Every syllabus at my institution contains a statement on Academic Integrity and every new course begins with each student reviewing and acknowledging the general statement that our work will be our own under every circumstance. Even so, since we are online learners and not present in a physical classroom with an instructor, there are a variety of methods used to “keep us honest.” As an example, for the first time in four years as an online student, I recently had to take a proctored exam for my graduate applied statistics course. Based on my own experience, following are my thoughts on exam proctoring as a method to ensure academic integrity in online learning.
In order to take the final exam, students had to secure a qualified proctor. How lucky for me that I live two minutes from a satellite campus with pre-approved proctors, I thought. With a few simple e-mail exchanges, the appointment was made, and my initial belief was that the worst part of this process would be losing a few hours of work time (and pay) due to the proctor’s schedule of availability. I was wrong.
I guess I should start with a disclaimer by admitting that applied statistics was a particularly challenging course for me. Learning math online – without the benefit of software specifically developed to deliver the content and provide ample opportunities for practice with immediate feedback – is a real challenge, in my opinion. Still, I have been holding my own and my efforts have earned me respectable grades to date. Two midterms in the course were available online and open book/open note with a three-hour time limit. I barely finished the first one and the second one was finished with enough time to check my work. My point here is that the entire three hours were necessary to complete the assessment, at least for me. There was some initial confusion as to whether or not I would use my own equipment in order to have software access, so I showed up for my exam a few minutes early, because I anticipated needing the full three hours to work and I had been told that I could only stay until 6:30. (In retrospect, this could not have been the case since a student came in around 6:30 to begin an exam?)
The exam room where I was taken was just off the main reception area, which is between two sets of exterior doors. My point here is that it is THE main traffic area. The room was no bigger than 8′ x 6′ and there was another student already working at one desk when I entered to sit at the other desk in the room. I had to use my own equipment, so I couldn’t actually sit at the desk and instead had my knees pressed up against a drawer for the three-hour exam period. There was no air flow and I have no idea what the temperature was in there.
The proctor left the door open when she exited and, one point, the noise level of people measuring the wall outside the door for installation of a flat screen monitor and discussing placement with the receptionist at the desk across the room was so loud that I poked my head out the door. “Do you need help?” was her question. “No,” I answered, “but it’s very loud out here.” “Oh,” they said “sorry,” but no reduction in the volume of their conversation occurred. At some point, the other student completed her exam and left the room. She closed the door behind her and I was grateful.
Not long after, an event that I can only equate to a pep rally began outside the main reception area in the open space. I don’t know what it was, but it involved very loud cheering, clapping, and yelling for at least thirty minutes. I put in my ear buds. I tried to fight the distraction. I tried to stay on task. In the end, I ran out of time and was unable to finish a five point question or review my work. The exam hasn’t been scored yet, but I feel very strongly that my grade on this work is bound to be negatively impacted by the environment in which I had to take it.
Since I had to show my identification to the proctor, my assumption here is that the purpose of using a proctor was simple verification that the student was taking the final exam. Using this method, can the professor actually be certain that only the student took the exam, and at what cost to the student? This method in no way guarantees academic integrity. At any point, I could have made a phone call, used IM or a myriad of other Web 2.0 tools, and gotten outside help on this exam. I didn’t, but not because I couldn’t. That’s my point.
Some professors use webcam monitoring or browser locking software. Some develop exams that don’t allow time for answer searching. I implore the course instructors and designers out there to please consider their students when they select methods to ensure academic integrity. There are many ways to accomplish your goal. Students can control an environment of their choosing, but not an environment that is selected for them. I enjoy learning in a variety of ways and I have taken several courses in a face-to-face classroom over the past four years. In those classes, I have never been expected to take a test under circumstances like these. Unfortunately, I have no recourse after the fact…