Counter-Narratives, Deep Change, and Pedagogies of Educational Dignity /

The story of online proctoring is difficult to disentangle from surveillance and policing. Companies with names like Honorlock and Respondus Monitor conjure images of a patriarchal panopticon. Then there’s Proctortrack’s origin story. The chief technology officer for Verificient Technologies, the company that developed Proctortrack, arrived at the idea for the online proctoring technology after working on a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) project that included searching video footage for facial expressions deemed abnormal (Singer 2015). A version of the TSA’s security theater, online proctoring is further evidence of Sasha Costanza-Chock’s observation that “The same cisnormative, racist, and ableist approach that is used to train the models of the millimeter wave scanners [used by the TSA] is now being used to develop AI in nearly every domain” (2020, 5). I worry that the mechanized dehumanization experienced by individuals from nondominant groups at airport security is now being normalized in education due to online proctoring.

The attempts to make prejudiced technology prosaic are facilitated by online proctoring companies and their commitment to an edtech imaginary and its powerful storytelling. Audrey Watters describes the edtech imaginary as a collection of “stories we invent to explain the necessity of technology, the promises of technology; the stories we use to describe how we got here and where we are headed” (2020). Read the statements from online proctoring CEOs and the claims made by companies on their websites, and you can see the edtech imaginary at work. Online proctoring is supposedly necessary because, in the words of ProctorU’s CEO, without it, cheating will increase and pose “a severe threat to all higher education’” (Feathers and Rose 2020). The hollowness of the edtech imaginary is further illustrated in the diminishing story sold by Proctorio. Beginning in January 2019, the company promised institutions their “software eliminates human error [and] bias” (Proctorio 2019). The company’s homepage declared their software’s impressive capability until April 2021. On April 19, 2021, the Federal Trade Commission warned companies not to claim their algorithms can erase bias (Jillson 2021). Within days Proctorio’s promise of unbiased technology shrank to “Our software attempts to remove human bias and error” (Proctorio 2021). Visit the company website today, and you will find the edited sentence has disappeared. The edtech imaginary features many such revisionist narrators.

I want to consider the other elements of the edtech imaginary described by Watters: how we got here and where we might go. I’m trying to understand how institutions and people in power too often come to believe edtech’s glossy narratives about the past, present, and future. I’m also searching for the sites where we can share our counter-narratives. Alongside counter-narratives, I’m seeking ways we might uproot the pedagogies of policing and punishment that make online proctoring possible and replace them with pedagogies of educational dignity.

Educational dignity is critical for enacting a just present and future (Espinoza and Vossoughi 2014; Espinoza et al. 2020). Educational dignity is “the multifaceted sense of a person’s value generated via substantive intra- and inter-personal learning experiences that recognize and cultivate one’s mind, humanity, and potential” (Espinoza et al. 2020, 326). Online proctoring and its shallow definitions of learning are incompatible with educational dignity because of the technology’s hostility toward every individual forced beneath a webcam’s glare. The technology can harden internalized oppression, especially for nondominant students (Bali 2021), through its built-in racism and ableism. Further, online proctoring positions educators as police officers and students as criminals, straining inter-personal learning experiences. Online proctoring, I should note, is not the sole source of negative intra-personal and inter-personal learning experiences. Acknowledging its encoded opposition to educational dignity, however, can encourage us to view its abolishment as a part of a larger project to help educators develop and practice pedagogies of educational dignity.

I turn now to possible ways of conducting that larger project. I will review the institutionalization of online proctoring; describe the importance of how institutional resources frame online proctoring; offer a case for how to create deep change in the ways educators understand online proctoring and its alternatives; and conclude with a call to take an abolitionist approach to ridding online proctoring from education.

A future with ubiquitous academic surveillance is not sealed, not yet.

How Did We Get Here?

