Rutgers and ProctorTrack Fiasco: Impact of listening to regulations but not to students

If you want to observe the unfolding impact of an institution ignoring the impact of policy decisions on students, watch the situation at Rutgers University. If you want to see the power of a single student saying “enough is enough”, go thank Betsy Chao and sign her petition. The current situation is that students are protesting the Rutgers usage of ProctorTrack software – which costs students $32 in additional fees, accessing their personal webcams, automatically tracks face and knuckle video as well as watching browser activity – in online courses. Students seem to be outraged at the lack of concern over student privacy and additional fees.

Prior to 2015, Rutgers already provided services for online courses to comply with federal regulations to monitor student identity. The rationale cited [emphasis added]:

The 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) requires institutions with distance education programs to have security mechanisms in place that ensure that the student enrolled in a particular course is in fact the same individual who also participates in course activities, is graded for the course, and receives the academic credit. According to the Department of Education, accrediting agencies must require distance education providers to authenticate students’ identities through secure (Learning Management System) log-ins and passwords, proctored exams, as well as “new identification technologies and practices as they become widely accepted.”

This academic term, Rutgers added a new option – ProctorTrack:

Proctortrack is cost-effective and scalable for any institution size. Through proprietary facial recognition algorithms, the platform automates proctoring by monitoring student behavior and action for test policy compliance. Proctortrack can detect when students leave their space, search online for additional resources, look at hard notes, consult with someone, or are replaced during a test.

This occurred at the same time as the parent company Verificient received a patent for their approach, in January 2015.

A missing piece not covered in the media thus far is that Rutgers leaves the choice of student identify verification approach up to individual faculty or academic program [emphasis added].

In face-to-face courses, all students’ identities are confirmed by photo ID prior to sitting for each exam and their activities are monitored throughout the exam period. To meet accreditation requirements for online courses, this process must also take place. Rutgers makes available electronic proctoring services for online students across the nation and can assist with on-site proctoring solutions. Student privacy during a proctored exam at a distance is maintained through direct communication and the use of a secure testing service. Students must be informed on the first day of class of any additional costs they may incur for exam proctoring and student authentication solutions.

The method of student authentication used in a course is the choice of the individual instructor and the academic unit offering the course. In addition to technology solutions such as Examity and ProctorTrack, student authentication can also be achieved through traditional on-site exam proctoring solutions. If you have any questions, talk to your course instructor.

As the use of of ProctorTrack rolled out this term, at least one student – senior Betsy Chao – was disturbed and on February 5th created a petition on change.org.

However, I recently received emails from both online courses, notifying me of a required “Proctortrack Onboarding” assessment to set up Proctortrack software. Upon reading the instructions, I was bewildered to discover that you had to pay an additional $32 for the software on top of the $100 convenience fee already required of online courses. And I’m told it’s $32 per online class. $32 isn’t exactly a large sum, but it’s certainly not pocket change to me. Especially if I’m taking more than one online class. I’m sure there are many other college students who echo this sentiment. Not only that, but nowhere in either of the syllabi was there any inkling of the use of Proctortrack or the $32 charge. [snip]

Not only that, but on an even more serious note, I certainly thought that the delicate issue of privacy would be more gracefully handled, especially within a school where the use of webcams was directly involved in a student’s death. As a result, I thought Rutgers would be highly sensitive to the issue of privacy.

If accurate, this clearly violates the notification policy of Rutgers highlighted above. Betsy goes on to describe the alarming implications relating to student privacy.

On February 7th, New Brunswick Today picked up on the story.

Seven years ago, Congress passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, authorizing the U.S Department of Education to outline numerous recommendations on how institutions should administer online classes.

The law recommended that a systemic approach be deveoped to ensure that the student taking exams and submitting projects is the same as the student who receives the final grade, and that institutions of higher education employ “secure logins and passwords, or proctored exams to verify a student’s identity.”

Other recommendations include the use of an identity verification process, and the monitoring by institutions of the evolution of identity verification technology.

Under these recommendations by the U.S Department of Education, Rutgers would technically be within its right to implement the use of ProctorTrack, or an alternative form of identity verification technology.

However, the recommendations are by no means requirements, and an institution can decide whether or not to take action.

The student newspaper at Rutgers, The Daily Targum, ran stories on February 9th and February 12th, both highly critical of the new software usage. All of this attention thanks to one student who refused to quietly comply.

The real problem in my opinion can be found in this statement from the New Brunswick Today article.

“The university has put significant effort into protecting the privacy of online students,” said the Rutgers spokesperson. “The 2008 Act requires that verification methods not interfere with student privacy and Rutgers takes this issue very seriously.”

The Rutgers Center for Center for Online and Hybrid Learning and Instructional Technologies (COHLIT) would oversee the implementation and compliance with the usage of ProctorTrack, according to Rutgers spokesperson E.J. Miranda, who insisted it is not mandatory.

“ProctorTrack is one method, but COHLIT offers other options to students, faculty and departments for compliance with the federal requirements, such as Examity and ExamGuard,” said Miranda.

Rutgers has also put up a FAQ page on the subject.

The problem is that Rutgers is paying attention to federal regulations and assuming their solutions are just fine, yet:

  • Rutgers staff clearly spent little or no time asking students for their input on such an important and highly charged subject;
  • Rutgers policy leaves the choice purely up to faculty or academic programs, meaning that there was no coordinated decision-making and communication to students;
  • Now that students are complaining, Rutgers spokes person has been getting defensive, implying ‘there’s nothing to see here’ and not taking the student concerns seriously;
  • At no point that I can find has Rutgers acknowledged the problem of a lack of notification and new charges for students, nor have they acknowledged that students are saying that this solution goes too far.

That is why this is a fiasco. Student privacy is a big issue, and students should have some input into the policies shaped by institutions. The February 12th student paper put it quite well in conclusion.

Granted, I understand the University’s concern — if Rutgers is implementing online courses, there need to be accountability measures that prevent students from cheating. However, monitoring and recording our computer activity during online courses is not the solution, and failing to properly inform students of ProctorTrack’s payment fee is only a further blight on a rather terrible product. If Rutgers wants to transition to online courses, then the University needs to hold some inkling of respect for student privacy. Otherwise, undergraduates have absolutely no incentive to sign up for online classes.

If Rutgers administration wants to defuse this situation, they will be to find a way to talk and listen to students on the subject. Pure and simple.

H/T: Thanks to Audrey Watters and to Jonathan Rees for highlighting this situation.

Update: Bumping comment from Russ Poulin into post itself [emphasis added]:

The last paragraph in the federal regulation regarding academic integrity (602.17) reads:

“(2) Makes clear in writing that institutions must use processes that protect student privacy and notify students of any projected additional student charges associated with the verification of student identity at the time of registration or enrollment.”

The privacy issue is always a tricky one when needing to meet the other requirements of this section. But, it does sound like students were not notified of the additional charges at the time of registration.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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