Room Scans & Eye Detectors: Robocops are Watching Your Kids Take Online Exams

Remote proctoring tools like Proctorio have faced widespread pushback at colleges. Less scrutiny and awareness exists on their use in K-12 schools.

By Mark Keierleber | April 18, 2024
Eamonn Fitzmaurice/四虎影院

Remote proctoring tools like Proctorio have faced widespread pushback at colleges. Less scrutiny and awareness exists on their use in K-12 schools.

Updated, correction appended April 18

In the middle of night, students at Utah鈥檚 Kings Peak High School are wide awake 鈥 taking mandatory exams. 

At this online-only school, which opened during the pandemic and has ever since, students take tests from their homes at times that work best with their schedules. Principal Ammon Wiemers says it鈥檚 this flexibility that attracts students 鈥 including athletes and teens with part-time jobs 鈥 from across the state. 

鈥淪tudents have 24/7 access but that doesn鈥檛 mean the teachers are going to be there 24/7,鈥 Wiemers told 四虎影院 with a chuckle. 鈥淪ometimes [students] expect that but no, our teachers work a traditional 8 to 4 schedule.鈥 

Any student who feels compelled to cheat while their teacher is sound asleep, however, should know they鈥檙e still being watched. 

For students, the cost of round-the-clock convenience is their privacy. During exams, their every movement is captured on their computer鈥檚 webcam and scrutinized by Proctorio, . Proctorio software conducts 鈥渄esk scans鈥 in a bid to catch test-takers who turn to 鈥渦nauthorized resources,鈥 鈥渇ace detection鈥 technology to ensure there isn鈥檛 anybody else in the room to help and 鈥済aze detection鈥 to spot anybody 鈥渓ooking away from the screen for an extended period of time.鈥 

Proctorio then provides visual and audio records to Kings Peak teachers with the algorithm calling particular attention to pupils whose behaviors during the test flagged them as possibly engaging in academic dishonesty. 

Such remote proctoring tools grew exponentially during the pandemic, particularly at U.S. colleges and universities where administrators seeking to ensure exam integrity during remote learning met with sharp resistance from students. Online end the surveillance regime; the tools of and that set off a red flag when the tool failed to detect Black students’ faces.  

A video uploaded to TikTok offers advice on how to cheat during exams that are monitored by Proctorio. (Screenshot)

At the same time, social media platforms like TikTok were flooded with videos purportedly highlighting service vulnerabilities that taught others

K-12 schools鈥 use of remote proctoring tools, however, has largely gone under the radar. Nearly a year since the federal public health emergency expired and several since the vast majority of students returned to in-person learning, an analysis by 四虎影院 has revealed that K-12 schools nationwide 鈥 and online-only programs in particular 鈥 continue to use tools from digital proctoring companies on students, including those as young as kindergarten. 

Previously unreleased survey results from the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology found that remote proctoring in K-12 schools has become widespread. In its August 2023 36% of teachers reported that their school uses the surveillance software.

Civil rights activists, who contend AI proctoring tools fail to work as intended, harbor biases and run afoul of students鈥 constitutional protections, said the privacy and security concerns are particularly salient for young children and teens, who may not be fully aware of the monitoring or its implications. 

鈥淚t鈥檚 the same theme we always come back to with student surveillance: It鈥檚 not an effective tool for what it鈥檚 being claimed to be effective for,鈥 said Chad Marlow, senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. 鈥淏ut it actually produces real harms for students.鈥 

It鈥檚 always strange in a virtual setting 鈥 it鈥檚 like you鈥檙e watching yourself take the test in the mirror.

Ammon Wiemers, Principal Kings Peak High School

Wiemers is aware that the school, where about 280 students are enrolled full time and another 1,500 take courses part time, must make a delicate 鈥渃ompromise between a valid testing environment and students鈥 privacy.鈥 When students are first subjected to the software he said 鈥渋t鈥檚 kind of weird to see that a camera is watching,鈥 but unlike the uproar at colleges, he said the monitoring has become 鈥渘ormalized鈥 among his students and that anybody with privacy concerns is allowed to take their tests in person.

