Everything shut down except for one thing. There was no sound of the TV on in the background. My parents sat across from one another in a completely different room, trying their best to not even let their spoons clink against their bowls. Every window in the house was slammed shut. There was no gentle hum of the dishwasher. Our family home had almost turned into a metered parking spot; sure, this wasn’t going to be permanent, but at the moment, seconds were their own eternity, and they were all consequential. My whole body felt like a livewire; I was existing, for a brief moment in time, on some sort of rule and time regulated system. My room had been scanned and checked. My face was detected and registered in. Everything slowed down and blurred from my perspective, everything shut down for all of us, except for one thing; the HP WideVision 1080p front-facing webcam built into my computer. After all, how else could Lockdown Respondus know who was taking the test when, where, and how?
While the above passage might sound a little overkill, bear in mind that it does come from my own personal experience from March of last year when it had just been declared that there wouldn’t be a return to in-person learning for that semester. Everything was starting to shut down, and while the chaos of the toilet paper shortage occurred in the macroworld, my micro Kean world was on fire, trying to figure out what professor was using what platform, still requiring a project; basically, education had reverted from the enjoyable experience college had been up to that point back to the good old “get it done to get it over with” experience I had in high school. Some were sympathetic and took the time to pause synchronous meetings, instead just making classes a slow-chat/open forum, while others tried their best to carry on with lectures as usual. But when it came to exams? Forget the Prudential Center; I was lost deep in the Wells Fargo Center.
Only one of my courses required Respondus Lockdown, and it was a nightmare trying to navigate it. From registering my device to finding out just how sensitive it was to detecting surrounding noise, even with my door closed, I knew it would only be an uphill battle. And I was proven correct when I tested the capabilities of the program during a practice test. I was apparently a different person if I started the exam with my hair tied but let it down before submitting. Sneezing with my face in my elbow and eyes squeezed shut for even a minute counted as looking away and potentially cheating. Those sighs or little filler words we all mutter occasionally during a hard test were enough to activate the microphone and make me look suspicious of cheating. I may have come out of last semester unscathed, but I was not unchanged. It took three years, but it happened; I hated school again!
One of the readings for this week, “Students Are Pushing Back Against Proctoring Surveillance Apps” by Jason Kelly filled me with camaraderie and hope. In the weirdest way possible, I was happy to learn that other people encountered difficulty and also felt indignant about the transition that a device meant to help them learn had made to become another tool of surveillance. It was also nice to know that there were other folks who couldn’t get a camera to recognize that I’m not a robot, I’m a real person! (Honestly, Pam from The Office would be more effective than this software at figuring out if the person on camera and on an ID are the same person!) But, what resonated with me more than anything was the concern over what other data is being collected, beyond just what we input in order to access our assessments; there are scans of our rooms, where many of us keep important items, pictures of our family, and parts of ourselves out in the open. There’s the possibility of someone testing who has a small child unknowingly exposing them to the camera. There’s the longevity of these recordings; I wonder if Lockdown still has me archived, even though my undergrad is over. (I’m also worried about how many people have seen the footage of me falling off of my chair during an exam!)
This is a tenuous issue to mull over. On one hand, testing and treating students like they are all bound to cheat is foundational to formative educational practices. Why else did my teachers pace around the room like maniacs in a physical classroom, collect cell phones, and make parents sign tests before logging grades? Initially, it’s hard to look at this issue beyond face value and realize that there’s more to it than the usual power dynamics that characterize education and assessment at play; after going through the wringer a few times, you kind of just don’t care anymore about that. But, the virtual environment brings these power structures and issues into our homes.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who horrified my parents with how intricate my preparation to make sure I wouldn’t be carded as a cheater by this system. I’m positive I’m not the only kid who crumpled and barely held it together when I finally shut my computer down and tossed it back into my backpack. And of course, I’m confident that I let some of that paranoia bleed over into my daily life; I always have to gesticulate with my hands to prove there’s nothing underhanded going on, I’m always measuring how far I want to let people in, and of course, I want a rationale for each and every part of myself someone wants to be let in on. Beyond just rethinking assessment, when it comes to online proctoring services, the post-pandemic university is also going to have to take a walk on the human side and see how there’s either emerging or exacerbated anxiety, both social and generalized, distrust and isolation are all at play. It’s tough, but it’ll take a collective effort to look past societal and individual eminence fronts.
And before you think I forgot, I did check out Brenna Clark Gray’s Digital Detox #6: Build Back Better! There’s a lot of truth to the fact that there are plenty of instructors who don’t want to implicate students in the data collection and surveillance schemes of these companies but are trapped in the Catch-22 of I could follow my heart or I could lose my job. I also love how she mentions that we could harness this energy to come up with a more equitable solution. Personally, I’m quite fond of replacing testing with proof of learning through creative and relatable assignments, like drawing contemporary connections between classic lit and movies, or teaching geometry through sports like hockey (there’s nothing quite as beautifully angled as a Shea Weber slapshot), teachings stats with baseball (bonus points if you do a linear analysis of a Miracle Met), or gauging student interests and incorporating them into materials.
Oh, one more thing! The soundtrack to this harrowing trip down memory lane that entered into optimistic territory at the end is the following:
- “My Kinda Lover” by Billy Squier
- “Levitating” by Dua Lipa
- “Miss Murder” by AFI
- “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses
- “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” by Don Henley
Also, enjoy a select few six-word stories!