We are seeing a lot of policy-based evidence emerge from the coronavirus emergency, something that’s normal when people work in a state of profound uncertainty, with very thin knowledge of the accuracy of the data available. Should everyone be wearing face masks to prevent infection? If you’re from an Asian country, you will most likely believe that scientific evidence shows you should. If you’re from a European country, you will have been hearing a lot about how the evidence points the other way. This doesn’t mean both are true – instead, there is an underlying scientific reality that is being pulled in different directions by our countries’ degree of access to, and hence policy position on, surgical masks. Is a full lockdown necessary? Again, your view of the supporting evidence will differ according to whether you are Swedish or Spanish, from New York or Hong Kong.
There is a feverish debate over who is right, in the absence of the nuance and understanding that can help us distinguish correlation from causation. That debate is emotional and pressured - understandably, because it is a debate about life and death. Louise Amoore has written on how we can live with ‘post-Cartesian doubt’ in a time where algorithms are becoming a primary mode of evidence evaluation. She quotes the physicist Richard Feynman: ‘Permit us to question, to doubt, to not be sure… it is possible to live and not to know’ (Amoore, 2019). Is this something we can do when our lives, or those of many people we care about, are at stake?
Online exams and proctoring
Universities are supposed to be the place where doubt can be weighed and knowledge learned, but they are suffering just as much uncertainty as the rest of us. Tilburg University has been under fire for adopting online proctoring software, though it is not the only university to do so (TU Eindhoven has also decided to use it). Most Dutch universities have not, so far, taken this route. The problem, at least, is clear: students must be able to progress and graduate; they cannot be asked to come to campus to take exams in the conventional way; teaching staff are also stuck at home with many experiencing reduced working hours due to homeschooling, which provides limited resources with which to make new forms of examination available. The solution: existing exams can be provided online, with online proctoring as a check on behaviour.
Proctoring is invasive, the software needs to take a scan of your workspace and will follow your eye movements and any sounds in the room.
Many students, however, are unhappy. Their response: it’s invasive, the software needs to take a scan of your workspace and will follow your eye movements and any sounds in the room. Moreover you need a webcam and good broadband internet, which not everyone can afford at home. Students will have to use a Google browser, which many may object to for reasons of privacy and data protection.
Even if a student has no problem with any of this, there are complaints relating to equality of opportunity: the new system is not fair on people who have travelled home to a different time zone and may find they have to take an exam in the middle of the night; it’s not fair on anyone in an area where no good broadband is available in the first place, let alone their ability to pay for it; and, most of all, it’s not fair on anyone who doesn’t have a quiet, private place to take the exam. The software does not require a human to monitor all students: instead, it produces a risk index for fraud and allows individual cases to be scrutinised.
The university has made its case for using proctoring software for courses with larger student numbers. Rector Klaas Sijtsma has outlined the problem:
‘as a teacher you want to know that Jan de Vries is on the other side, so there will have to be some form of identification. You also want to know that nobody is helping Jan de Vries and that he will not check books during exams, if that is not the intention. And that Jan de Vries is not secretly on the internet or on google or emailing with a fellow student. This is necessary to establish that the student actually possesses the knowledge and skills for a diploma. Society must be able to rely on that and we are also legally obliged to do so.’
All this is entirely reasonable. Degrees should be awarded on a basis of equal effort, equal reward. Anyone who cheats devalues everyone else’s diploma. This is unfair, and the university has to be able to stand behind the degrees it awards. A degree given in 2020 should be of the same value as one from 2019. Furthermore, it is optimal if students can undergo the testing that was originally planned for their course. Otherwise teachers have to scramble to create new tests which may not be as thorough, and alternative ways of testing may create untenable workloads for staff and cause delays in reporting grades and thus in graduation. These are all serious concerns that have to be addressed.
Who is 'our student'?
On the other hand, as teachers we can question whether Jan is the student we should be looking to serve. Jan is the ‘Gewoone Nederlander’ – the Dutch norm. A local student, who grew up in a neighbouring town and has gone home to his parents’ house to weather the lockdown. His parents are middle-class with a spare bedroom in which he can work, and broadband internet access. He was able to retrieve his books before the lockdown and has been able to continue with his coursework and receive answers to his questions. If he can’t graduate on time he may – even if the crisis eases – have to wait months before he can get a job, which he finds unacceptable, given that the world is plunging into recession and the chances of employment are dwindling. Jan is highly motivated to take his final exams.
There are approaches that make allowances for everyone, some of which have already been proposed by students.
Also in Jan’s course is Farhana. She is from a lower-income country in the global South. She travelled home to be with her family when the emergency began, before her country restricted incoming travel. Her mother is ill and is self-isolating, so Farhana is looking after her siblings and grandparents. She has no desk and could not bring all the books she needs with her on the plane due to luggage restrictions. She has internet on her smartphone, which she is using for her studies in the evenings, but she cannot access Canvas or library materials due to account authentication problems. Her neighbourhood is noisy and there is no private room in the house where she can work undisturbed. Her laptop is old and needs to be replaced: she was hoping to do that when she got a job in the Netherlands after graduating. If she cannot take her exams she will have a half-year delay and will have to pay her flight back to the Netherlands, her rent for those six months, and her living costs out of a budget that will not stretch that far. The recession is going to hit her country much harder than the Netherlands – people are already hungry and are rioting for the end of lockdown. Farhana is highly motivated to take her final exams.
What is equality of opportunity in this situation? Not all students are in Jan’s position, but neither are they all in Farhana’s. Most are somewhere in-between. While Farhana will score high on the risk index, and Jan low, there will be a huge variance in people’s circumstances, and the level of doubt for authorities about who to check, and for what, will be high.
Is proctoring software really the answer?
What does this mean for the university’s decisionmakers? There are multiple testing options that would work for both types of student, but these different types of student would not both be able to take the already-prepared test online, using proctoring software. Demanding that they do so prioritises people in the Netherlands over those abroad, but creating other options that are fairer on students risks being unfair on teachers, who are also in a situation of reduced capacity. There are approaches that make allowances for everyone, some of which have already been proposed by students: they include giving students a final grade based on the work they have already completed or giving a timed, open-book exam; both of these options are being adopted by high-profile universities around the world in the interest of fairness to all concerned.
What is needed here is an acceptance of doubt of the sort that Amoore discusses: if we wish to be fair, we must accept that this situation is full of doubt. Instead of jamming it into a technical solution that will artificially reduce doubt by establishing a standard and penalising anyone whose situation deviates, it might be better to behave flexibly and use the resources we have to reduce doubt. Jan de Vries is no longer the only norm, but the systems we are offered are still built in his image. For that to change, universities have to adopt less technical, more human approaches that allow us to at least claim that we are offering students equal opportunities to succeed.
Amoore, L. (2019). Doubt and the algorithm: On the partial accounts of machine learning. Theory, Culture & Society, 36(6), 147-169.