When to Use – and When Not to Use – Online Proctoring in Education


When to Use – and When Not to Use – Online Proctoring in Education

Mark Musacchio


According to a 2020 study, the average test score of high-stakes US university exams across two courses was significantly lower with the introduction of online proctoring. Researchers concluded that malpractice took place in these courses prior to the introduction of proctoring after taking other relevant factors into account.

This is just one in a series of studies that show consistently, in both the classroom and online, that the incidence of malpractice increases substantially if a test is not proctored. The data alone might suggest every online exam should be proctored to avoid malpractice. The technology is certainly available to make this possible. But, as is so often the case, data doesn’t tell the whole story.

Student pushback

The recent move to online proctoring in education was a necessity brought on by the pandemic, speeding up a change already underway. Unfortunately, the need to rapidly pivot to new technologies and ways of doing things meant adoption was often hurried. The student experience was regularly fraught with technical difficulties that weren’t always supported by good communication.

Now, more than two years after the onset of the pandemic, the reasons for offering students a sub-optimal experience are no longer valid. While the data might tell us online proctoring is always the answer, student feedback strongly suggests otherwise. Social media, online forums, and statements to faculty and staff all show pushback from students that we must listen to. The topic has even surfaced in the senior levels of State and Federal Government dialogue.

With the widespread introduction of proctoring to every online test, quiz, or assessment, many students are understandably upset by the implication that they all want to cheat. They are frustrated by the burden of unnecessary processes involved with low stakes assessments. And they are stressed and anxious about technology they feel is invasive and puts their privacy and data at risk.

These concerns are raised most often when proctoring is fully automated and dependent on Artificial Intelligence (AI) to make decisions with no human involved. They also arise when a live proctor ‘pops-in’ to check on a student during an online test or exam based on the analysis of the same AI algorithms, causing a disruption that students find it hard to recover from. Further concerns relate to the security of browser extensions that have wide-ranging access. Students feel uncomfortable with an extension built to ‘monitor’ them that requires significant permissions (access levels) on the browser that they use for their everyday lives (online banking, personal correspondence, social media, etc.).

With every unnecessary or poor online proctoring experience, students become more anxious and concerned about the impact on their concentration, performance, and results.

Subscription model failure

The problem is exacerbated by subscription-based online proctoring solutions, often those that use AI or drop-in proctors to reduce costs. As faculty and staff see there is no limit to the number of tests that can be proctored and frequent use appears to be more cost effective, online proctoring is used for every weekly test, pop quiz, or formative assessment possible like an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The outcome? Students are upset by a perceived lack of trust, and are increasingly stressed and more resistant to online proctoring overall. When the technology is applied to high-stakes exams – where security is essential and the use case is valid – they are already frustrated and highly reluctant to engage.

To be clear, PSI never uses AI, pop-in proctors, or browser extensions. In our experience which is reflected across numerous education and high-stakes credentialing clients worldwide, these tools and the overuse of online proctoring inevitably leads to a poor student experience. In a competitive market where every negative experience is shared online and students have burgeoning options to pursue their education, the situation does not reflect well on the educational institution. Do you want students to pick their courses based on whether or not they’ll be forced to use a proctoring system on all quizzes or on a desire to learn and prepare for life after schooling?

When to use online proctoring

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the unnecessary overuse of online proctoring is unproductive. But how do you decide when it is necessary or beneficial? The first step is to look at the type and goals of your assessment:

  • Is this a formative assessment performed on a frequent basis to check student learning? We know the lower the stakes of an assessment, the less likely it is a student will cheat. Online proctoring for low-stakes weekly quizzes, for example, is rarely necessary.
  • Is this a summative assessment such as a final exam, where the stakes are high and the outcome will significantly affect a student’s future? Online proctoring, with a human proctor and technology such as a lockdown browser to ensure a secure environment, can protect exam integrity.
  • Is security of proprietary test content a priority? Live online proctoring that allows a proctor to stop cheating immediately combined with technology such as Linear On The Fly Testing (LOFT) can protect your test items and intellectual property while delivering an experience worthy of your content and your students’ hard work.
  • Are you conducting full high stakes testing where some level of protection is still required, for example an end of year exam? Online proctoring offers the assurance that a proctor will review a recording after a test is complete and flag any suspicious behavior.

Authentic assessments

Of course, there are other ways to assess learning outcomes that are becoming increasingly popular such as course work, research projects, and student self-reports. Create more authentic assessments that make cheating difficult or completely ineffective. Still though, secure exams that assess a student’s learning at a significant milestone or the end of their course have an important role to play.

Rather than the overreliance on online proctoring in education, we recommend a mix of assessments that are beneficial to students and offer a positive experience while maintaining the integrity of their qualification. Everyone can benefit from the responsible use of online proctoring for some assessments in education – when they are needed or necessary.