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Lockdown browsers fail to create a culture of academic integrity

With midterms finished and finals fast approaching, students are expressing recurring objections to testing in the online environment, specifically objections to the use of lockdown browsers. While faculty and staff are still learning to adapt to virtual classrooms, figuring out how to uphold the principle of academic integrity becomes complex. While there may not be a simple way forward, it is clear that the use of lockdown browsers is not the solution. 

Since the start of online learning, many professors have relied heavily on lockdown browsers as the most conventional form of proctoring. Despite this, they have proven more convenient for instructors than beneficial for students. The reality is that lockdown browsers have increased academic anxiety and worsened the mental health of students.

One reason for this stress is the widespread concern that this proctoring method is invasive to student personal privacy. As students are forced to download certain lockdown software, direct access is given to their computer and its operating system. 

According to Evan Greer, Deputy Director of Fight for the Future, a digital rights non-profit, “This software is essentially malware or academic stalkerware. It’s deeply invasive and allows school administrators to violate students’ privacy rights.”  Other experts have shared a similar perspective; some have sought to conduct further research.

Many are even concerned of possible student data breaches, lawsuits and more. There have been a series of data breaches among other test proctoring companies that have increased concern related to the security of these testing arrangements. It is an issue that must be known and addressed by educators who consider the use of lockdown browsers. 

Despite these disturbing discoveries, student perspectives reveal the real downsides to lockdown browsers go beyond digital privacy and security concerns. For many students, the most concerning aspect of this type of proctoring is the unnecessary anxiety it causes, making them fearful their testing will be disrupted by factors out of their control. 

A University of Maryland, Baltimore County sophomore, Anna Choi, discusses an experience of using lockdown browsers, “I’m taking classes from home this semester and got locked out of an exam when my mother walked into the background during testing.” The situation, clearly misunderstood by the software, left Anna upset and confused. Technological errors such as these prove to be a frequent stressor in her academic life.

Another UMBC sophomore, Nathan Huang, shares his experiences, “Balancing lockdown browsers in addition to my ADHD condition has made online testing much more difficult.” For Nathan, navigating online testing alongside a preexisting condition has proven to be a frustrating obstacle. He was entirely unable to look away from the computer screen and collect his thoughts during the exam without being accused of cheating.

Research and student feedback on the use of lockdown browsers begs the question, how can we continue to condone the use of a program that has raised understandable concerns of privacy and contributed significantly towards academic anxiety in students?

Furthermore, shouldn’t universities be focused on developing a strong culture of academic honesty on their campus, rather than pounding a fake one into students with the use of constant monitoring? 

One alternate online-proctoring software may be a possible solution. The program, Respondus Monitor, disables screen captures and external web use. Jeremy Bond, Interim Director of eLearning at Central Michigan University has reported that, “the video and data aren’t in real time,” a structure which allows students to relax a bit more during testing while still being proctored. 

Another alternative that could provide a more comfortable testing environment is the use of time-sensitive exam windows. Implementing a time-limit for online testing instead could allow students to focus on the exam without granting them extra time to cheat. 

Although academic pressure is sure to rise in any virtual testing environment, finding alternatives to lockdown browsers could help eliminate unnecessary anxiety and invasions of student privacy until university learning is able to return back to normal.  

For too long, universities have relied on the control of students in classrooms, now virtual classrooms, to promote academic integrity. It is an approach that ignores student mental health and fails to instill long-term academically honest habits. Lockdown browsers are a clear example of this deeper issue.  

While students still remain working in virtual environments, staff and teachers must work harder to understand which approaches to testing are problematic and harmful. Understanding what testing conditions work best for students and finding alternative programs is worthy of the time, it will keep students honest in their academic work, but most importantly, it will improve the relationship between their mental health and academic success. 

Written by Opinions Columnist, Vivian Pham.