Students are protesting plans by the Australian National University (ANU) to enforce the use of remote monitoring software on their home systems for exams during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As reported by ABC News, a petition has been launched to fight the imposition of software on the basis that the forced install of such a solution is an invasion of student privacy. 

Proctorio is at the heart of the controversy. The platform is touted as a “comprehensive learning integrity platform” and a means to “secure remote exams.” 

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This includes the verification of exam takers prior to an assessment through the upload of biometric data and IDs; a remote “lockdown” to prevent outside information from reaching a test taker during the exam period; and the recording of a user’s environment — potentially achieved by taking control of a machine’s microphone and camera. 

In addition, the solution uses machine learning algorithms to automatically flag any suspicious behavior by utilizing eye-tracking and monitoring background noise — and is also able to perform plagiarism scans. A risk assessment is then generated for each student.

ANU is one of many universities that have sought out a remote option for students to take exams without having to visit a campus due to lockdowns prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic

“To ensure that the examinations are safe, secure, transparent and valid, the university will use Proctorio to invigilate exams remotely,” the university told ABC News. “Many universities have used Proctorio, and [the platform] complies with numerous privacy regulations/certifications.”

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There are two major issues at hand here: the imposition of tracking software offered by a third-party and a potential forced installation on home computers. 

If the PCs were the university’s property, then the use of biometric and activity-tracking software — in the same way as some companies use monitoring software on mobile devices loaned to employees — could be seen as part-and-parcel of university education and student contracts. 

However, once you bring private property into the equation, you are also potentially eroding student privacy and their rights concerning what software is hosted on their own machines. 

ANU student representative Grace Hill said that using machine learning to monitor student faces and bodies “crosses the line” for many. 

A Change.org petition demanding that ANU scrap the planned deployment of the software has gathered thousands of signatures at the time of writing. 

In response to the petition, Professor Grady Venville, ANU academic deputy vice-chancellor, urged students to “focus on your studies as exams and assessment periods are fast approaching” rather than concern themselves over the software’s privacy implications. 

A “very productive conversation” took place between the deputy vice-chancellor, ANU Students’ Association (ANUSA), and ANU Postgraduate and Research Students’ Association (PARSA), in which Venville said student concerns were aired. 

However, the university will be going ahead with trials of the software in the coming weeks and an update will be provided to students once tests have been completed as the academic institution is “satisfied” with Proctorio’s privacy measures. 

Venville added that exam recordings can only be seen by students and their teachers. 

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“For many of you, completing exams is imperative to completing or continuing your studies,” Venville said. “We are all in a new and unfamiliar situation due to the COVID-19 crisis. The university is doing all it can to minimize disruption to your studies. You have a part to play in that too.”

ZDNet has reached out to Proctorio and will update when we hear back. 

Previous and related coverage


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