The critiques of online proctoring are numerous. Online proctoring replicates inadequate assessment methods (Leafstadt 2017). Online proctoring can exacerbate a student’s anxiety, particularly a student with high anxiety (Woldeab and Brothen 2019), which in turn can have a negative impact on students’ ability to demonstrate their learning (Eyler 2018). Online proctoring technology is racist (Feathers 2021; Swauger 2020); ableist (Brown 2020; Zhu 2021); and it invades students’ privacy (Cahn et al. 2020; Germain 2020). Put another way, online proctoring not only reinforces ineffective, harmful pedagogies; it’s also a deeply unethical technology.

Joining these critiques are the thousands of students who have documented and shared their experiences with online proctoring:

I know that I’m going to have to try a couple times before the camera recognizes me…I have a light beaming into my eyes for the entire exam…That’s hard when you’re actively trying not to look away, which could make it look like you’re cheating…[The software] is just not accurate. So I don’t know if it’s seeing things that aren’t there because of the pigment of my skin.
—Femi Yemi-Ese, student at the University of Texas at Austin (quoted in Caplan-Bricker 2021)

I’ve despised using this software…. On one occasion, I was “flagged” for movement and obscuring my eyes. I have trichotillomania triggered by my anxiety, which is why my hand was near my face. Explaining this to my professor was nightmarish.
—Bea, student at Tarrant County College (quoted in Retta 2020)

It’s really cruel to have students come to class and expect to learn, and then treat them, essentially, like criminals and make them install programs that look for all their information and force them to give tours of their home.
—Anonymous, student at the University of Washington (quoted in Hipolito 2020)

The chorus of student criticism has apparently not done enough to slow institutions and faculty from deploying the technology against students. For example, Proctorio’s CEO claimed his company helped to proctor 25 million exams at 1,000 institutions in 2020 (Harwell 2020).

To help to explain the growth of such an apparently toxic technology, it’s important to note that institutional use of online proctoring predates the coronavirus pandemic. The existing institutional knowledge and resource infrastructure, combined with the coronavirus pandemic’s demands for quick and cheap solutions to complex teaching and learning problems, meant online proctoring could take root farther and faster than might otherwise have been the case. The upheaval also presented educational technology companies an opportunity to activate the edtech imaginary and present themselves as partners ready and able to assist institutions’ pivot to remote emergency teaching. In some cases, non-online proctoring companies joined together with online proctoring companies, marketing their wares directly to educators for free (Top Hat 2020). The companies’ beneficence can be understood as an attempt to deepen their connections to institutions as well as to circumscribe what we imagine when we envision online learning and its possibilities.

Once a technology becomes well-established at an institution, it can be difficult to uproot (Arthur 1994). As a consequence of the pandemic, institutions have made substantial financial investments in online proctoring technology. The University of California at Santa Cruz, for instance, spent $200,000 for online proctoring in 2020–2021, and the institution’s leadership plans to continue to fund online proctoring (Harwood 2021). In addition to the monetary cost, institutions and their employees incurred a labor cost, too. Staff members had to learn how to use and support the technology. Faculty who decided to use the technology learned enough to do so, or they may have relied on staff and graduate students to troubleshoot technical problems, which meant any staff member or graduate student called upon to troubleshoot must have known how to fix the problems, and if not, they may have turned to the companies themselves for help. And finally, students, who rarely have a say in the matter, learned how to use the technology if they wanted to pass a class.

The money and labor sunk into online proctoring moves the institution, its employees, and its students further down the online proctoring path in a process of increasing returns (Pierson 2000) and software sedimentation (Weller 2020) so that change is difficult to contemplate let alone implement. As we’ve seen, the edtech imaginary is invested in software sedimentation. In response to criticism, online proctoring CEOs have promised friendlier interfaces and faster loading times (Deighton 2021), design “upgrades” presumably meant to make online proctoring more acceptable and ready for further sedimentation.

Another sedimentation tactic used by online proctoring’s defenders is to argue students have long been surveilled (Global Silicon Valley 2021). Since surveilling students is not new, these advocates observe, then contemporary warnings about academic surveillance are unfair. I read this argument as an attempt to make online proctoring more palatable—and thus more profitable—by conflating the technology with in-person proctoring. However, online proctoring is invasive in ways in-person proctoring is not (Fitzgerald 2021).

