ProctorU: A Firsthand Review from a Student
ProctorU. When you first hear that, you probably think of one of two things:
1) A service dedicated to proctoring online college examinations; or
2) Some bizarre clinic that specializes in colonoscopies and prostate exams.
Or maybe that’s just me.
ProctorU is, indeed, an online service that works in conjunction with universities to spy on you while you take tests for online classes. The entire idea seems a bit Orwellian and I, too, was put off by it at first but I have learned to live with it as I proceed through online college coursework. In this article, I’ll give you some background on online college, the ways examinations take place with ProctorU, my personal experiences, and plenty of useless information that will make you shake your head.
The Problem - Online Universities
Online Universities have been around for a while but they haven’t started to gain traction as reputable until recently. Previously the only colleges operating on the internet were suspect or outright scam artists, offering degrees at high costs that were neither recognized by most employers nor accredited (meaning not only was the degree a piece of garbage but also that the classes counted for nil when transferring to another university.) Imagine the delight of paying back thousands of dollars in school loans for a degree from Northern Montana Technical Academy that, when considering steady inflation, isn’t even worth the paper on which it was printed. These diploma mills banked on students churning through the system and disregarded the ‘education’ its students were getting.
Interestingly, despite poor reviews and countless entries on websites like the Rip-off Report, these ‘colleges’ continued to survive. Some of that is based on the fact that the only place these ‘colleges’ spent money was on creating member accounts to refute negative reviews. Some of it is also based on people being gullible and believing they can get a four year degree in 16 months while they watch Netflix in their pajamas and take a test every once in a while. Here's a video produced by ABC that looks into the suspect nature of some online degrees:
In time, actual known universities like DeVry began to smell the scent of cash and developed online programs that, while more reputable, cost the potential student tens of thousands of dollars. Why would the tuition be so high when the only associated cost with the course is server space and an adjunct instructor to answer questions now and again? Well, I don’t work for any university but I imagine the answer is ‘because they can.’ I digress, however – this is not a hit piece on DeVry University. I would still pick them over some, not that that is saying much.
Eventually actual colleges began to realize that their archaic view of online courses, similar to their hesitance to offer ‘night classes’ some forty years ago, was ignorant. If there is one place ignorance does not make sense, it's in a place of higher learning. Universities have begun to offer fully accredited degrees online that are as good as the one you would get for sitting in one of their lecture auditoriums for four years. This is great news for those of us who have waited this long for something decent to show up and, in a sense, validates why it took so long in the first place. To have a degree that holds any integrity whatsoever, the university must maintain its reputation and content must exist in the coursework. One of the major hurdles for universities was ensuring students were demonstrating the knowledge required to earn the degree. How do you possibly ensure students are not cheating when they are taking tests on their couch with their Uncle Roger sitting beside them on the phone?
The Proposal - ProctorU
As test taking is essential to an education (I guess,) there needs to be a level of honesty by all of those involved. Students will use resources, even cheat, when given the chance – that is human nature (and please spare me the debate – you know you leapt for joy whenever your teacher said you could use an index card for a test. In fact, you never knew you could write that small and still read it.) Colleges with online coursework previously combated this with a) trusting the student to be honest; or b) sending the test to an ‘impartial’ proctor of the student’s choosing such as a pastor, city councilman, teacher, construction site foreman, resident cat lady, or somebody else with the college’s approval. The systems were either impractical or inconvenient.
Enter ProctorU, the service that will watch you as you login to your university website and take your test. The service provided does make life easier and the company has good intentions but let’s be straight about this: ProctorU spies on you. The way that they are able to proctor you is by watching and listening to you through a web cam. That and they monitor your desktop . . . which is only where the creepiness begins.
ProctorU does not host the examination and are truly a third party, only proctoring the exam and providing little beyond that. I’m not taking a dig at them with that comment – I’m just saying you cannot ask them for help with anything because they are independent of the college. They know as much about your test as they do ancient Middle Eastern migration patterns (just watch, some technician that works for ProctorU is shouting at the screen, saying “a famine caused population shift in Qatar!”) The university works a deal with ProctorU and it is then through them that you schedule your test time. That’s right – online students have the privilege of taking the test anytime during the day of the test. The only downside is that universities know this and therefore schedule tests whenever the hell they feel, including Saturdays, Sundays, and even the day before holidays (online college has ruined my Fat Tuesday, my Ash Wednesday, and my Maundy Thursday.)
