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Right now with the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada I believe most Ontario universities and colleges have their classes online, and my university decided to do that as well. With this in mind, many of our final exams are now being taken online with a camera and microphone recording, a lockdown browser to make sure you cannot access the web, and a proctor watching you over the internet. Before the exam begins, you must do a 360 environment scan of your entire workspace (your entire room, table with nothing on top, your wall and ceiling, etc). Recently my prof made an announcement saying that if a student did not do an environment scan properly, did not have their eye on the screen the entire time, or as long as they felt that a student is cheating, they can reject and invalidate the exam without any proof. Out of curiosity, is this actually allowed?

Another thing that was ridiculous about these online exams is that on the exam information document, it said “if you do not wish to be recorded, you should not take this course.” But this decision of everything going online was made after 3/4th of the term and some profs decided to have online exams a week before the exam weeks, so why do we have to do an online exam when we never had chosen for it to be online? Can I interpret this as "either do the exams online or drop the course, and we will not refund you any tuition"?

I really felt uncomfortable showing my room to people I don’t know, and I think that it violated my privacy. (I live in an off campus residence and my room is the only place where I can make it like an “exam hall”). Is there a place I can complain about this, and will they actually listen?

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    I wonder how they deal with students needing to go to the bathroom in the middle of an exam? Are they expecting you to not be allowed a bathroom break for two hours straight? – Dan Romik Apr 19 at 7:36
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 Apr 20 at 3:53
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    Do you know if this has been approved by the legal department at the university? I can imagine that the requirement to accommodate for students with disabilities (which I strongly suspect Ontario to have) will open a very large can of worms here. For example, how will blind or deaf students be accommodated? – gerrit Apr 20 at 9:00
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    I am suprised no one mentioned this. If you are sharing your room, the university is forcing you to share your roommate's room as well. I am not sure how “if you do not wish to be recorded, you should not take this course.” would apply to your roommate who possibly have nothing to do with your university. – Boaty Mcboatface Apr 20 at 11:46
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    “they can reject and invalidate the exam without any proof”: would that be considered as a failure or does it simply mean you would have to do it again? Also “have their eye on the screen the entire time” seems difficult to do for an extended period of time. Does it mean you may not use a sheet of paper for writing notes and calculations? – Didier L Apr 21 at 14:04
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Universities around the world are trying very hard right now to find ways to balance students’ rights to privacy and dignity with difficult practical questions concerning the transition to remote teaching and testing.

Regarding testing, the reality is that cheating is a common occurrence in many places even in normal times when testing is done in the physical presence of and under the supervision of the instructor. There is little doubt that many students will take advantage of a remote testing environment in order to cheat, making the problem potentially much worse. This hurts honest students, hurts the university’s reputation, and devalues grades as a signal containing meaningful information. So, to put it very mildly, it is to everyone’s benefit that cheating be prevented to the extent possible.

All those things considered, if the choice is between a small intrusion on your privacy and closing down the university or cancelling all tests and grades, I think it’s clear that these sorts of anti-cheating measures are simply the best we can do at this moment in time, and you just have to accept this indignity as a necessary (and hopefully temporary) evil.

You can complain, but unless your complaint is accompanied by some solution to the remote testing problem that is so ingenious and innovative that it will make photographing your room unnecessary and prevent cheating at the same time, I wouldn’t expect your complaint to particularly impress anyone. Sorry, I don’t mean to sound harsh but that’s just the way it is.

Anyway, you have my sympathy. Keep in mind your professors are also stressed out and are also called on to do things many of them are uncomfortable with during this difficult time.


Edit: after thinking some more about this issue, I think a much bigger problem with these testing restrictions is that they seem to prohibit students from using the bathroom during the exam. This strikes me as a much bigger deal than the privacy intrusion, as it conflicts with basic human physiological needs, and raises significant issues of fairness and equity (as certain populations of students will find it much harder to comply with such a constraint than others). So if you are thinking of complaining, I would recommend making this the focus of your complaint rather than the privacy intrusion. It wouldn’t necessarily lead to the cancellation of the 360 degree scan requirement, but I can see a decent chance that the professor and/or university might reconsider some of the other somewhat draconian restrictions, as well as their general approach to the whole remote testing issue.

As for who to complain to, you should go through the usual channels for complaints within your institution, whatever those are (the professor, department chair, college, ombudsperson, student union, etc).