An in-person proctor does not demand to view a student’s bedroom. An in-person proctor is not an unflinching gaze trained to interpret students’ behavior through the singular lens of suspicion. When online proctoring executives and other adherents of online proctoring collapse the differences between in-person and online proctoring, they are reaching into the edtech imaginary. The story that emerges is a history of assessment practices meant to make their technology appear to be an uncontroversial extension of how students have always completed homework, quizzes, and tests. Do not trust online proctoring companies to be credible narrators. Their business depends on selling a specific tale of how we got here and where we should be going, and if nothing else, their public relations version of education history should be met with profound skepticism.

Elsewhere, online proctoring has been equated with older online learning technologies like “poorly recorded video lectures [and] inactive LMS discussion boards” (Selwyn et al. 2021, 13). I am concerned about the ways the edtech imaginary is succeeding to shape the discourse and frame online proctoring as a misunderstood, humdrum technology. I do not want racist, ableist academic surveillance to be a practice educators and students shrug off as an unfortunate but necessary part of learning. I do agree with Selwyn et al. (2021) that online proctoring demands we “develop counter-narratives that push back against the imagining of public education as simply a ‘tech issue’” (14). Where and how these counter-narratives emerge is an urgent question.

From Neutrality to Dissonance

Before exploring online proctoring counter-narratives, I want to consider how higher education institutions normalize online proctoring. Of 100 randomly selected US and Canadian college and university websites chosen from a sample of 2,155, “none took a critical stance toward proctoring tools or addressed the ethics of student surveillance” (Kimmons and Veletsianos 2021). Official institutional policy appears to treat online proctoring tools as neutral educational technology. The finding is perhaps unsurprising. While exceptions do exist (e.g., “Proctoring and Equity” from the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Indiana University Bloomington), institutions that have invested money and labor into bringing online proctoring to campus may be hesitant or unwilling to criticize the same technology on public-facing websites. Neutrality is therefore a strategic choice. And because education is politics (Nieto 1999; Shor & Freire 1987), neutrality is a political choice too, one that aligns institutions with online proctoring companies.

Disrupting this neutrality becomes even more difficult because educators and institutions, perhaps unaware of the technology’s harms, often provide students with guiding language written by the online proctoring companies themselves. For example, Respondus Monitor offers instructors a template titled “Using LockDown Browser and a Webcam for Online Exams,” which instructors can copy and paste into a syllabus (Respondus n.d.). The syllabus template suggests to students that they “[t]ake the exam in a well-lit room and avoid backlighting, such as sitting with your back to a window” (Respondus n.d.). Missing from this recommendation and others like it is the reason why students must be in a well-lit room, sometimes having to resort to shining a bright light directly into their faces (Chin 2021): because many online proctoring companies use facial recognition technology. Not only do these technologies struggle to detect dark skin (Simonite 2019), they are built using biased datasets, leading to racialization and dehumanization (Stevens and Keyes 2021).

Online proctoring companies also shape the perception of their harmful technology at the institutional level. Just as individual educators might depend on the companies for ways to describe to students how to use the technology, so too do institutional how-to resources and websites. Institutional support pages are too often little more than hyperlinks to help guides and video tutorials created by the companies. In addition, an institutional resource page might repackage a company’s recommendations to students, such as one example when the Respondus Monitor syllabus language about lighting reappears on an institutional resource page warning students, “You may need to add more lighting to your workspace when using Respondus Monitor to ensure the program can recognize your face during the assessment” (Northwestern University n.d.). Once more, the reason why students need to add more lighting is glaringly absent. Online proctoring companies can continue to control the narrative about their technology as long as institutional resource pages are indistinguishable from the frequently asked questions websites produced by online proctoring companies. Thus, online proctoring companies have succeeded in making their technology appear benign by attempting to collapse the distinct differences between in-person and online proctoring. Companies have also benefited from instructors and institutions who frame the technology as neutral, often parroting company copy on syllabi and how-to webpages.

Taking lessons from a cognitive approach to learning and policy implementation can help explain why changing people’s understanding about online proctoring might be especially hard when the technology is presented in such a way that its functionality appears both commonplace and unambiguously advantageous.