鈥淚t鈥檚 always strange in a virtual setting 鈥 it鈥檚 like you鈥檙e watching yourself take the test in the mirror,鈥 he said. 鈥淏ut when students use it more, they get used to it.鈥  

Children 鈥榙on鈥檛 take tests鈥

Late last year, Proctorio founder and CEO Mike Olsen published   in response to research critical of the company鈥檚 efficacy. A tech-savvy Ohio college student had conducted an analysis and concluded Proctorio鈥檚 relied on an open-source software library with a 鈥 including a failure to recognize Black faces more than half of the time. 
The student tested the company鈥檚 face-detection capabilities against a dataset of nearly 11,000 images, , which depicted people of multiple races and ethnicities, with results showing a failure to distinguish Black faces 57% of the time, Middle Eastern faces 41% of the time and white faces 40% of the time. Such a high failure rate was problematic for Proctorio, which relies on its ability to flag cheaters by zeroing in on people鈥檚 facial features and movements. 

Olsen鈥檚 post sought to discredit the research, arguing that while the FairFace dataset had been used to identify biases in other facial-detection algorithms, the images weren鈥檛 representative of 鈥渁 live test-taker鈥檚 remote exam experience.鈥 

鈥淔or example,鈥 he wrote, 鈥渃hildren and cartoons don鈥檛 take tests so including those images as part of the data set is unrealistic and unrepresentative.鈥 

Proctorio founder and CEO Mike Olsen published a blog post that countered research claiming the remote proctoring tool had a high fail rate 鈥 especially for Black students. (Screenshot)

To Ian Linkletter, a librarian from Canada embroiled in a long-running battle with Proctorio over whether its products were harmful, Olsen鈥檚 response was baffling. Sure, cartoon characters don鈥檛 take tests. But children, he said, certainly do. What he wasn鈥檛 sure about, however, was whether those younger test-takers were being monitored by Proctorio 鈥 so he set out to find out. 

He found two instances, both in Texas, where Proctorio was being used in the K-12 setting, including at a remote school tied to the University of Texas at Austin. Linkletter shared his findings with 四虎影院, which used the government procurement tool GovSpend to identify other districts that have contracts with Proctorio and its competitors. 

More than 100 K-12 school districts have relied on Proctorio and its competitors, according to the GovSpend data, with a majority of expenditures made during the height of the pandemic. And while remote learning has become a more integral part of K-12 schooling nationwide, seven districts have paid for remote proctoring services in the last year. While extensive, the GovSpend database doesn鈥檛 provide a complete snapshot of U.S. school districts or their expenditures. 

鈥淚t was just obvious that Proctorio had K-12 clients and were being misleading about children under 18 using their product,鈥 Linkletter said, adding that young people could be more susceptible to the potential harms of persistent surveillance. 鈥淚t鈥檚 almost like a human rights issue when you鈥檙e imposing it on students, especially on K-12 students.鈥 Young children, he argued, are unable to truly consent to being monitored by the software and may not fully understand its potential ramifications. 

Proctorio did not respond to multiple requests for comment by 四虎影院. Founded in 2013, claims it provided remote proctoring services during the height of the pandemic to education institutions globally. 

In 2020,  over a series of tweets in which the then-University of British Columbia learning technology specialist linked to Proctorio-produced YouTube videos, which the company had made available to instructors. Using the video on the tool’s “Abnormal Eye Movement function,” Linkletter that it showed “the emotional harm you are doing to students by using this technology.”

Proctorio鈥檚 lawsuit alleged that Linkletter鈥檚 use of the company鈥檚 videos, which were unlisted and could only be viewed by those with the link, amounted to copyright infringement and distributing of confidential material. In January, Canada’s Supreme Court Linkletter’s claim that the litigation was specifically designed to silence him.

While there is little independent research on the efficacy of any remote proctoring tools in preventing cheating, one 2021 study found that who had been instructed to cheat. Researchers concluded the software is 鈥渂est compared to taking a placebo: It has some positive influence, not because it works but because people believe that it works, or that it might work.鈥 

Remote proctoring costs K-12 schools millions

A , the online K-12 school operated by the University of Texas, indicates that Proctorio is used for Credit by Exam tests, which award course credit to students who can demonstrate mastery in a particular subject. For students in kindergarten, first and second grade, the district pairs district proctoring with a 鈥淧roctorio Secure Browser,鈥 which prohibits test takers from leaving the online exam to use other websites or programs. Beginning in third grade, according to the rubric uploaded to the school鈥檚 website, test takers are required to use Proctorio鈥檚 remote online proctoring.