Edit 2:

To address a few of the objections to what I wrote that were raised in the comments:

  1. The privacy intrusion is not “small”: perhaps; it depends on your frame of reference, and in ordinary times I’d totally agree. But my point is that these aren’t ordinary times, and standards for what constitutes an acceptable level of privacy intrusion are changing out of necessity. So when I say “small” I really mean “as small as can practically be achieved while still allowing the professor to do their work at a level of effectiveness the professor considers acceptable.”

  2. It’s not clear that the professor was required to use this method of testing. Other professors are doing things differently. I never said the professor is guided by university rules. It’s possible each professor only receives general guidance from their university and has to decide for themselves about specific rules for remote testing. As long as their decision is generally reasonable, the fact that other professors made different decisions is a very weak argument. Although a bit of consistency is a desirable thing, there is no rule that all professors must handle all situations in an identical manner.

  3. Your argument is premised on the assumption that this method of testing can be proved to be the only effective solution to the assessment problem. Please provide proof that this is so. It’s not premised on that assumption at all. There isn’t a scientifically proven, ideal method of testing. Professors have to make real-life decisions about real-life situations and do the best they can based on their intuition and experience. They don’t all have to agree on the best way of doing something, and don’t need to have a rigorous scientific basis for any decision they make. Sometimes they even make wrong decisions. There is room to debate and question each decision, but just saying a decision is illegitimate because the person making it can’t scientifically prove that it’s the best decision is not a valid argument.

  4. I am outraged! So am I. This situation sucks! But instead of complaining, offer workable solutions. Believe it or not, professors also do not want to see anyone’s bedroom, and would be happy to switch to an alternative system if you can simply show them one and convince them that it satisfies the need to maintain a minimum level of integrity and effectiveness in assessing students’ knowledge. Professors are not evil people trying to oppress students. They are just trying to get a job done to the best of their abilities under difficult circumstances.

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    Sorry but "a small intrusion"? You realize the OP has to show the inside of their bedroom, inside of their own property. They may not be even be living alone; they don't have to . In most countries, even police cannot do, without a warrant, what the university is trying to do – onurcanbkts Apr 19 at 6:48
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    @onurcanbektas if it weren’t for the pandemic I’d totally agree with you. But the standards for what is acceptable have changed out of necessity. Maybe instead of outrage you can offer some practical solutions? Please tell us how you would run a university right now if they put you in charge. – Dan Romik Apr 19 at 7:32
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    Wow, this answer has proven controversial. Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. I'll leave these two as they summarize the two main viewpoints. – cag51 Apr 19 at 20:10
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    My partner is involved in exactly this kind of thing at a UK university. Anything requiring more than the most basic computer access was immediately thrown out, as it could neither be assumed that the students would have any kind of special hardware at home (as opposed to the university library) and/or any kind of private location. In the end they opted for time limited (48 h) open book style exams and the students can upload their by a variety of methods, down to taking a picture of the paper they have been writing on. They still expect a non-negligible number of exceptions to this. – Marianne013 Apr 21 at 21:53
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    "All those things considered, if the choice is between a small intrusion on your privacy and closing down the university or cancelling all tests and grades" False dilemma fallacy. As @Marianne013 has already pointed out, this isn't universal and I can confirm it's not taking place at another UK institution. Open book exams are certainly possible and a lot more reasonable. – Adam Williams Apr 21 at 23:43
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We have the same kind of procedure at my university in europe. My advisor put it this way: This online testing is an offer for those who want/need to use it. It is far from ideal, but if you really need to take that exam now, you have the possibility. If it is not so urgent, you can wait until exams can be held at the university, though the time for that will be very dependent from your location. At our university we estimate that we can resume examinations in person at some point during summer. If you are uncomfortable with online exams, you should ask around, when somewhat "normal" exams can be taken again. Unfortunately, there is no other way right now.

Remember that the whole world loses in this pandemic, big time. Students are sadly not exempt from that.