We draw on prior knowledge and existing beliefs when interpreting new information (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000). A problem arises because “New ideas either are understood as familiar ones, without sufficient attention to aspects that diverge from the familiar, or are integrated without restructuring of existing knowledge and beliefs, resulting in piecemeal changes in existing practice” (Spillane et al. 2002, 398). What does this mean for educators encountering online proctoring for the first (or fifth) time? When neutral or positive language masks the technology’s harms, then online proctoring can appear not to be so much a new idea but instead a logical, if imperfect, extension of an educator’s existing beliefs and practices.

That online proctoring can either be an outgrowth of, or seem an outgrowth of, existing beliefs and practices is evidence of a larger problem: the beliefs and practices themselves. Pedagogies of policing and punishment are the soil sustaining online proctoring. It’s not enough to weed out online proctoring. Instead, what we could use is a controlled burn.

To light a fire that removes online proctoring from higher education, start by revising institutional websites and resources to explicitly name and describe online proctoring’s harms. These revisions—these counter-narratives—need to produce cognitive dissonance in educators in order to disrupt the narrative of online proctoring as a necessary, innocuous technology. This dissonance can force educators to confront both the technology itself and the underlying beliefs about learning that help educators rationalize deploying academic surveillance against their students. A goal is to help educators “recognize an existing model as problematic and, then, to focus resources and support on attempts to make sense of the novel idea, restructuring existing beliefs and knowledge” (Spillane et al. 2002, 418). In other words, sparking a shift in a person’s thinking begins with illuminating the ways online proctoring is a problem both as a technical solution and as a pedagogical practice. A dissonance-producing institutional resource about online proctoring might look like Figure 1:

Figure 1. A hypothetical institutional webpage that uses a critical framing when introducing educators to online proctoring.

I recognize it’s unlikely the above resource will be adopted by institutions of higher education across the land. So I have another suggestion. Before providing a reader with installation directions and other troubleshooting tips, which is what many institutional resources do, the resource could prompt an educator to reflect on the technology and its effects by asking:

  • Do you believe students with dark skin should have to shine a bright light on their faces to be recognized as having a face by the online proctoring technology?
  • Do you believe diabetic students should be too afraid to check their blood sugar levels or eat a snack for fear of being labeled suspicious by the online proctoring technology?
  • Do you believe students should allow a stranger to have remote access to their personal computer?
  • Would you want to show a stranger your office or bedroom before an exam begins or while taking an exam?
  • Is your pedagogy founded on distrust, policing, and punishment?

Institutional resources about online proctoring may appear to play a seemingly small role in the larger conversation about the technology and its impacts on teaching and learning. However, understanding the resources as a vehicle the edtech imaginary uses to influence teaching and teachers themselves emphasizes the need to attend to how the resources frame online proctoring. Institutional resources about online proctoring can be understood as a policy technology—a technology about technology, if you will—or a means designed to implement policy. Other policy technologies include curricula and assessments (Spillane et al. 2019). The problem with institutional resources adopting a neutral or positive framing of online proctoring is thus twofold. First, as previously discussed, uncritical resources can produce, reinforce, and normalize academic surveillance and pedagogies of distrust, policing, and punishment by being assimilated into educators’ preexisting beliefs and practices.

A second damaging consequence exists. When an educator’s pedagogy is pushed toward policing and punishment, practices enabled in part by uncritical resources, their sense of themselves as a teacher risks being corrupted. Here Stephen Ball’s observation that “we do not do policy, policy does us” (2015, 307) helps to articulate why focusing on the resources’ language is so important. Because if our pedagogy is an outgrowth of our identities as educators, and policy shapes our sense of self, then a pedagogy of punishment wants us to become punishers. The policy “does us” by defining who we can be as teachers and who our students can be as learners. Recall a student forced to submit to online proctoring felt like a criminal because the technology positions students as inherently suspicious. And if a policy of online proctoring transforms students into criminals, then it turns teachers into police officers—and cops, I believe, should be banned from campuses.

