Distributed Proctoring: Lessons from Tufts University

One of the most common questions about distance learning is how to ensure academic integrity during exams.  After all, students at a distance have ample opportunity to consult unauthorized resources or even engage another person to take an exam for them.  The concern over this possibility has grown more acute in recent years, when federal regulations mandating verification of student identity came to the forefront as part of an increased emphasis on quality.

Still, many institutions do not yet have a plan in place for proctoring students in remote locations, says Patrick Connell, Manager of Educational Technology for the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and Co-chair of the Tufts Distance Learning Consortium at Tufts University. 

Some institutions use a proctoring company.  These companies (Pearson is an example) often offer proctoring centers at which students can take exams under the watchful eye of a human proctor, with video cameras recording behavior as well. 

However, these centers add a layer of cost to distance education that may not be desirable to some institutions.  Because of concerns like these, Tufts has piloted a program to allow for an in-house approach to proctoring exams for students at a distance.  The plan could easily transfer to other institutions.

There are numerous reasons why an institution may opt to construct a DIY remote proctoring system rather than rely on another company to provide the service.  In an abstract for a presentation Connell gave at the 2014 Online Learning Consortium International Conference with Tufts colleague Jonelle Lonergan, he posed the following questions:

But what if you are working in a small to mid-sized program? What if you don’t want to pass on another fee to your online students to have a company monitor exams through a webcam? And what if you want the flexibility to tailor your process to a particular student audience or faculty preference?

Any of these questions could be the starting point for an institution opting to start its own distributed proctoring system.

Remote proctoring with the onus on the student

Remote proctoring began when Tufts offered its first online undergraduate course in the summer of 2011.  An online report on the course explained the proctoring system at the time as follows:

For midterm and final exams, students are required to either identify their own proctor or, if they can, come to Tufts where they are provided with a computer lab and proctor at a specified date and time. Students who choose the former option are required to provide [the professor] with the name, contact information and affiliation of their proctor. Acceptable proctors have to be librarians, clergy, employers, or teachers. Students are required to arrange a mutually convenient time with their chosen proctor to take the exam. Tufts provides the proctor with all the necessary information and guidelines needed to administer the exam with Tufts required standard of integrity.

The current system is largely the same.  “We put the onus on the student to locate the proctor,” says Connell.  Proctors are “mostly someone involved in academia,” he says, such as professors, K-12 teachers, or full-time university administrators.  While in the initial iteration of the proctoring plan it was acceptable to use other professionals like clergy members, these individuals are no longer accepted as proctors.  The proctors have to meet certain standards and verifications before they may serve.  For example, they must have a professional email address that reflects their institutional affiliation (so, no Gmail or similar ISP addresses are accepted), and they must be mentioned on their institution’s web site.

Proctors are charged with giving both paper-based and online exams.  For an online exam, the proctor has a password to access the online exam so that the student can start the test.  For a paper-based exam, the proctor takes a scan of the exam answers to have an electronic copy available. After the test, the proctor snail mails the completed exam back to the professor for grading.  For both types of exam, the proctor is in charge of checking student ID and filling out verification forms certifying the student’s identity.

The plan is easy, scalable, and fits with Tufts’ needs.

Considerations for others

“No matter what solution one adopts, [it requires] a coordination of work,” says Connell.  Part of this coordination is what he calls “scale issues,” which require different levels of commitment according to the number of participants.

Part of this commitment is financial.  “The more you scale [distributed proctoring], the more it’s going to cost,” Connell says.  Tufts “minimize[s] what students need to pay” by absorbing the costs of distributed proctoring.  Other institutions may opt to pass along expenses as part of a distance learning fee or as part of tuition.

Distributed proctoring also brings with it some of the same concerns as distance learning.  While high-speed internet is nearly universally available in most parts of this country, distance learning has the potential to serve students from many other countries that may not have the robust infrastructure Americans take for granted. Connell also points out that some students come from countries where electric usage is regulated, which can impact online access as well.  Connell has come into contact with this type of issue in dealing with Tufts’ distance learning students.  “We have a fair amount of students from all over the globe,” he says.

Connell has some concluding thoughts for institutions hoping to design their own distributed proctoring program.  “Start small if possible,” he says.  He also recommends institutions “off-load work onto a coordinator” who will be in charge of making the distributed proctoring system work seamlessly.

Jennifer Lorenzetti is a writer, speaker, higher education consultant, and the owner of Hilltop Communications.

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