Should we be using EdTech surveillance tools because of the pandemic?

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When we made the switch to online because of the pandemic, I imagine we all were asking ourselves: “How can students learn under these circumstances, and how can I possibly teach well?” Now that we’ve adjusted somewhat, I think now is the time for us to consider another consequential question: Which technological tools might be harming the educational environment of our virtual classroom?” In particular, is it a good idea to implement automated electronic surveillance of our students in this time of crisis?

As long as we continue to stay teaching online, we need educational technology more than ever. Literally every piece of pandemic teaching requires educational technology: email, video conferencing, chat rooms, pre-recorded lessons, and many features of the learning management system software. We need to own the reality that a lot of what we typically do in the classroom doesn’t translate well to online learning.

Many of us are encountering the availability of new EdTech tools for the first time. We need to ask ourselves not just if we can use them, but whether we should use them. We should be wary of technological replacements for the in-classroom experience. Online courses can be as effective as face-to-face courses, but they are different from one another, and as a consequence they should be designed differently. Effective online teaching can be effective even with lower-tech approaches.

When we develop our courses, we combine instructional ingredients into a coherent plan, like a baker combines ingredients to make a cake. If you transplant any baker into a new kitchen, stocked with new ingredients and different cooking tools, they won’t be able to bake the way that they are used to. If the baker doesn’t have flour, they would be ill advised to attempt an angel food cake. Instead, perhaps, they could choose to bake a flourless chocolate cake. We are now working in a different kitchen. We would be foolish to try to substitute our ingredients and still create an edible product. Instead, with our limited time and resources, it’s more efficient and impactful when we try to modify our courses so that they are suitable to the online medium. It’s better to do this not by merely substituting ingredients, but instead, of improvising a new recipe.

Consider, for example, how we might move a typical face-to-face lesson online. In the sciences, this is often a lecture embedded with active learning elements. In a classroom, we would use the board and a slide show, and engage our students in interactive activities for an hour or longer. Educational technology can enable us to transplant these unmodified lessons to a whole semester of extended video chats, but this probably isn’t good idea. There are ways to make better use of synchronous lessons, but we need to keep in mind the pros and cons of synchronous and asynchronous teaching. It would be wiser to modify our lessons to make more effective use of educational technology, rather than simply using EdTech to try to conjure some verisimilitude of a face-to-face class experience.

One of the most difficult aspects of converting a face-to-face course to an online course is implementing exams. How can we possibly administer major exams in a fair manner when students are working in their own homes instead of in our classrooms?

I only just discovered that our LMS is already equipped with a piece of technology that allows us to watch our students through webcams while they are taking exams. Moreover, this technology allows our students to be recorded, and automatically screens this video for any suspicious activity, as deemed by the software. This includes tracking student eye movements. Instructors then will get a report on how suspicious the software thinks the student’s behavior is. For faculty members who are used to administering major exams in a proctored classroom environment, I can see how this automated webcam monitoring of exams seems like a potentially useful substitute. I also am generally horrified how many people who are new to online teaching are adopting this technology, without much concern over the impact on students and the learning environment.

What are the problems with automated surveillance of our students while taking exams? To be frank, having to spell it out makes me feel like sputtering in exasperation. But since so many people are doing this to their students, here is my list of problems with this flavor of educational technology. Some students are legitimately concerned that this is a violation of their privacy. Though it might be legal, that doesn’t make it right. Mass surveillance increases the stress of the testing experience, and some students will be concerned that they might be accused of cheating even if they are following the rules. (I don’t know about you, but when I’m thinking hard about something while taking a test, I’m prone to stare off into space at nothing, away from the exam itself – which is what the automated process labels as suspicious behavior.) Automated surveillance will reward students who are more capable of handling the stress, and those who are more skilled in the art of taking exams — which have nothing to do with measuring how the students have mastered the course material. This type of monitoring doesn’t prevent academic dishonesty from happening, it just provides greater incentives for those who are cheating to be more creative. And in a most practical sense, not all students have computers with the technology required for these tools, and requiring our students to have them can place an undue financial burden.

