How can a student pass PPSC exams

ProctoringThe university monitors students during online exams

When the corona pandemic finally arrived in Germany in mid-March, many universities were in the middle of the examination phase for the 2019/20 winter semester. In addition to organizing the virtual summer semester and the sudden changeover to digital learning and teaching formats, those responsible had to quickly find solutions in order to be able to hold exams. Students are dependent on being able to take exams at a certain point in time, for example in order to be able to comply with the standard period of study. Otherwise they could lose the BAföG, which is only paid for the duration of the standard period of study.

Leonard Wolf is studying distance learning at the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences. Since spring, when face-to-face exams were suddenly no longer possible, the university has given distance students the choice: write a term paper instead of the exam or take the exam online. With the relaxation of the Corona regulations over the summer, students have been able to choose between a face-to-face exam and the online version since August.

Classroom exam as a risk for high-risk patients

Wolf, who himself belongs to the corona risk group because of diabetes, did not want to expose himself to the risk of infection during a classroom exam. He decided on the online version. To test the technology, he completed a test exam a few days before the actual exam date. There he discovered that the university had the online exams monitored with the help of an external service provider. And he learned what amounts of data the service provider Proctorio collects from the students:

Leonard Wolf found the interference with his data and his environment disproportionate and lodged a complaint with the state data protection officer on the same day. He sees the principle of proportionality and data economy violated, which is set out in the European General Data Protection Regulation.

On request, a spokeswoman for the university explains that there were plans for online exams with Proctorio even before the Corona crisis. The technology was used for the first time in April of this year.

The university uses Proctorio as a browser plug-in for Google Chrome. In the procedural rules for online exams available at netzpolitik.org, the university declares that the use of the tool aims to create equal opportunities between face-to-face and online exams:

As with a normal exam at one of our exam locations, we want to guarantee the same, fair conditions for all students. Thus, the same rules apply to the respective face-to-face and online exams. As a result, everyone must adhere to the rules of exam processing that apply to the on-site exam, also in the online exam.

Therefore, the camera and audio record you while you are working on your exam. We also ask you to film your personal exam room, including the empty table on which you place your computer. Please also note that the exam software prevents other computer applications from being used during the exam. An attempt to start another application can lead to the immediate abortion of the exam and is usually counted as an attempt at deception. You should therefore ensure that all applications except the exam software are switched off at the start of the exam.

No other person is allowed to enter the room during the exam. There has to be absolute calm and the participants have to keep their eyes on the screen the entire time. You are not allowed to get up, leave the room or speak, not even to yourself.

No feedback during the exam

In an updated version of the procedural rules, headphones and electronic devices are also prohibited on the body, except for medical purposes. Even then, they have to be registered with the examination office beforehand. With certain devices such as an insulin pump, this would allow precise conclusions to be drawn about a person's illnesses.

The test persons are identified by their identity card, which they hold in the webcam before the test. Leonard Wolf explains that Proctorio would automatically evaluate the image and sound recordings of the test and mark places where the algorithm suspects fraud. The examiners could then look at the recordings later and check dubious areas.

During the test, however, the tool does not give any feedback as to whether it is striking or not. If anything in the exam environment or in the behavior of the students was classified as questionable or a possible attempt at fraud, they would not have a chance to correct the problem in order to avoid doubts. If the university cannot subsequently determine whether there has been an attempt to cheat, one must expect to fail the exam, says Wolf. To this day, he has not received any feedback from the university as to whether there was a problem with his exam on August 8th or whether everything was formally in order.

Always an alternative to the online exam?

The list of things that are tracked during the exam did something to him, reports the student. He would have liked to lean back while thinking or let his gaze wander. Instead, he kept worrying about whether he was behaving incorrectly in any way, whether he was moving his eyes or head too much, or whether his keyboard was too loud and could hit the microphone as a result. Full concentration on the exam was difficult.

It is unclear whether no student actually had to take an online exam. The university emphasizes that there has always been an alternative. Risk patients could replace an exam with a term paper. When asked, the spokeswoman confirmed that this is still possible today. Everyone else could opt for the face-to-face exam.

In a posting by the onlineplus examinations office responsible for distance learning on the internal learning platform studynet from the beginning of July, which netzpolitik.org was able to view, it says:

We would like to inform you that we as the onlineplus department will again be offering face-to-face exams for the exam date on 08/08/2020 in compliance with hygiene measures. [...] Replacement services are therefore no longer offered.