A Story of Reform

Overcoming online proctoring and the pedagogies that maintain its use might begin with the individual, but we improve the chances of abolishing the technology when we join together to unlearn harmful pedagogies and replace them with pedagogies of educational dignity. To grow pedagogies of educational dignity, we can couple a cognitive approach to policy implementation with a stance toward learning as a fundamentally social experience (Lave and Wenger 1991; Vygotsky 1978). Many educators concerned about online proctoring have realized the social nature of learning by organizing events to learn with and from one another. Examples of collective meaning making include the Teach-In #AgainstSurveillance (Gray 2020) and the #AnnotateEdTech events (Logan and Caines 2021). These online gatherings, while vital for building community and solidarity, may nonetheless struggle to bring about the systemic change at institutions many of us seek.

To accomplish change at scale—a favorite word, I know, of the edtech imaginary—the movement against online proctoring can address the depth of educators’ beliefs and practices; the sustainability of changes over time; the spread of changes throughout an institution; and a shift in ownership over the new ideas from external to internal sources (Coburn 2003). Remember that changing an individual’s understanding requires resources and support (Spillane et al. 2002). Combine these additional resources and support with the elements for achieving deep change at scale (Coburn 2003), and the project of ridding online proctoring from campuses appears daunting.

Nonetheless, we can turn to the efforts of a coalition of administrators and staff at the University of Michigan-Dearborn for an example of institutional change at scale. In March 2020, the University shifted to remote emergency teaching. At the same time, the Office of the Provost and deans decided to publicly oppose online proctoring, and though the administrators did not ban the technology, they did strongly recommend faculty not use it (Silverman et al. 2021). In the months that followed, the staff at the Hub for Teaching and Learning Resources (the Hub) worked to implement the reform through a combination of depth, sustainability, spread, and shift (Coburn 2003). See Table 1 for how the University tried to accomplish the different dimensions of reform implementation.

Dimension of Reform Implementation How Administrators and the Hub’s Staff at the University of Michigan-Dearborn Tried to Accomplish the Dimension of Reform Implementation
Depth

Changes to educators’ beliefs, educators’ interactions with students, and educators’ pedagogies.

  • provided individual consultations to faculty new to online teaching.
  • assisted faculty to develop authentic assessments.
  • hosted a virtual guest speaker, an expert in authentic assessments with a speciality in the STEM disciplines.
  • organized multiple faculty development programs throughout the year.
Sustainability

A long-term commitment to nurturing educators’ development over time.

  • hired two additional instructional designers on two-year contracts.
  • hired graders to aid faculty in high-enrollment courses to grade and provide feedback on more time-intensive authentic assessments.
Spread

The diffusion of reform-related pedagogical principles within a course, department, and institution.

  • provided individual or group email responses from the Hub, the Office of Digital Education, and the Office of the Provost with a consistent message that the decision to avoid online proctoring was due to student privacy and equity concerns.
  • Silverman et al. (2021) acknowledge communications with faculty “could have been better wrapped into a cohesive, campus-wide message” (121) to improve spread.
Shift

Ownership of the reform transitions from an external reform to an internal reform with authority for maintaining the change left to groups and individuals.

  • Silverman et al. (2021) recommend designing experiences to “develop a shared critical digital literacy between instructors and students by discussing the ethical problems associated with remote proctoring and building a shared understanding of academic integrity in the digital age” (126).
Table 1. Applying Coburn’s (2003) concept of scale to the University of Michigan-Deaborn’s approach to shifting educators’ beliefs and practices regarding online proctoring.

We need counter-narratives. However, a strategy for abolishing online proctoring built only on counter-narratives risks ceding the terms of the debate to those set by the online proctoring companies. For this reason, we also need stories that aren’t defined solely in opposition to the likes of online proctoring CEOs and the edtech imaginary they’re entranced by. The coalition against online proctoring that emerged at the University of Michigan-Dearborn is an instructive example of one such alternative narrative, a story of how we might achieve deep change by developing a partnership organization founded on relationships (Logan 2020). What started as co-authoring a counter-narrative about online proctoring at the University became, over time, a new narrative about partnerships between administrators, staff, faculty, and students to develop equitable, authentic assessments.[1]

The example set by the University of Michigan-Dearborn demonstrates that when administrators offer support and financial resources to reimagine teaching and learning, trusting staff and faculty along the way, resistance to and refusal of online proctoring can generate a community that rejects pedagogies of policing and embraces people and our immutable educational dignity.