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    It's not clear whether you are thinking of mid-term examinations in a class (like the question is), or about qualifying examinations in a course of study. It might be far easier to delay the latter by a few months until campus reopens. – Ben Voigt Apr 19 at 22:08
  • Yes, indeed, I am talking about exams at the end of the semester. As far as I can tell, mid-term examinations will require mandatory online tests or a change in examination modus. It's not a pretty situation. – And Apr 20 at 7:00
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    If you don't mind this intrusion on your privacy: where in Europe are you? I know that the concepts of privacy in the context of exams varies, e.g. IIRC in Italy, [oral?] exams are always public (anti-corruption/fair procedure) whereas in Germany, I'm familiar with the student having the right to bring someone else, but without the student agreeing, noone but the examinees, examiners and protocolant can be there. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Apr 20 at 14:16
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    I'm from Austria. We are pretty succesful right now with containing the pandemic, although a lot of the regulations violate our constitution. So our supreme courts will presumably remove them soon. A lot of what is happening here is in some sort of gray zone. – And Apr 20 at 14:56
  • It is unclear from your post, if you support what your advisor says. You mention his explanation, but this does not include if this should be supported. I see for example the problem that he creates a false dilemma between "privacy" and "doing the exam" excluding all other alternatives that may exist. – allo Apr 25 at 15:17
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As Dan Romik’s answer suggests, I think it is unlikely you’ll be able to get an individual exception from this policy.

However, you can give polite and respectful feedback explaining that you find it highly intrusive. That would, I think, be perfectly appropriate. It’s true that, as other answers say, everyone (including both students and professors) has to make non-ideal compromises to balance privacy against cheating — but I and other academics I’ve discussed these issues with are all accepting a little more risk of cheating as part of the compromise, rather than resorting to measures as strict as the ones you describe. A full 360º scan is much more intrusive than just requiring a video-call; as a faculty member, I would feel quite uncomfortable enforcing that policy, and equally uncomfortable if I had to provide such a scan of my own bedroom.

An appropriate feedback note could go something like:

Dear XXX,

I’m just writing to give some feedback on the exam workspace verification procedure required for course Sci-101. While I appreciate that we all have to accept unusual compromises in the current situation, this procedure will be in practice highly intrusive on our personal privacy. For many students, the only suitable workspace available will be their own bedroom; others may only have a shared room, or be in other living arrangements that complicate the situation. Many people may feel quite uncomfortable being required to share a full view of such a space with instructors.

I don’t know whether you’re involved in setting these procedures yourself, or have a channel for feedback to whoever does set them; but either way, I hope that you or they will bear these issues seriously in mind, and consider other less intrusive verification possibilities in future, for the sake of respecting student privacy better.

Yours sincerely, YYY.

Now, what does this achieve? Couldn’t they simply answer with: “The situation doesn’t allow for anything else”, and be done with it?

This depends on what’s happening behind the scenes. “The situation doesn’t allow for anything else” is patently false, since plenty of other instructors/departments are deciding to go with slightly less rigorous but less intrusive procedures, as their preferred compromise. Of course, some people/committees are inflexible and then the feedback falls on deaf ears and achieves nothing. But most decision makers are (in my experience) somewhat open to feedback, and hearing that it did make students uncomfortable may inform the decisions in future.

The case where it might be most useful is if the faculty themselves are somewhat divided: if some instructors argued for this procedure (and won) while others would have preferred a less intrusive option. Student feedback like this would be very useful support for the anti-intrusion camp arguing their case. I can certainly imagine if my department had asked us to impose this kind of check, I would be glad of student feedback to support pushing back against it.

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  • Excellent lette template! I'd add the concern that these points may mean that the exam is void/invalid. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Apr 20 at 12:04
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Can you wall off part of your room by hanging a sheet from the ceiling? Then you could only show them the part of your room that you take the exam in. Just an idea.

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    I'd combine this with @PLL's answer. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Apr 20 at 7:35
  • Or throw a sheet / tarp whatever over any areas in the room that you don't want them to see (your collection of Hello Kitty dolls, for example -innocent smile-) – Dragonel Apr 21 at 17:52
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I'm looking at this from a perspective. Cultural points that are relevant for this question:

  • We do have keep-away-from-other-people legislation, but not stay-at-home legislation (stay at home would probably be unconstitutional since the risk comes from being close to people rather than from home/not home)
  • During the last days, we have had some interesting decisions by constitutional courts (both federal and Länder [≈ provinces]) emphasizing that measures taken against Covid-19 must not be harder than needed, and when constitutional rights are affected it is necessary to search for possibilities to keep these rights intact while also keeping Covid-19 safety.
    These decisions (well, those that made it prominently into the media) were even holding up the right to public assembly (under certain Covid-19 safety measures such 20 instead of 100s participants, face masks [!], distance marks, ... or doing the assembly in cars)
  • privacy is taken quite important over here.

Putting this together, I'm pretty sure that the described exam mode would be considered unnecessarily intrusive.

