How Technology Has Advanced and Hindered Virtual Learning, Exams, and Cheating

by: Briah Gray
10/13/2020

As colleges and universities transitioned into a virtual learning format in response to COVID-19, so did the exams and assignments students were required to take. The transition into a virtual setting required professors to develop new intimate ways to lecture, seek participation, and test comprehension. This change led students worldwide to nickname their institutions to, “Zoom University” based on their frequent interaction with the online video platform. A pressing issue that has come to universities attention is test taking and how to combat students from cheating. A variety of software has been used to watch students take test and act as an online proctor.  But, has this setting led to an invasion of privacy and a creation of false positives?

Initially, virtual learning was a new world and although professors were unsure how to navigate it, students were already equipped with a number of online sources. An article released that college students had been utilizing already popular sites like, Chegg and Course Hero to gain access to test answers and step-by-step math solutions. These sites have been around before COVID-19, but their business dramatically increased when schools began going virtual. Using the sites are as simple as taking a picture of a problem and receiving step-by-step answers within minutes. Without the ability for professors to implement an in-person proctor, it has made it extremely difficult to monitor students while taking exams.

Studies revealed at North Carolina State, more than 200 of 800 students in a statistics class were referred for disciplinary actions for using Chegg on an exam. While at Purdue University, professors discovered in one class 60 of 250 students had used Chegg in a similar manner. Professors have begun initiating steps to contact Chegg to get their exams and answers taken down. Some professors have even gone to the extent to working with Chegg to determine which students accessed the answers. Although this can help professors tackle cheating in the future, it does not mediate the current problem.

There are a variety of test taking strategies to ease the transition into virtual learning such as, allowing more time for exams and open book or open note opportunities. The sudden change even led some universities into adopting a pass/fail grading system for the Spring 2020 semester.  But with virtual learning extending longer than a single semester, universities needed to adapt to virtual exams and find the best ways to eliminate cheating. Chegg, Course Hero, and Zoom, were not the only online platforms that saw an increase in business. ProctorU, Proctorio, and other competitors have also noticed a surge in business. Companies like Respondus, ProctorU, and Proctorio are all big providers for online proctoring and surveillance during university exams. The software has the ability to monitor student’s webcams to track how often students move their heads, eyes, or touch their computers. Additionally, it can track microphones to monitor background noise and the algorithms can log how often a student moves their mouse or screen.

Online proctor websites help professors monitor cheating by using software that flags any behavior that is considered suspicious and allows the professor to review later. But with the perks, there comes drawbacks. Due to online proctoring detecting every small movement, it runs the risk of flagging student movements who are not cheating. For instance, dogs barking or young children screaming can all cause suspicion and risk the student receiving a cheating violation. Outside of small distractions like dogs and children, many students do not have a home environment conducive to learning. The pandemic has not only shifted learning environments, but has impacted students home environment as well. Parents have lost jobs, some students have been required to obtain jobs, or care for younger siblings who are also doing virtual learning. Online proctoring requires students to have a separate, quiet, study space. It does not account for lower income families. Lastly, it fails to consider students with disabilities that may experience involuntary movements or fidgeting that can flag the software.

Although the purpose of online proctoring and the advancements of technology are meant to protect students, the negative implications marginalize students in a way that may severely impact their education. Not only does the online software create an uneven playing field for students, it can be seen as an invasion of privacy. Students have raised concerns and have even created petitions to eliminate the university’s ability to implement the software. The fear of being hacked and data privacy concerns have caused some universities to limit the use.

With the rise in concerns, what is the best solution that will accommodate both students, professors, and still accurately test comprehension? The answer is still unclear. Despite students wanting to maintain integrity, the pressure that other students could be receiving higher grades while using online sources causes other students to make a decision. Should they risk the chance of receiving a lower grade while being honest or succumb to the pressure and use online sources? Students must also consider the risk of being caught. Professors have noted that, “the number of students who are cheating is almost certainly higher than the number being caught or reported.” There are multiple factors that students and professors must consider. But technology may not be the ultimate answer.

Technology is never going to be error free. But is the problem technology or how we apply it? Meredith Broussard, a computer scientist, artificial intelligence researcher, and professor in data journalism at New York University, believes people use technology as an easy solution, when in most cases, they should approach the problem in a new way altogether. Broussard argues, because learning looks different, exam taking should look different. Should universities take the time to improve the proctor software to eliminate bias or abandon technology all together? Technology is a solution for cases such as identity or credit card fraud, but may not be the solution for all parts of education.

All of society, including virtual learning, is going through a state of uncertainty. Technology offers a variety of benefits that have allowed professors to connect with students and bring the classroom into their homes. The flexibility and benefits, although positive, come with many negatives. Invasion of privacy, false positives, and socio-economic biases complicate the transition into virtual learning. As technology improves and the world evolves, professors and universities must consider what is most important, exam scores or student’s privacy. Navigating this new normal will be an ongoing challenge for all involved and we may need to accept that technology is not the ultimate answer.