Usage of the Respondus proctoring software

OTTAWA, ON (UNCEDED ALGONQUIN ANISHINAABE TERRITORY) – The University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) would like to join students in expressing serious concern about the University of Ottawa’s use, current and planned, of the Respondus proctoring software.

As reported in the CBC, Respondus is a software that “utilizes artificial intelligence to detect cheating”, including requiring students to have their webcams on during an exam, locking a student’s browser & reviewing their history, and “analyzing student’s eye movements”.

In the past few days, students and representatives of Recognized Student Governments have brought to our attention serious misgivings about this software. Our concerns are threefold.

First, we are concerned about the impact of this software on students’ privacy. We believe that there is a difference between students taking exams in a semi-private setting, such as a classroom, and students being recorded while taking an exam in their own homes. Students could reasonably see this as an intrusion of privacy. We are also concerned by the ability for the University to store recordings of students taking exams for up to one year. Students may be concerned about how and where this data will be stored, and what it may be used for. 

Second, we are concerned that the use of this software will have a disproportionately negative impact on marginalized & lower-income students. Students may feel embarrassed or uncomfortable with evaluators having access to their homes or letting their evaluator watch them without their knowledge, in addition to being able to access these recordings after the exam. Students with disabilities or who need accommodations may be concerned by being accidentally ‘flagged’ for cheating by the software or being unable to take bathroom breaks. Students with anxiety may experience increased stress, leading to lower test scores – we should not be adding more mental health barriers during a “mental health crisis”. And, many students may not be able to access the technology required to run Respondus, such as a webcam, microphone or a compatible operating system. 

Third, we are concerned about the University’s lack of transparency and student consultation regarding the use of this software in the Spring/Summer semester. In a CBC article published this morning, the University “wouldn’t confirm” if students have been required to use Respondus. The UOSU has independently confirmed that the software is currently in use in courses during the Spring/Summer 2020 semester, including in courses in Engineering, Music, Computer Science and French. 

In light of these concerns, we call on the University of Ottawa to consider the following steps:

  • Confirm on the University’s Respondus FAQ page that students must consent to taking an exam with the Respondus proctoring software, and integrate this in syllabi;
  • Ensure that students who are in a course where this software will be used are informed prior to the start of the Fall 2020 semester, and outline what alternative evaluative methods will be made available to students who do not consent to its use;
  • Ensure that alternative accommodations, such as taking a physically distanced exam at a testing center, will be an option available to students free of charge. Students should not have to pay more for their education in the midst of a global pandemic and economic recession;
  • In light of unresolved privacy, equity and accessibility concerns, and as Respondus was not listed as a requirement before the end of the enrolment period, immediately cease the utilization of Respondus in the Spring/Summer semester, or, alternatively, provide students with an opportunity to drop the course with a full reimbursement;
  • Meaningfully address the concerns students are raising in a statement sent to all students via mass email, in the spirit of transparency and openness.

Moreover, we call on the University of Ottawa to answer the following questions:

  • Can professors, teaching assistants & proctors watch and/or download the video of any student taking an exam, even if they are not flagged by the software for suspected academic fraud?
  • What alternative arrangements will be made for students who do not have access to MacOS and Windows?
  • What alternative arrangements will be made for international students or students who cannot access a testing center?
  • Will webcams be provided free of charge to students who do not have one?
  • Has the University of Ottawa negotiated a different privacy agreement with Respondus than the one available on their website, and if so, can it be made publicly available?
  • What privacy, accessibility and ethics reviews did the University conduct before purchasing Respondus?
  • Does the University of Ottawa reserve the right to store videos of students for one year or longer? How will this information be protected, and what will it be used for? Can a student request deletion of this information before one year has elapsed?
  • In cases of alleged academic fraud, will the University make all evidence available to the student? How will the University ensure professors are equipped to analyze possible cheating while mitigating bias?
  • Will students be allowed to take bathroom breaks while writing exams? How will this work?

Finally, the UOSU recognizes that professors and the University administration alike are concerned about the increased possibility of academic fraud in a virtual learning setting. We acknowledge and share these concerns. However, the UOSU also urges the University and professors alike to consider the 2020 Fall Semester as an opportunity to get creative. We urge the University to embrace alternative methods of assessment that are less reliant on the necessity of a proctoring software, all while championing the principle of universal design and providing accommodations for all students who need them. The UOSU welcomes the constructive dialogue we have had with the University of Ottawa in the past two months, and would equally welcome the opportunity to work collaboratively with the University to build a more affordable and accessible learning experience this Fall.

The UOSU remains steadfast in its commitment to protecting the privacy of U of O students and advocating on their behalf during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In solidarity,

The UOSU Executive |