The biggest problem with automated surveillance is that it sends an undeniable signal to students that we have an adversarial relationship with them. It tells students that we don’t trust them. When we all were required to dive into online teaching a couple months ago, we had a lot of conversation about trauma-informed instruction and letting our students know that we care about their well-being. We emphasized that we are together in this learning experience. And then, when exams roll around, some of us are demanding that students turn on their webcams and be remotely monitored? Because apparently that stuff about mutual respect is apparently just lip service from some of us.

I understand that some folks think that mass surveillance of students is fair and kind because it supports the honest students by preventing the dishonest ones from benefiting from misconduct. Nevertheless, students who want to cheat are still going to be successful at circumventing this kind of surveillance, and by designing our class to foil the cheaters, we’re teaching to the lowest common denominator and harming the learning environment for all of our students. Instead of using educational technology to act like the police, we need to use these tools to find ways to connect with our students as learners, and build relationships of mutual respect.

If we shouldn’t be using mass surveillance to administer online exams, then how are we supposed to give tests? I think there are two possibilities: you could change the kind of test that you’re giving to students, or you can simply opt to not have big tests. If you’re concerned about what students have learned beyond the need to memorize information, then you can offer an open-book test or a take-home test that gives students an extended period of time. However, you wouldn’t be harming yourself or your students if you simply decided against creating huge exams for your students. We mainly use big exams to assign grades to students, and as an extrinsic motivator. While extrinsic motivation might help students score well on exams, it doesn’t actually help them learn, because our exam scores are a better measure of academic savvy than they are actual learning. Many successful online classes have moved away from high-stakes exams towards other types of assignments and smaller quizzes worth fewer points that are taken throughout the semester.

If you’re wedded to administering big exams to your students at the end of this difficult semester, then at the very least, please consider the possibility that you don’t have to use the fancy gizmo in the learning management system to activate the automated surveillance of your students. It does more harm than good.

5 thoughts on “Should we be using EdTech surveillance tools because of the pandemic?

  1. In our pre-Nursing courses, the instructors utilize summative assessments to help students prepare for their entry exams. The entry exams are long and in a multiple choice format, and also utilize some of the surveillance software. Some pre-Nursing instructors are requesting to incorporate surveillance software for their classes in the Fall- 1. to insure the integrity of their exams (we just had 5 students kicked out of the Nursing program for submitting identical exams from the same IP address during the quarantine; coincidentally in the class of one of the instructors requesting the software) and 2. to better mimic the conditions under which they will be taking their entry exams. In my classes, I don’t feel the need to incorporate surveillance software and utilized some of the workarounds you suggested- but I’m torn in my support of my pre-Nursing faculty (I am in a supervisory role and have some influence on whether we should purchase licenses for surveillance software). I am a strong supporter of faculty autonomy and also feel our program has done a great job preparing our students for Nursing (we have very high pass rates on the entry exam), but at the same time there is a lot of pushback against surveillance software, given the reasons you mentioned above. I appreciate any feedback!

  2. Hey Terry,

    I appreciate this post and all of the links. I’m curious where this thought was going: “While extrinsic motivation might help students score well on exams, it doesn’t actually help them learn, because our . “

    • whoops, when I pasted in a link the text disappeared. Fixing this. The sentence should have read in its entirety:
      “While extrinsic motivation might help students score well on exams, it doesn’t actually help them learn, because our exam scores are a better measure of academic savvy than they are actual learning.”

  3. This was in my faculty newsletter recently:

    “Are you using XXX (insert provider) meetings through YYY (insert LMS)? It’s easy to get an attendance list after a meeting has concluded.”

    That screams bad idea to me in terms of easily overlooking the ability of students to maintain the same in-person schedule they signed up for, when things are no longer in-person.

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