It was an innocent Tuesday, but at 9:10 AM the morning of December 8th, 2020, Kettering dropped the startling announcement–subtly nestled into the Bulldog Weekly. Four announcements in and two-paragraphs long, the university announced that we would be using the Exam Proctoring service “Honorlock.” We have yet to be informed of what content delivery method (in-person, hybrid, or online) will be for Winter 2021, but this was an exciting development. We have emailed President McMahan about this, but he has not yet returned our request for comment.
Within hours, the news had snowballed into the creation of multiple Change.org petitions, notably this one with over 1,400 signatures (as of 12/10/2020 at 8:00 AM), or more than half the population of Kettering’s Student body. In addition to that, our local Kettering Reddit community was quite displeased, with multiple emails being penned to university administrators, like the Dean, Provost, and President. We, too, have asked the Provost some questions, and he responded with a Memorandum to the student body at 6:32 PM the evening of December the 9th, as well as some “Frequently Asked Questions” and their answers. We thank Dr. Zhang for his prompt responses to our inquiries.
But what exactly is Honorlock, and why has its announcement been so poorly received by the student body? In general, Honorlock is one of many Exam Proctoring services available commercially to (usually) universities and colleges. These Proctoring services are for students taking exams and tests with upgraded academic integrity. What’s the difference between then, say one of these and Blackboard, as a thing we already use? As I mentioned, these services allow the exam issuing institution to be better assured that the people taking the exams are the people who they say they are and don’t use unauthorized media or access restricted documents. The service also is able to manage a class of students more effectively.
So, why are we getting this now? Good question. In our email to the Provost about what caused this, he responded with his memorandum later in the day. Within that, he cited federal (Department of Education) and accreditation (Higher Learning Commission) requirements that “[require] colleges and universities to meaningfully assess student performance. He went on to say, “[…] online proctoring has been used as one of the standard tools to meet these regulatory and accreditation requirements.”
So why is everyone upset? Data and Personal Privacy concerns. Several anecdotes from students said that they don’t mind the implementation of a test proctoring system; however, they do mind the potential ethical and security concerns of this specific one. How so, then, are the students concerned? First of all, Honorlock is a browser extension that only works with Google, a popular search engine, but more specifically, Google’s internet browser, Google Chrome. But it’s more than that. Honorlock collects an incredible amount of data from its users: as one Kettering student Redditor pointed out in an open letter to Dr. McMahan, “The sheer amount of data collected from the software rivals those of Facebook, Amazon, or Google.” A 360-degree photo of your exam space (optionally required by the professor), either your school or a federal ID, your browser history, a recording of your desktop, audio, and video–these things are all stored for up to 12 months by this third-party. And this compilation of stored data isn’t just limited to what was created during exam time, either. The letter continues,
“Having a large database of students, their IP addresses, pictures of their photo IDs, and recordings of their likeness and any possessions visible in the recorded window makes students prime targets for theft not just in the digital world.”
However, the Provost refuted many of these claims in his memo and FAQ doc. For example, the primary outcry was rebutted by this:
“Kettering has a long-standing Acceptable Use Policy that is aimed at protecting all Kettering employees and students. This policy prohibits unauthorized use of any Kettering constituent data and supersedes any 3rd party vendor agreement, including Honorlock’s general terms of service. Our implementation of this service is bound by our Acceptable Use Policy.”
Furthermore, the concern that student FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) rights would have to be waived or be under threat was also refuted:
“The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) binds Honorlock to only collect, process, and store student information for their services and prohibits Honorlock to sell or transfer the collected information for any other purposes. Furthermore, Honorlock only collects data that verifies a student’s identity and complies with FERPA requirements.”
The connection to or accessing other devices on the local network or the network itself or internet connections, per the information from the Provost’s Office, has also been clarified from what some unverified sources had to say. The documents noted that Honorlock only can “see” what one does on the Chrome browser itself (what Honorlock runs on) and that it does not have any other access to any other information on the computer. The memo went on to say (in all bold), “Honorlock does not otherwise access or control the host computer, mobile device, or any devices connected to the same network as the host computer, nor does it scan the network.” Also, Honorlock uses “face detection,” not “facial recognition,” the difference being that Honorlock detects the presence of one or more or fewer faces in the view of your webcam–not the specific face it can see (features, shapes, etc.). That also goes for audio recognition, just the presence of voices but not the voices themselves.
The punchline is that Honorlock does not specifically determine if a student cheated or not. If there is a “concern” for academic misconduct, Honorlock’s AI will leave a red flag at that time in your exam log. Potentially, a live proctor may “pop-in” to check on things to make sure everything is ok, take some notes of the incident, and leave a flag as well. After the exam is complete, your Kettering Faculty can review the incidents, recordings, and case notes as well and make their own determination, and, if necessary, refer it for disciplinary action. In short, Honnorlock does not “automatically fail you” for telling your dog to go lay down or your roommate coming in unannounced: your professor has to review the incident themselves.
There are some other key points that were brought up by the FAQs and the memo. I do want to take a moment to point out that “Proctor” is fancy for “person that works for Honorlock that makes sure you’re being a good noodle while you are taking your exam.” They don’t work for Kettering, nor do they have direct control over your grades. They just report out what they see. “Professor, Instructor, Faculty, or Teacher,” interchangeably, is the person that controls your grade as they teach your class and have office hours for you. They work for Kettering and show up on your registration document for the term.
Does your professor even have to use Honorlock? Nope. They can, but they don’t have to. “Does Honorlock sell my data or monetize my data to third parties outside of my school or university?” No. “Honorlock only shares your data with your educational institution.”
How about that good old personal data that they collect? What do they collect exactly? “Student information (i.e. student name, course number, exam name.)” Also, webcam and audio recording that includes desktop activity as well as exam and web pages that you visit during the examination.
All this data, how long will Honorlock retain it? At least 12 months. At this time, it will be deleted, unless Kettering asks it to be retained longer.
“Is Honorlock tracking my online activities and watching me when I am not taking an exam?” No.
“Where is my data stored and how well is my data protected?” The data is stored at Amazon Web Services (AWS) data centers, which are SOC 2 Type 1, S.S. Privacy Shield, and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliant.
“Is it true that Honorlock scans home networks and monitors data from any device connected to that network?” “No. Honorlock does not scan home networks or monitor data from any device on the network other than the one used for testing.”
Remember those “pop-in” proctors? No, they don’t watch you for the duration of the exam. They only watch you when they “pop-in” if the system detects an anomaly. What about those pesky cell phones?
This one is the last kicker:
“Does Honorlock have the capability to monitor the use of my smartphone during an examination session?
Students using their smartphones to search online resources for test questions should note Honorlock utilizes a manual technology to detect academic integrity issues. Specifically, Honorlock hosts websites with seeded test questions that, when accessed during an examination session, sets off an action on the phone. This action is picked up during the student’s session and alerts instructors to review for academic integrity issues. Honorlock does not initiate any technologies to eavesdrop on the student’s smartphone activity either during or after an examination session.
It is important for students to understand they are not authorized to use their phones during an Honorlock proctored examination.”
The Provost said that questions can be fielded to him at email@example.com. This about rounds out what we have right now on Honorlock.
Some questions remain unanswered, like why Honorlock specifically was chosen as opposed to other services, if Kettering will provide equipment (such as laptops, internet, or webcams) to students that might need it to take exams, if the university will have a formal response to the petitions circulating around, or what the course delivery method will be for Winter 2021. But, it looks like we might just have to wait and see.
We will stay on top of this issue as the story develops.
Mikka Lawson, B-Section Editor-in-Chief, contributed to this article