The tools required for test taking through this proctor service are a web cam (for watching your every movement,) a microphone (for listening in on your every sound,) and an internet connection with a reasonable bandwidth. This will allow you to communicate with one another and makes your test taking experience feel just like the real thing – with somebody standing twelve inches from your face and staring at you the entire time.
The Process - Taking A Test with ProctorU
When you login to ProctorU’s website to take your test, you download a chat box application that allows you to talk to the proctor, or technician. The wait time isn’t usually too bad, considering the looming anxiety of taking a two hour Calculus final which your grade hinges upon. Once connected, the proctor will ask you how you are doing that day, thus commencing the pathological, parent-child union that will bind the two of you for the next few hours. Stockholm syndrome has never felt so heartwarming. The proctor will request permission to remote connect to your PC or laptop which you can either accept or . . . you fail the test. Seriously, they ask for your permission for legal reasons but it’s not like you can say ‘no’ and still take the test . . . but to be honest, I’ve never tried it so that could be a fun experiment for the future. With a flicker of the screen, they control your mouse and you are no longer independent.
This is when the process takes a sadistic turn; it is where you will start to question whether a government drone is currently surveying your home with a payload strapped to its underbelly. The proctor will guide you to a ‘verification page’ which seems harmless enough until you read the five questions that you must correctly answer . . . about you. You would think the only information available about you online is that you exist, you sold a chair on Craigslist, and that you live somewhere within a specified geographical area. No way. The information ProctorU asks you in order to identify yourself seems uncomfortably personal and involves relatives, everywhere you’ve lived over the previous decade, how many bathrooms are in your house, and more. Obviously they get this information from county auditor databases and the like, all public information, but still it feels strange knowing that somebody in another state knows that I have a fireplace (well, I guess all of you know, now.)
Editor’s note: Because the questions come from official records and such, you may be asked questions that you don’t even remember the answer to. For instance, I was asked under what lot was my home built upon. Another time I was asked who a previous resident of the home was . . . as if I know who lived in my house in 1977. I’ve failed being myself so many times I’m starting to believe it.
Once you’ve verified that you are who you thought you were, the interrogation process is elevated to personal identification where you must show the proctor some form of ID. My only problem with this is that my driver’s license always shows up blurry on the web cam and I end up having to show the proctor half of my arsenal of membership cards (IEEE, AARP, NRA, Diner’s Club, Babysitter’s Club, etc.)
Once you’ve really, really proved you are who you thought you were, you are insulted as they assume you are a cheater and need to be investigated. That isn’t the intent but that is how it feels – and isn’t that all that really matters? Did I mention that you have to pay for this invasion of privacy and yet you are treated like a petty criminal trying to sneak post-its in your socks? Sorry. Either way, the next step of their interrogation is checking your computer for running programs or extended monitors to ensure you don’t have the answers wrote down in Microsoft Word (it would probably crash anyway) or some other place. Even with this confirmation, the proctoring technician will ask you to show them your computer desktop using either your portable web cam or some reflective object/mirror.
You’ll next be asked to scan your room with the web cam, 360 degrees, showing every corner of the room to ensure that nobody is there slipping you answers from the side. Talk about weird. It is my right as an American to proudly display my Cabbage Patch doll collection without having to worry about the condescending laughter of some guy in a blue polo shirt, four states away. All kidding aside, make sure you’ve got your place cleaned up if you don’t want some stranger knowing what you do/do not have in your house.
With a final check of your desktop to confirm you don’t have any notes/books lying out, you’re finally ready to take your test. No bathroom breaks are allowed during the exam and you cannot get up for any reason so beyond this point of the process, you’d better have a contingency plan for that gurgling in your stomach. You are told to login to your university course site and the proctor will then enter the password to get into the actual test.
