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Artificial intelligence monitoring exams: what test taking now looks like for Iowa college students

Students at the University of Iowa are performing video "room scans" prior to taking their tests so professors know they're not cheating.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — If you're a student at the University of Iowa, it'll be Proctorio. If you're at Iowa State or Drake, you may be using LockDown Browser or Respondus Monitor.

All are new technology so universities can safely and effectively proctor exams, most of which have migrated online during COVID-19.

As with most changes during COVID-19, it's taken a bit to get used to.

"It really was a bit of a learning curve," said Hannah Frazee, a senior at the University of Iowa. "It was a lot different than even going to the testing center at the University of Iowa because I have to essentially do it all myself."

The University of Iowa utilizes a software called Proctorio. On the school's website, it states that Proctorio "allows instructors to choose from a number of different settings." That includes:

  • Watching students through their webcam
  • Listening through their microphone
  • Recording the student's screen
  • closing other browsers/tabs/programs
  • requiring room scans

Room scans include having a test taker record a 360 degree video "scan" of their room, including showing the space under the desk. The software says the scan is only provided to the instructor for viewing, and if there's something suspicious, the software flags it for review.

"It’s nerve wracking just because as I read the syllabus it says like, if you don’t have a clear room scan you’ll be deducted points, if you’re looking on the sides of screen you’ll be deducted points," said Frazee. "It's hard because I won’t know that it wasn’t a clear room scan until after the test."

Frazee says most students need to take items down from their walls, such as post-it notes or pictures, because the software will detect it as potential notes for cheating.

Many students across the U.S. have been vocal about their privacy concerns on Twitter.

Frazee's roommate, Lisa Frishcosy, is a senior at University of Iowa as well. However, since her classes are all online, and because she has asthma, she is spending her semester at her parents' home in Indiana. 

She says the last time she took a test using Proctorio, she used the "ctrl + F" function to search for a key phrase that she saw used elsewhere in the test. Then she got locked out of it.

"I was locked out from doing a "Control find" search, and I was like--oh my gosh! So I was in a panic because it was still taking time away from my desk," said Frishcosy.

Ultimately, she says she understands why the University of Iowa is using the software.

"I guess I don’t really have much to hide; I mean my rooms are pretty bare bones anyway," she said. "It is invasive but at the same time it’s the same procedure that would’ve been done if you are at the classroom setting."

Below are each public university's statements, along with Drake University, regarding policies on online exams during COVID-19.

Iowa State University

From Angela Hunt:

"When the university transitioned to online classes this spring, the Provost’s Office provided instructors with guidance on assessment strategies for online learning or alternatives to exams."

That includes, in part, the following guidelines: 

Online Proctored Exams

A form of online proctored exam is available in Canvas. This requires using the LockDown Browser (which locks down the testing environment within Canvas) and Respondus Monitor (which supplements the LockDown Browser with a fully automated process that uses student webcams.) More information is available in the My Canvas: Teacher course.

Potential drawbacks to this type of exam include additional planning and set up time for the instructor; potential technology or technical infrastructure issues (for both faculty and students); and added stress for students who have internet connectivity issues, which will impact time-limited quizzes or exams.  

Alternatives to Proctored Exams

There are many alternatives assessments which can meet the needs of different academic disciplines such as: a series of low-stakes quizzes; student-developed quiz questions/answers; open-book take-home assessments involving conceptual or applied questions; professional presentations or demonstrations; peer-and-self-review activities; and ‘fact sheets’ created by students explaining course concepts. 

Potential Solutions:

·         Create assignment rubrics in Canvas and use the rubrics to assign points to different elements of the assignment. This practice will make grading more transparent to students.

·         Use a variety of assessments to get a better and more authentic view of a student achievement. 

·         Schedule frequent, low-stakes assessments, rather than one or two lengthy, high-stakes assessments to promote learning, decrease pressure, and allow for just-in-time intervention should students struggle with concepts.

·         Have students connect via Microsoft Teams for collaborative examinations, and encourage students to work together remotely, mimicking the realities of the workplace. If an individual exam is required, consider a two-part exam; an individual portion, followed by a group portion. 

University of Iowa

From Anne Bassett:

"Distance and Online Education (DOE) courses at the University of Iowa first used a virtual proctoring software (ProctorU) in 2013. We transitioned from ProctorU to Proctorio, our current virtual proctoring solution, in Fall 2018. The College of Law and College of Pharmacy use ExamSoft. Information Technology Services (ITS) offers Respondus Lockdown Browser as a centrally supported service.

Once a proctoring solution has gone through the University of Iowa's Technology Review Process, instructors can use the appropriate software for their college and discipline. 

