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‘Foolproof’ exam software creating barriers for students with disabilities

For some university students, writing online exams during the pandemic has been less stress-inducing than writing in person. Rather than sitting for three hours in a crowded gymnasium while instructors watch their every move, students can write finals from the comfort and safety of their own homes.

To make sure they aren’t tempted to cheat, professors this year have been using proctoring software – ProctorU, Proctorio, and Examity – and remote invigilating to monitor students during exams. If a student exhibits what’s considered to be abnormal behaviour – slight movements of the eyes, head or body; glancing off to the side of the computer screen; checking a phone; leaving his or her seat; repeated requests to use the bathroom – the professor or the software algorithm will flag it as suspicious activity.

Although Proctorio and other companies market this method of exam supervision as foolproof, it doesn’t account for those with mental or physical disabilities.

Students who have disabilities that cause them to make involuntary movements or require them to check their phones frequently are disadvantaged by these algorithms and often have to provide documentation beforehand to request accommodations or explain their actions to professors after the exam.

Courtney Huffman, a 23-year-old computer science student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver with type 1 diabetes and chronic pain, uses her phone to monitor her blood sugar levels. She says she often tries to make it through exams without checking her phone, even though it’s risky.

“It’s terrifying, the idea of having to (check my phone) during an exam. I don’t know how invigilators would deal with that. Would they automatically note down my name and be like, ‘That girl is getting a zero’ or would they call it out in the middle of the Zoom call?” she says.

To accommodate for her chronic pain, which causes her hands to cramp randomly, Huffman says professors always allot her more time to write exams that require a lot of typing. But when they’re giving exam instructions to the whole class, they forget to inform her of the amount of extra time she’s supposed to receive.

Video-invigilated exams are the most nerve-wracking for Huffman. Before her math exams last summer, she says, she emailed her professor with a list of her usual accommodations — extra time, permission to check her phone and breaks to get water or snacks. But when she logged on to do the exam, she was met with seven invigilators who were monitoring students through video.

Since she thought none of them knew about her disabilities, she didn’t take a break, fill up on water or walk around for fear of looking sketchy.

A student studying at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus — who goes by N0RTHW1ND1 on Reddit — says her friend, who also has type 1 diabetes, needs to go to the bathroom frequently during exams.

The friend, who declined to give her name, used to receive accessibility accommodations when writing in-person exams. She would be given a seat close to the washroom and could go whenever she needed.

Because one of her courses had a remotely proctored exam, she explained her situation to the course coordinator. But when it came time to write the exam, she was allowed only two one-minute bathroom breaks. With no other choice, she had to relieve herself in water bottles for the duration of the exam.

While Huffman has never been in a situation this dire, she says she doesn’t like to use the full extent of her accommodations because she’s worried she’ll be accused of cheating.

“Even though my phone clearly doesn’t have the answers to the exam on it, the anxiety of the worst-case scenario, being accused of cheating, would only add to the stress of an exam.”

Shea Swauger, a librarian and senior instructor at the Community College of Auraria Library in Denver, Colo., has written that proctoring software’s default settings “label any bodies or behaviors that don’t conform to the able-bodied, neurotypical ideal as a threat to academic integrity.”

Swauger says students who are unable to sit for long periods of time, those who need to use the bathroom frequently and those who need to take medication during an exam will be flagged by the software.

In a now-removed promotional video from Proctorio, a spokesperson says institutions are struggling to maintain academic integrity because people who are “outside of the brick walls of our institutions” now have access to education. Since programs such as Proctorio market themselves as foolproof ways to prevent cheating, Swauger says this statement is meant to divide those who have always been allowed an education from those who have only recently been allowed, including people with disabilities.

Neither Proctorio or Examity responded to multiple requests for comment.

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Eva Zhu

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Eva Zhu is a multi-media journalist in Vancouver who writes about public health, social justice and music. She holds a master’s degree in Media in Journalism and Communication from Western University in London, Ont.