What is strange is this is the last you hear from the proctor, barring some issue (my friend wore a hat and, half-way through the test, was scolded.) Even when you finish the test, they usually only communicate through the chat box and thus ends your journey together. However, while you’re taking the test, the entire time you know that they are still there, watching you. Listening to you. Observing any strange behavior. There’s a whole list of things they watch for to suspect if you are cheating, such as your eye movements, so just remember: no pressure. Act normal (unless you normally are jittery and stare off into space like me, then you could be reported as a common criminal.)
The Personal - Casual Observations
So that you aren’t lambasting the poor technician who is diligently watching you, know that they are probably being paid peanuts to stare endlessly at other people who are picking their nose and staring down at their keyboards. That makes for a long shift at work. To get an idea of how horrible this is, just stop what you’re doing someday and watch somebody you know sleep for two hours. Not only will you be bored out of your mind but then you’ll understand that it actually feels creepy for both of you.
Also these technicians that proctor you are actually be proctored, themselves. That’s right – like any good system, the workers have supervisors and these proctors are no different. Now, not only are they being forced to watch others, they’re also being watched to make sure they are effectively watching others. The logistics are well understood and one can easily identify with the plight of all parties involved.
One issue I had (aside from Jimmy) was that when there was a technical issue, it was poorly (and temporarily) resolved and I was issued no recompense from either the university (grade curve) nor ProctorU (associated cost.) Long story short, they could not hear me, or detect my microphone, even though I could record with the same microphone and hear it in Windows Media Player. The ProctorU technicians tried a few different things but failed to fix the issue. At one point a supervisor told me that I’d probably have to reschedule before I rudely demanded otherwise. They relented and allowed the test to be taken without a microphone as a one-time exception but it was still ridiculous and an example of something that would never affect you in a normal classroom environment. In the end, I took my final exam an hour later than I had planned and was mentally drained from trying to get the setup configured correctly.
With that being said, though, there are still personalities involved which can make your experience drastically different from one test to the next.
The first test I ever took with ProctorU lurking in the background involved my proctor being a cute girl who was laid back and, while following their company protocol, treated me like a human. She understood to use common sense. Naturally, I scored a 100 percent on that test and she begged me to marry her. I declined the offer.
On the other end of the spectrum, my very next test paired me with a guy who I’ll just name Jimmy for the sake of not remembering his actual name. Jimmy looked dreadful on camera and was generally displeasing, personality-wise. To be more accurate, he seemed like the type of guy who would eat at Taco Bell . . . and like it. He questioned my ID and asked for numerous forms of identification to prove who I was. His scowl spoke more about him than his words ever could. I hated that experience.
Most of those two stories are true. If you’re like the cute girl from my first test, you know which parts were real and which were fabricated. If you’re like the scruffy guy from my second test, you’d be asking your supervisors for a full-scale investigation to find out who the cute girl was and to have her fired without pay from ProctorU. It takes different strokes, they claim, and ProctorU definitely provides that much. Just realize that your test might not be the only thing that irritates you that day.
The Point - Conclusion
ProctorU is merely an actor in a greater drama. Their part, you may hate, but you can hardly blame them for that. The service being offered is done in such a way that is intrusive, yes, but rather laid back and generally without incident. I’m not sure what more I would expect from their company as they have a function to perform and they do it well. From my year of using the service, I have had few hiccups and whatever issues I’ve had were more with my University / professors than with ProctorU’s offering.
Is there an easier way to deal with online coursework? Is there a way to ensure student honesty without staring them down for hours at a time? I suppose like most things, in time, this new concept will be honed and perfected. Until then, I will deal with web cams, proctoring, and figuring out how to get my neighbor to quit yelling at his kids while I try to take a test.
- Behind the Webcam's Watchful Eye - Technology - The Chronicle of Higher Education
A great article on not only ProctorU but all online proctoring services and how they operate.
- Real People. Real Proctoring. - Online Proctoring - ProctorU
ProctorU is a live online proctoring service that allows you to take your exams from from anywhere using a webcam and a reliable internet connection.