A UT High School rubric explains how it uses Proctorio software. (Screenshot)

Proctorio isn鈥檛 the only remote proctoring tool in use in K-12 schools. GovSpend data indicate the school district in Las Vegas, Nevada, has spent more than $1.4 million since 2018 on contracts with Proctorio competitor Spending on Honorlock by the Clark County School District surged during the pandemic but as recently as October, it had a $286,000 company purchase. GovSpend records indicate the tool is used at , the district鈥檚 online-only program which claims more than 4,500 elementary, middle and high school students. Clark County school officials didn鈥檛 respond to questions about how Honorlock is being utilized. 

Meanwhile, dozens of K-12 school districts relied on the remote proctoring service ProctorU, now known as , during the pandemic, records indicate, with several maintaining contracts after school closures subsided. Among them is the rural Watertown School District in South Dakota, which spent $18,000 on the service last fall. 

Aside from Wiemers, representatives for schools mentioned in this story didn鈥檛 respond to interview requests or declined to comment. Meazure Learning and Honorlock didn鈥檛 respond to media inquiries. 

At TTU K-12, an online education program offered by Texas Tech University, the institution relies on Proctorio for 鈥渁ll online courses and Credit by Examinations,鈥 flagging suspicious activity to teachers for review. In an apparent nod to Proctorio privacy concerns, TTU instructs students to select private spaces for exams and that if they are testing in a private home, they have to get the permission of anyone also residing there for the test to be recorded. 

Documents indicate that K-12 institutions continue to subject remote learners to room scans even after a federal judge ruled a university鈥檚 . In 2022, a federal judge sided with a Cleveland State University student, who alleged that a room scan taken before an online exam at the Ohio institution violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. The judge ruled that the scan was 鈥渦nreasonable,鈥 adding that 鈥渞oom scans go where people otherwise would not, at least not without a warrant or an invitation.鈥 

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Marlow of the ACLU says he finds room scans particularly troubling 鈥 especially in the K-12 context. From an equity perspective, he said such scans could have disproportionately negative effects on undocumented students, those living with undocumented family members and students living in poverty. He expressed concerns that information collected during room scans could be used as evidence for immigration enforcement 

鈥淭here are two fairly important groups of vulnerable students, undocumented families and poor students, who may not feel that they can participate in these classes because they either think it’s legally dangerous or they’re embarrassed to use the software,鈥 he said. 

The TTU web page notes that students 鈥渕ay be randomly asked to perform a room scan,鈥 where they鈥檙e instructed to offer their webcam a 360-degree view of the exam environment with a warning: Failure to perform proper scans could result in a violation of exam procedures.

鈥淚f you鈥檙e using a desktop computer with a built-in webcam, it might be difficult to lift and rotate the entire computer,鈥 the web page notes while offering a solution. 鈥淵ou can either rotate a mirror in front of the webcam or ask your instructor for further instruction.鈥

鈥楢 legitimate concern鈥 

Wiemers, the principal in Utah, said that Proctorio serves as a deterrent against cheating 鈥 but is far from foolproof. 

鈥淭here鈥檚 ways to cheat any software,鈥 he said, adding that educators should avoid the urge to respond to Proctorio alerts with swift discipline. In the instances where Proctorio has caught students cheating, he said that instead of being given a failing grade, they鈥檙e simply asked to retake the test. 

鈥淭here are limitations to the software, we have to admit that, it鈥檚 not perfect, not even close,鈥 he said. 鈥淏ut if we expect it to be, and the stakes are high and we鈥檙e overly punitive, I would say [students] have a legitimate concern.鈥

During a TTU K-12 advisory board meeting in July 2021, administrators outlined the extent that Proctorio is used during exams. Justin Louder, who at the time served as the TTU K-12 interim superintendent, noted that teachers and a 鈥渉andful of administrators within my office鈥 had access to view the recordings. Ensuring that third parties didn鈥檛 have access to the video feeds was 鈥渁 big deal for us,鈥 he said, because they鈥檙e 鈥渄ealing with minors.鈥 

While college students 鈥渞eally kind of pushed back鈥 on remote proctoring, he noted that they only received a few complaints from K-12 parents, who recognized the service offered scheduling benefits. Like Wiemers, he framed the issue as one of 24-hour convenience. 

鈥淚t lets students go at their own pace,鈥 he said. 鈥淚f they鈥檙e ready at 2 o鈥檆lock in the morning, they can test at 2 o鈥檆lock in the morning.鈥

Correction: A copyright infringement case brought by Proctorio against longtime company critic Ian Linkletter is still being argued in court. An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the litigation as being ruled in Proctorio’s favor.

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