Exam like somebody’s watching

Today, I completed my first proctored online exam. This exam was my first direct experience of online proctoring. This blog is a reflection on my experience.

If you read this blog and think, what’s the big deal about proctoring, please do some reading. I won’t repeat what many of my far more learned peers say about proctoring but suffice to say it is racist, ableist, intrusive and anxiety inducing. I will not name the proctoring system either. If you wonder why, read about Ian Linkletter and the actions of one of the largest proctoring companies attempting to silence it’s critics. Proctoring companies are defensive and litigious.

A little context:

I am a white able-bodied adult. I was taking the exam to gain a professional qualification for which there was no jeopardy. I did not pay for it, my previous employer did as a reward for winning an award (basically, you could only spend it on training and that sort of thing) and if I didn’t pass, no one would know and there would be no consequences.

Given how little passing mattered, I cannot begin to imagine how students who’s degrees may depend on that exam would feel.

I also have to acknowledge that there are benefits of online proctoring. I was able to do an exam from home. I did all the studying for it from home. The ability to do that provides a level of flexibility and access that an on-site exam cannot. However, the benefits do not outweigh the negatives in my opinion.

Before the exam begins you have to read and watch a video which tells you how the proctoring will work. Basically, don’t move or make noise. No breaks. No supporting documents. First, you need a suitable space. Easier said than done for many. I thought I had chosen a good enough space but realised the glass door would likely be flagged. So I moved to the end of my usual working desk. Kept the curtains closed. Shut my work laptop and pointed my monitor at the wall. I had to ensure nothing was on my desk or in my eyeline. I had to have my photo ID and a mirror/my phone available.

On my machine, I had to install a browser extension. Ensure no other apps were open and that my mic and webcam were permitted. I did all of this an hour or so before the exam and tested my equipment. I am lucky I had the time. It took much longer than just turning up and sitting in a room.

When the exam was to begin, I was able to connect to my proctor. I had to give them permission to take over my mouse and they completed their checks. I had to show them my photo ID and use the mirror to show them my screen and keyboard. I had to pick up my laptop to give them a 360 degree view of the room. Moving from wall to wall.

I thought I had done a pretty good job. However, the proctor asked me to remove the *closed* laptop from the room. Even though it was beyond arms length, closed and if I were to play anything through it, they’d hear it. They also questioned the blue laptop stand it sat on, so I removed both from the room. They asked me where my mobile phone was. I had left it in the other room but they didn’t ask to verify that. It could have been in my pocket.

The proctor was very polite and friendly. They were reassuring and just doing their job. They don’t set the rules. Also, if I did have any requirements or disabilities I had the opportunity to raise them before the exam.

In on-site exams, you are usually allowed paper to take notes on and a drink. I was allowed to take notes on a whiteboard (as though everyone has one hanging around) but it wasn’t clear if I could have a drink. I decided not to bother as it was only 40 minutes. I expect that would be allowed and should be for longer exams.

The proctor did all they needed to do then started the test. I needed to let the proctor know when I was done and ready to submit and the chat box would remain open during the exam. I began.

I did not enjoy the experience. A large part of my brain was focussed on am I moving too much, will they think I am looking away, can I scratch? I am neurotypical (as far as I know) and I found making sure I didn’t do anything to get flagged consumed a lot of my brain function.

Although it didn’t really matter if I passed, the idea that someone was watching me made me a lot more conscious of my answers. Was the proctor familiar with the subject? Are they watching me thinking how dumb I am? Stupid, of course, but that lack of privacy was another thing that consumed my thoughts.

Of course, you are being watched in on-site exams but to me, proctoring is the equivalent of having someone stood over your shoulder and another sat in front of you. You are EXTREMELY conscious of everything.

During the pandemic many universities began using proctoring, some because their professional recognition body (PRB) forced them to but many because it was a way to assuage concerns about ‘cheating’. Thankfully, many universities (including my own at the time) stopped using it.

I did not enjoy my first proctoring experience. I found it intrusive, anxiety inducing and consumed too much of my ‘brain power’. But for these kinds of exams, I would ‘use it’ (I could do an in-person course and exam) because of the flexibility it gave me. BUT do not take that as approval of proctoring as a practice. My sentiment is a reflection of the fact that I am not someone who is disadvantaged by proctoring.

Proctoring is a symptom of broken assessment practices in HE but, as is common in the edtech discourse, we will spend our time decrying the platforms rather than tackling the systemic issues with assessment that led to it’s invention. Because the latter is hard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.