Members of the risk group such as Leonard Wolf, who did not want to expose themselves to the risk of a face-to-face exam, at least did not actively offer an alternative.

Could software put students at a disadvantage?

It is unclear how Proctorio wants to ensure that the software does not disadvantage students. Automated detection of eye, mouth and head movements requires the tool to recognize a face as such and then track its movements. In the past, however, algorithms repeatedly caught the attention of recognizing non-white faces much worse than such, because they were underrepresented in the training data for the algorithm.

On request, Proctorio explains that the problem of “racial bias” is taken very seriously and that the software is checked regularly “in order to identify and correct any distortions”.

In order to ensure data security, Proctorio still refers on his homepage to the Privacy Shield regulation, which has meanwhile been overturned by the European Court of Justice, which should regulate the data transfer between the EU and the USA. According to the company, all data processing contracts were checked after the judgment and standard contractual clauses were introduced.

Data protection concerns at the University of Frankfurt

The Fresenius University of Applied Sciences has now issued such a clause for its collaboration with Proctorio. The university explains: "The use of Proctorio in the context of online exams was checked and clarified in advance by our data protection officer." This check took place in January 2020. After the ECJ ruling on the Privacy Shield, the university issued standard contractual clauses "as an alternative legal basis for data transfer".

How many universities in Germany use Proctorio or comparable tools to monitor online exams is not recorded centrally. However, inquiries from four other German universities show that there were concerns about data protection law when using Proctorio and that many alternatives to automated proctoring are conceivable.

Proctorio was approved for a pilot process at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. A spokesman for the university said that the test was not carried out due to privacy concerns. Instead, there were two online exams with live supervision. Here, too, the students had to allow insight into their surroundings and hold their ID up to the camera. The video data were not saved after the exam. At the moment there are no plans to use the procedure again.

Own server for exam data in Jena

Exams with live video supervision were also held at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena. A spokeswoman explains: “We want to keep the interference with the personal rights of the students as low as possible. If an online exam with video supervision takes place, the examiners are only monitored by humans and there is no recording (storage of video data). "

Before the start of the exam period in the summer semester, a data protection impact assessment was also carried out in order to check software for written and oral online exams. The decision was made to use Moodle as the exam platform and set up a separate server for this so that the data would not be lost.

Take-home exams in Mainz

The Johannes Gutenberg University (JGU) in Mainz relied almost exclusively on so-called take-home exams. With this procedure, also called open book exams, students can work on tasks in a certain period of time without supervision. They either sign a declaration that they have completed the tasks without aids, or they are allowed to use any aids they want. Normally, examiners then adjust the task types or the number of tasks in such a way that only those who are prepared can still pass.

In response to a request from netzpolitik.org, the Mainz University President Georg Krausch explains: “Since the use of online proctoring tools was not planned at JGU due to concerns about data protection law, only the take-home test, the takes place without supervision, included as a new electronic written examination form. "

Oral exams were held via video conference using programs that JGU was able to host on its own servers. For take-home exams as well as for oral exams, students had to sign declarations to work independently. A further control, such as an insight into the exam environment, did not take place, said Krausch. Some exams would take place in attendance again.

Presence exams in Karlsruhe

The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) tried to ensure as much presence as possible. Some exams also took place online, a spokeswoman said, including both oral and written exams. However, there was no recording of the video transmission here either. In addition, automated monitoring procedures have not yet been used. For the face-to-face exams, the KIT rented external rooms such as the city's event halls or tents, in which the exams could take place while maintaining the distance, according to the spokeswoman.

The statements show that, in contrast to the Hochschule Fresenius, other universities see data protection concerns when using automated proctoring. Many alternatives to the automated monitoring of exams are conceivable and have already been used successfully.

Would you like more critical reporting?

Our work at netzpolitik.org is financed almost exclusively by voluntary donations from our readers. With an editorial staff of currently 15 people, this enables us to journalistically edit many important topics and debates in a digital society. With your support, we can clarify even more, conduct investigative research much more often, provide more background information - and defend even more fundamental digital rights!

You too can support our work now with yours Donation.

About the author

Jana Ballweber

Jana has been with netzpolitik.org since 2020. She is currently studying journalism at the University of Mainz, previously science communication and journalism in Karlsruhe. Her main interests are digitization and data protection in the health system, in science and in sport. Accessible by email, encrypted if you like, and on Twitter.
Published 08/22/2020 at 8:00 am