Room scans are required of all students taking a proctored online quiz or exam. A successful room scan will clearly show the area on the desk, under the desk, and a 360 degree view of the room. Proctorio takes the place of the instructor sitting in the classroom watching over students while testing, and a good room scan allows the instructor to confirm the student has a private testing environment and is not consulting unacceptable resources during the exam. Each semester a small number of students who are concerned about privacy and the room scan contact our staff, and we make every effort to provide alternative arrangements for those students. 

We have had conversations with faculty about different ways to assess student performance, including using more frequent and lower stakes quizzes/exams and using more text-based and short answer assessments rather than multiple choice questions. We provide instructors with many useful resources on the Pandemic to Planned website to guide them as they transition to virtual teaching, including alternative approaches to assessment."

University of Northern Iowa

 "Given the challenges presented by COVID-19, the UNI faculty have demonstrated a high degree of flexibility in how they have adjusted to how learning is assessed in an online environment -- and our students have consistently expressed great appreciation for their understanding and efforts," 

---Kent Johnson, Dean and Instructor, Continuing Education & Special Programs

Steve Schmadeke, of UNI, provided additional information: 

"Faculty members choose assessment strategies and tools for their courses based upon the learning objectives set forth, whether courses are taught face-to-face, online or in hybrid format. A foundational strategy is that faculty typically include a statement about a clear expectation for academic integrity in the course syllabus (and refer to UNI's Student Academic Ethics Policy).  

Many faculty make use of UNI's learning management system (Blackboard) to administer online quizzes and exams.  These can include randomized questions and time limits.  Faculty may also monitor exams remotely in real time through video conferencing.  Oral exams may be given through videoconferencing, as well.  Of course, like face-to-face classes, projects and research papers are common approaches to assessment as well.     

Proctoring software is an additional strategy.  We recently switched to Respondus as a proctoring tool -- it's new this fall.  Currently, a working group is testing the functionality to ensure students don't encounter issues with the software. 

UNI also has anti-plagiarism software available to faculty."

Drake University

"From Sean Severe, associate professor of economics and associate dean of academic affairs in the College of Business and Public Administration:

At the beginning of the Summer term, the College of Business and Public Administration gathered virtually conduct a debrief on the spring semester after moving online post-Spring Break.  We also met again at the beginning of June to do an extensive overview into how Blackboard can make teaching easier and less-time intensive.  We had at least an hour in each of those sessions dedicated to assessment and examinations. Here are a couple of key take-aways:

  1. The University and the CBPA was adamant to uphold faculty control of their courses when deciding how to hold virtual classes (if teaching online), accommodate remote learners, and conduct examinations. Therefore, innovations came from the faculty at-large and not from a requirement from the College or University.

  2. Since faculty had the option to teach online or in-person and students could either be on-campus or remote, many students coming to campus have at least one course that is online, and many remote students attend courses held on-campus virtually.  The consensus among the majority of faculty is that exams in a course should be consistent for all students, regardless of their modality.  Therefore, most exams have moved online, but not all since this is up to the discretion of the course instructor.

  3. Instead of focusing on moving similar exams online, our focus was more at the level of how to navigate exams and what the proper role of exams in courses are.  Most exams were not simply moved online with the requirement of a proctoring software, since we problem solved on how to design exams that minimize the incentive to cheat. These innovations include:

    1. Using randomized questions from a pool of questions so not every student has identical questions.

    2. Lowering the weight of exams on the final grade and focusing more on quizzes or projects.

    3. Ensuring exams only have so long to complete.  Many allow a student to take an exam within a day or two block, but once the exam is opened, there is a 75 minute deadline until submission if required. Students who may cheat in these circumstances run into a problem of answering all the questions in a set time limit regardless of proctoring software.

    4. Using SafeAssign for essay exams that checks numerous databases for similar word patterns to flag potential plagiarism.

    5. Using Respondus Lockdown Browser to lock a student from accessing other files or programs on a computer during an exam.

    6. Finally, the University does support Respondus Monitor as our proctoring software. This software uses student’s webcams along with an AI algorithm to flag potential cheating. The instructor will then (after the exam) be able to review the portion that was flagged to check for academic integrity violations. The University views the requirement of a student to turn on a webcam for a live feed to the instructor as an invasion of privacy.

I do not have exact numbers, but I would say there is only very few instructors that have gone as far as to use Respondus Monitor in our college. The details described above have resulted in innovation that make it harder for students to cheat on exams without the necessity of proctoring software while maintaining the integrity of the course and its assignments. Additionally, many instructors have not seen an increase in answers or exam scores that would indicate wide-spread violations of our academic integrity policy."

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