of online proctoring software. The Senate Executive Committee recently decided that technology-enabled invigilation — including proctoring software or video proctoring — will no longer be used by instructors at York for the duration of the pandemic, unless in exceptional circumstances. 

This decision comes as a win for many students who have been raising concerns about discrimination, inequities, and privacy breaches.

Online proctoring software, like Proctortrack, has been used at York since the start of the pandemic. The software lists features on its website like multi-factor biometric authentication and continuous facial recognition of students taking exams. Currently, a web page dedicated to instructing York students on how to use this software remains available.

Senate Chair Alison Macpherson cites student and faculty concerns as part of the grounds for the Senate’s decision, specifically mentioning “the concerns around equity, privacy, student anxiety, and technical challenges.”

Other grounds for the decision mentioned in the statement included a “lack of persuasive evidence on the effectiveness of online proctoring in the detection and prevention of academic dishonesty,” as well as the need for the university to have a clear position on the use of proctoring, for consistency between faculties. 

As for what will be used in place of online proctoring, a few suggestions have already been made. Macpherson says the Teaching Commons and Learning Technology Services has offered one-on-one virtual consultations with instructors to assist them in adopting alternative ways to assess students and “adapting their curriculum to support a high quality, online learning experience for students.”

According to University Registrar Darran Fernandez, a customized web browser called Safe Exam Browser (SEB) may be enabled by instructors for use during online quizzes and exams. Unlike online proctoring tools, SEB does not monitor online activity and no data is recorded. It simply prevents students from opening other tabs while writing the online exam.

However, the decision does have exceptions. “It preserves flexibility to permit exceptions where they are warranted,” states Macpherson. Examples of these include “courses where there is a requirement for proctored tests or exams by an accreditation body or professional association, or has learning outcomes that cannot be assessed without online proctoring.” 

If any of these exceptional circumstances occur and an instructor wishes to use online proctoring, they will need to obtain authorization from both the dean or principal of the faculty, as well as from the vice-provost academic.

Fernandez says this decision will provide clarity across the university. “The Senate Executive decision reflects the challenges associated with online proctoring raised as issues by students and faculty members, and provides a clear university position on, and approach to, the use of online proctoring for the duration of the disruption caused by the pandemic.

Jessie Whyte, Vice President of Campaigns and Advocacy for the York Federation of Students (YFS), says these concerns have been constantly brought to the attention of the YFS by students, beginning in March 2020. 

“During lobby meetings with York’s senior administration, the YFS Executives brought forward this concern and continued to advocate on behalf of students in this matter through further meetings and emails,” Whyte says.

NBC documented cases in which some online proctoring softwares failed to recognize or misidentified Black students, due to the technology not being calibrated to pick up on their skin tones. Situations like these place racialized students at an unfair disadvantage.

“Many Black, Indigenous, and racialized students also have concerns about how biometric data is stored through Proctortrack, especially considering it is an American-owned company, of which many have dubious agreements with law enforcement agencies,” Whyte adds. “With anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism inherent in the system of law enforcement, it is understandable why many students are concerned.”

They also mention the software’s potential impacts on students with medical conditions and disabilities.

“Students with certain medical conditions or disabilities that prohibit them from sitting for long periods of time, those who require frequent restroom breaks, or anyone who needs to administer medication during an exam had the potential to be flagged,” Whyte says. 

“With other Proctortrack requirements, such as holding ID stationary in front of the camera or with the use of eye-tracking technology, students with disabilities are disproportionately impacted.”

Moreover, they add that online proctoring software can negatively impact trans and gender-nonconforming students, specifically through the requirement of presenting and logging photo ID.

“Software asking students to verify their identity is compromising for students who identify as trans, non-binary, or express their gender in ways counter to cis/heteronormativity. If a student’s gender expression or name on their ID are different from their current gender expression or name, the algorithm may flag them as suspicious,” Whyte says. “When this happens, they may have to undergo another level of scrutiny to authenticate their identity, an already common and traumatic experience for trans and gender non-conforming students.”

In response to the Senate decision, Whyte expresses positivity for the student body. “This is a big win for students and it serves as an important reminder of the fact that the students united will never be defeated.”

About the Author

By Sakeina Syed

Former Editor

Sakeina is in her third year at York University studying public administration and creative writing. She is committed to learning and writing about critical issues and uplifting marginalized stories. Outside of Excalibur, you'll most likely find her reading a book or collecting funny cat videos.

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