Where Might We Go from Here?

The future of online proctoring is still being written. Appealing to institutions’ and students’ fears, online proctoring CEOs tell their tales of worthless coronavirus diplomas (Harwell 2020) tarnishing an institution’s brand and raising questions about a student’s employability. The narrative belongs to the larger playbook drawn up by the corporate education movement and its vision of learning as human capital development (Williamson 2017). I believe learning cannot be reduced to a datapoint to be quantified, a credential to be protected at all costs.

Online proctoring companies possess a paltry view of education that produces and reinforces pedagogies of punishment. When confronted with the intersectional damages inflicted upon students by their technology, online proctoring companies insist their products are necessary, claiming the technology is an engine of equity (Norris 2021). Yet as Chris Gilliard argues, “A better remote proctoring system isn’t on the way—it can’t be—because they are all built on the same faulty and invasive ideas…about pedagogy, surveillance, and control” (@hypervisible, April 6, 2021).

Online proctoring is not like in-person proctoring. Online proctoring is not like a badly lit lecture video or an underused discussion board. Online proctoring is a manifestation of what Ruha Benjamin calls the New Jim Code, or “the employment of new technologies that reflect and reproduce existing inequities but that are promoted and perceived as more objective or progressive than the discriminatory systems of a previous era” (2019, 5–6). When institutions and educators frame online proctoring with market-based stories and their boogeymen, they risk being duped by online proctoring companies and their unreliable narrators selling dubious promises of objectivity and equity as evidence the technology works. In contrast, when the story of online proctoring is framed as the instantiation of the New Jim Code and its racist, ableist surveillance, then those who experience the technology’s inequities—students—emerge as trustworthy narrators with heartbreaking accounts of the humiliations they’ve had to endure. Their stories should be part of the evidence we use as we seek to rid online proctoring from schools.

Including online proctoring as part of the New Jim Code offers another possibility: that of the abolitionist imaginary. Abolitionist practices, suggested sava saheli singh (Pasquini 2021), can be a generative source of imagination, politics, organizing, and action in the struggle against online proctoring and other problematic educational technologies. Abolitionism’s emphasis on refusal alongside care and collectivity (Kaba 2021), for example, is essential if we are to develop pedagogies of educational dignity.

In addition, the fight against online proctoring takes on greater urgency when we understand online proctoring as the latest example of white supremaist surveillance technologies designed and deployed to police and punish. Like previous racializing information technologies used to surveil and control people (Browne 2015), online proctoring’s harms are experienced disproportionately by Black people as well as other nondominant populations. This longview of online proctoring is vital, for as Bettina Love notes, “An ahistorical understanding of oppression leads folx to believe that quick fixes to the system, such as more surveillance, more testing, and more punishment, will solve the issues of injustice and inequality” (2019, 92). It also means adopting the abolitionist stance that reform, even at the scale accomplished by the University of Michigan-Dearborn, cannot be where the story of online proctoring ends.

If the story of online proctoring is to end in freedom, we can start by telling counter-narratives and fashioning new narratives altogether. I am hopeful these stories will include accounts of honest institutional resources and websites. Of administrators who abandon online proctoring, despite paying for its false promises, and invest instead in providing support and funding for faculty and staff to develop authentic assessments. And I am hopeful we will share stories of lasting partnerships between educators and students, coalitions that accomplish deep change and grow pedagogies of educational dignity.

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About the Author

Charles Logan is a PhD student in learning sciences at Northwestern University. A former high school English teacher and university educational technologist, his research interests include critical digital pedagogy, co-authoring counter-narratives to oppose sociotechnical and edtech imaginaries, and designing learning experiences to support educational dignity. He is on Twitter @charleswlogan.

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