One example of an exam "mode" that would not require to be all that intrusive (i.e. not require environment scan) would be to conduct the exam orally during a video call. I may add that in my studies, the really important exams were all oral exams.
As for practicality of oral exams: when I had a TA job as PhD student, semster "strength" was about 200 students for the undergrads/Bachelor students, and we had them all for oral exams in their first and again in the second year (plus some more from other fields of study, but they were in the "off-terms" so much less of a logistic problem). (Yes they also had written exams, and they had labwork practica which were graded, too). So maybe I see a kind of "pain" as normal that others would consider utterly impractical.

Or even in person with appropriate safety measures.

Also, over here, schools are closed, but where I am the written final exams* took place as originally scheduled: since no other classes were around, the students could be seated far apart (across many rooms, also many teachers available), desks were disinfected and everyone had to wash their hands (hand disinfectant was provided as well).

* Gymnasium [≈ high school] has a final exam that is the entrance exam for university and that is done at the same time and with the same questions across all schools


 not do an environment scan properly, [...] as long as they felt that a student is cheating, they can reject and invalidate the exam without any proof.

The accusation that a student cheated is a serious one. The examiner feeling that this is the case is not sufficient.

“if you do not wish to be recorded, you should not take this course.

Whether that is legally possibly in Canada I have no idea. Here in Germany, professors are public officials, and the legal situation is very strict on fair procedure since students don't have a choice but to take the exams prescribed for their studies. So everything that even slightly smells of abuse of power is a big no-no.

Now, recordings of exams are often done, e.g. by having someone who writes protocol - that is not intrusive. I also know that in some cases audio recordings are done in exams but AFAIK that needs permission and I think (though I'm not entirely sure) a student has the right to refuse and then a written protocol is the fall back option.
Any kind of exam protocol is highly sensitive data. I'd therefore expect that it may be the university who do not allow video recordings (in particular if the video meeting is done via services like zoom) because guaranteeing that the recording is safe is too much hassle/risk for them.


did not have their eye on the screen the entire time

Requiring this over 2 hours would probably run foul of screen work safety rules here.


What to do?

  • I'd go for the least private room possible and I'd go for the "blanket method" of increasing video call privacy.
  • Consider contacting the student ombudsperson or privacy protection person at your university and hear what they say. That is ultimately far more to the point than the opinions of strangers on the internet.
  • Whether to contact your professor now or after all marks are given is something strangers in the internet can IMHO not recommend since a good strategy very much depends on you, your professor, and your relationship to the professor.
    • One thing that I'd say could be said beforehand is: You may express a concern that the exam may turn out to be void due to the highly unusual requirements surrounding the exam, e.g. together with PLL's example letter
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    As a german I agree. No university would dare demand this. This is unreasonable and plain illegal here. – TheoreticalMinimum Apr 20 at 14:02
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    In the Netherlands students have started a petition against a this type of examination: change.org/p/… – Ivana Apr 20 at 22:59
  • What is the "blanket method" of increasing video call privacy? – Federico Poloni Apr 21 at 8:03
  • @FedericoPoloni: hang a blanket or bed sheet behind you to have a neutral background (and carefully adjust where the camera points). – cbeleites unhappy with SX Apr 21 at 8:51
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    @FedericoPoloni: it's more for normal video calls, not for the intrusion level of 360° calls (I'd call that painter's blanket method then...). But I think it's easier if that someone uses the door after the 360° call rather than coming from behind the blanket. After all, if someone is to come in, that door will be outside the camera viewing angle after the scan. Whereas the blanket is meant to be inside. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Apr 21 at 10:24
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I understand that your are talking about a college/university exam (as opposed to a high school exam), and that it is a scientific education (e.g. physics, engineering) as opposed to a vocational one (e.g. nursing, lab technician).

Then I would argue that the professor is less than ingenious here, and that the questionable and fraught privacy intrusion could be avoided by altering the exams.

A college degree certifies that you can work "scientifically", which means that you use available information as a base to solve non-trivial problems. This is what your exam should test. It is of course necessary to have some basic rote knowledge, mostly so that one knows how to tackle a problem and where to find relevant information. Making good use of available information is a core requirement for educated work. The typical work of an engineer or programmer is not to sit alone in a room and apply rote knowledge. The typical work is to identify the problem the customer actually has, assemble all available information to find an array of possible solution strategies, choose the most appropriate one for the parameter space and implement it with all the information you can get; typically this is a team effort, so you need social skills as well.

Now in an exam situation we assume the problem is clearly stated, and we want to grade individuals, so there is often not team work.

