Surveillance Tech Is Wrongly Accusing Disabled Students of Cheating on Tests

From juggling immense debt to contending with the global pandemic, being a modern college student is undeniably stressful. To make matters worse, there is a growing narrative that cheating in higher education is running rampant. This narrative has widened the divide between faculty and students, inspired stricter policies and created additional challenges for today’s students.

While cheating is never excusable, it should be addressed and punished appropriately and proportionately when it occurs. Unfortunately, due to the belief that cheating is becoming more widespread, many faculty members and administrators at colleges across the country are adopting a draconian approach to police the issue.

For example, the University of Alabama has broadly defined students using unauthorized materials, study aids or computer-related information that have not been approved by the instructor, as cheating. Depending on the professor, this can include useful online study resources like Google, YouTube and Quizlet, and the repercussions for using such tools include suspensions. The vague wording of their academic misconduct policies creates an impossible standard where students are discouraged from using online resources to help them study, even when they need additional help to achieve academic success.

The University of Alabama is not alone. While academic institutions have had honor codes for decades, during the pandemic, when colleges shifted away from physical classrooms and toward virtual learning and online test-taking, fears surrounding increased academic dishonesty in online education grew, and academic institutions began implementing stricter policies.

However, as James Orr, a board member of the International Center for Academic Integrity told NPR, “Just because there’s an increase in reports of academic misconduct doesn’t mean that there’s more cheating occurring. In the online environment, I think that faculty across the country are more vigilant in looking for academic misconduct.”

Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped colleges across the country from enacting harsher policies. These policies fail to recognize that third-party materials, study aids and online study resources are used and relied upon by millions of students, particularly non-traditional students, who have limited time and resources. After graduation, employers value resourceful employees who know how to find and use outside resources when necessary. Yet, this new wave of heavy-handed policies inhibits the use of supplemental study aids and forces students to choose between falling behind or risking severe consequences.

Higher education should aim to create an optimal environment for learning, and pitting faculty and students against one another while limiting the resources students can use is detrimental to all. So, it begs the question, why are clashes surrounding cheating becoming so pervasive, and who is benefitting from them?

One industry that has benefited immensely is the global online exam proctoring market. This sector, which was valued at approximately $355 million in 2019, is expected to be worth nearly $1.2 billion by 2027. This growth, in some part, must be attributed to increased demand caused by growing fervor over student cheating.

It’s not surprising that these proctoring companies benefit from the public, especially faculty members, believing that cheating is widespread. After all, the bigger this issue appears, the greater the need for these proctoring companies’ often invasive services. These services range from programs that capture student desktop screens and chat logs to artificial intelligence technologies that detect and analyze keywords spoken by students in real time.

These programs rarely leave room for nuance, and some students found these services went so far as to discriminate against them: Proctoring tools unfairly require test takers to have a reliable computer, fast internet and quiet testing space. Underprivileged students who lack access to these resources are put in a difficult situation because the software can’t grant accommodations for their unique circumstances.

And this is not the only way these proctoring services discriminate and worsen the experience of already disenfranchised students. Students at Miami University in Ohio found that their school’s service, Proctorio, would often accuse students with ADHD of cheating. Proctorio, which is designed to track a student’s gaze and flag students who look away from their screens as suspicious, flagged students with ADHD symptoms as potential cheaters.

Not only that, the facial recognition technology used by many proctoring services registers a preference for lighter skin, which sometimes forces students with darker skin to “shine a light on their faces to be seen,” according to Shea Swauger, a librarian and doctoral student at the University of Colorado. This is one of the many reasons why students at that university started a petition to ban the use of these proctoring services.

But due to the cheating narrative becoming ubiquitous among faculty, proctoring services also gained in popularity, often to the detriment of the very students the universities are supposed to be educating.

College students already face numerous challenges. They should not have to face a hostile learning environment, fear repercussions for using available tools or be forced to use invasive proctoring services that have been found to be discriminatory.

Higher education works best when faculty and students share mutual respect and trust. To return to a place of respect and trust, academic institutions need to take a step back, reassess the current environment and remember that students should indeed be their number one priority.