But reproducing rote knowledge is not the essence of educated work and testing it should not be the essence of a scientific exam.

This is why we use calculators at math exams these days (if we compute numbers at all), and dictionaries in language education. Yes, you need to be able to perform some calculations in your head, but that it not what constitutes a math education (as opposed to, say, that of a croupier); and yes, you need basic vocabulary to understand a language but an encyclopedic vocabulary is not what constitutes linguistics (while it is of utmost importance to, say, an interpreter).

The professor should devise an exam which either encourages research (e.g. from the internet) or makes it irrelevant because solutions cannot be found online.

The best solution would be to avoid a classic exam which is simply performed online, with all the repercussions. Instead I would ask for a thesis paper which is written offline with whatever means are available, similar to a PhD but less demanding in scope and volume. Of course, just like with a PhD, a student can cheat almost at will and let somebody else write it. This is checked by an oral exam where the student must ask relevant questions about their work. No need to scan the room for that, any conversation e.g. with the actual author of the paper would be noticeable.

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    This is in principle a fine idea, but it doesn't scale to a large class (or even necessarily even to a medium-sized class). There are several other difficulties with oral exams - they are relatively hard to keep objective, and they may be very stressful for students who aren't used to them. – Ben Bolker Apr 21 at 17:52
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    @BenBolker Considering that almost all European universities have large (200+ students) class oral exams apparently they do scale quite well. As far as objectivity goes, my experience is that it is extremely hard to accurately measure knowledge using written exams since you have no feedback from the student and can only see the random scribbles they make on the paper. During oral exams you can usually figure out what the students knows or doesn't know very quickly and much more thoroughly since follow up questions can be asked. – DRF Apr 21 at 18:44
  • @BenBolker I do admit that there is a stress factor which shouldn't be underestimated. In my personal experience the biggest problem comes for students that don't actually attend the examinations due to not feeling prepared enough. Once the student is there the stress can be usually easilly handled if the professor is somewhat experienced. – DRF Apr 21 at 18:46
  • @BenBolker The oral exam is only to verify that the student was the author of the paper; it could be 5 minutes. Yes, grading papers is more work than correcting --- the other extreme -- multiple choice exams. But I think it's doable. (Political science in Berlin, with thousands of students, was entirely graded based on papers.) – Peter - Reinstate Monica Apr 22 at 5:41
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Is this allowed? At the university level: check the minutes of Senate meetings of your institutions. The extraordinary measures at my school - which do not include the kind of oversight you describe - had to be approved by Senate.

This monitoring app is meant to solve a real problem: I hear constant and serious rumours of massive cheating. The administrators are trying to solve a real problem. I’m glad we don’t use it where I work.

What to do? In the short term: your university has also implemented some emergency measures when it comes to late withdrawal or the assignment of numerical or letter grades. This is mildly helpful - you cannot get credit for a course if you didn’t pass it - but at least it provides one option over taking an exam in the conditions you describe if you are uncomfortable with this surveillance.

Let’s hope this is only a one-time patch. I would like to believe that most instructors are as uncomfortable with this as students are, but there was very limited time to find a solution with 3 weeks to go in the term. As an instructor, I will certainly revise my mode of evaluation to avoid the situation you’re in if we have to continue offering courses in remote-teaching mode.

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The demand is inherently unreasonable. The situation at hand is not so extraordinary that we must permit rampant abuse.

They are doing this because of the fear of rampant cheating. I have encountered such complaints long ago.

Available solution 1: Open book/open notes/open internet exam. I've had such exams during normal times as important exams on graduation-track courses. They are not undoable. The aren't even all that hard. The answers are going to have to be paragaraph-answers though. That's just the nature of the beast.

Available solution 2: Dump the exams. Everybody has to write term paper. A few minutes of call (don't even need video) per student can be done per paper for the instructor to verify the students know the material in the paper.

Expected counter-argument: some students don't want a term paper that was pulled on them. This brings us to available solution 3: student chooses between video-proctored exam or term paper. But what about the grading instability? Fine. Give credit/no-credit to anybody who asks. It's perfectly reasonable for lots of credit/no-credit to appear due to a major upset of the normal order of things.

This is going to be controversial of its own right: the lockdown browser literally doesn't work at doing the one thing it was built for, and so relying on it is unsound. The only reasonable conclusion is the university didn't try to find out how breakable it really is or not.

I also upvoted the 'take normal exams when the university reopens' answer.

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