A New Tale Of The Wuhan Virus Ethics Train Wreck: The Home Test Cheating Algorithm

Will there ever be any appropriate consequences for the Machiavellian politicians, incompetent health professionals, irresponsible teachers and fear-mongering journalists who collectively pushed the United States into a foolish, destructive and reckless lockdown in response to the Wuhan virus and its relatives? The harm inflicted on the nation, its culture and the public has been , and continues to be, catastrophic. In comparison to so many of the disastrous results of this deep self-inflicted wound, the travails of a young student unjustly accused of cheating doesn’t seem that consequential. What it demonstrates, however, is how many victims of the Wuhan Virus Ethics Train Wreck we don’t know about. I’m sure there are millions.

In truth, we know there are millions. For example, millions of people were forced to take bar exams, tests and quizzes alone at home on their laptops. Such conditions are not conducive to trustworthy or even meaningful tests, but never mind: the education community was willing to sacrifice learning for fear and bad science. Then there was the special bonus of getting rid of President Trump by knee-capping the economy.

At least remote proctoring companies boomed, offering web browser extensions that “detect keystrokes and cursor movements, collect audio from a computer’s microphone, and record the screen and the feed from a computer’s camera, bringing surveillance methods used by law enforcement, employers and domestic abusers into an academic setting.” Of course, as we learned in “War Games,” handing over critical tasks requiring judgments to machines has its drawbacks.

A Florida teenager was in the final year of a special program that would earn her a high school diploma and an associate degree. Along with 40 other students in her biology class, she never had face-to-face interaction with fellow students or the instructor; the Broward College class was remote and “asynchronous”—the students didn’t even all attend it at the same time.

To take her exam, the student set up her laptop in her living room and followed a long list of rules in the class syllabus and dictated by Honorlock—the anti-cheating monitoring system being used by Broward. She was not to eat or drink, use a phone, have others in the room, look offscreen to read notes, and other taboo behaviors. She had to pose in front of her laptop camera for a photo, show her student ID, and then pick her laptop up and use its camera to provide a 360-degree scan of the room to prove she didn’t have any forbidden material.

What fun!

The student followed all of the edicts and thought the test went well, but days afterwards, she received an email from Dr. Orridge, the professor whom she had never met or spoken to in real time. It informed her that she was flagged as cheating by Honorlock, because she had been observed “looking down and away from the screen before answering many questions.” This meant, her Phantom Professor explained, that she was getting a zero on the exam and being referred to the dean of student affairs. “If you are found responsible for academic dishonesty the grade of zero will remain,” Dr. Orridge wrote.

The New York Times reviewed the video of her taking the test, and saw what the artificial intelligence technology also saw: she looked down frequently after reading a question and before responding. It concluded that the video was ambiguous. The student said she looked down when thinking. That was as plausible an explanation as anything else. If the professor had actually seen the student in a class, she might have known that. But the video and verdict of the computer was good enough for the professor and the dean

The student was found “responsible” for “noncompliance with directions,” resulting in a zero on the exam and a warning on her record.

She graduated from the program last month, but the cheating verdict remains on her record. (If she decided to become a lawyer, it could bar her from membership in a state bar.) Now she says she is learning to be “like a mannequin during tests.”

And one more human being is forced into convenient conformity after being punished without fair due process. There is a persuasive and well-written petition on Change.org asking for the use of algorithm-based monitoring systems like Honorlock to cease. It has attracted 545 signatures in two years.

5 thoughts on “A New Tale Of The Wuhan Virus Ethics Train Wreck: The Home Test Cheating Algorithm

  1. Most people do not stare straight ahead while thinking. Typically, I look up while thinking, or stare into space. This is basic body language. Those cheat detectors are ridiculous. They expect you to control your eye movements while thinking? Idiocy.

  2. For roughly the second half of the spring semester of 2020, virtually every educational institution in the country went completely online. Literally every class was compromised in some way. The manifestations were different, however.
    I couldn’t possibly assign my Directing class to stage a scene, since neither they nor any actors could be in the same place at the same time. That makes it a whole lot harder to determine if the student directors really know how to motivate blocking, etc. Yes, I could (and did) have them submit marked up scripts of who would move where when, but I’ve been doing this over 40 years longer than they have, and if I’d had a particularly inspired preparation period, maybe 80% of my initial plans made it through the first rehearsal, let alone to opening night. You’ve got to see it in the flesh, to understand that this actor can make this piece of business work but that actor can’t, and so on.
    By contrast, a largely lecture course like Theatre History is little changed for regular class days. Talking over a Powerpoint in a classroom isn’t much different than talking over a Powerpoint on Zoom. The one difference that matters is that I couldn’t read the room to offer more explanations about this point or to recognize the “yeah, we know” passive aggressive response to material they should (but don’t necessarily) know.
    Testing becomes a different deal, though. I couldn’t be there to proctor the exams as I’d done for literally decades. The university offered the opportunity to use one of these services that purport to eliminate cheating, but we were told to use these services only sparingly, as they were quite expensive. I’ve forgotten the exact cost per student per exam, but it would have been ridiculous even if these companies could actually deliver what they promised: to curtail cheating without generating any “false positives.”
    But, looking over what they purported to be able to do and how they proposed to do it, it was crystal clear even at first glance that they were going to accuse more innocent students of cheating than they’d catch actual cheaters. University administrators, being rather dullardly, flocked to these programs. Any teacher of any sense–in ethical or pragmatic terms, let alone both at once–at any level avoided this nonsense like, well, if not the plague, then at least COVID-19.
    I shifted to essay-only “take-home” exams. Students were not only allowed, but expected, to consult their notes, the Powerpoints, and the readings to help them formulate their answers. A semester later, I shifted back to the kind of tests I’d always given. The campus was open for students who wanted to attend in person, but all classes could be taken online only; I demanded that anyone who could come to the classroom for exams do so; I held individual zoom sessions with those who were out of town, and we essentially had an oral exam: they talked to me rather than writing, and I’d just assign a score at the end of each question. I insisted that their cameras be on, but I didn’t make them go through all the other rigmarole. Not so surprisingly, the good students did well and the weak students did not.
    In other words, there are lots of ways of preventing students from cheating. I’d give students on Zoom a time limit to answer multiple choice questions, for example.
    But what’s most important here is that the requirements set up by the companies selling their so-called anti-cheating services are invasive, arrogant, and… wait for it… counter-productive. A student who really wants to cheat will find a way to do so. We can’t stop them; the best we can do is to make it harder to get away with cheating than it is to study. But the number of students falsely accused is staggering. I know personally of several students thus accused; of them, I can think of precisely one I could even imagine trying to cheat. At least the professors in question looked at the footage and came to the conclusion that the Big Brother operations were, shall we say, a little over-enthusiastic.
    As others have said, our eyes move when we’re thinking. I named a whimsical award for Most Fun to Watch Taking an Exam after a (very good) student whose eyes tended to roll towards the classroom ceiling when she was trying to remember a pertinent fact. Then she’d point with her index finger at the note cards she’d arrange in her mind’s eye. Others would wiggle their fingers or stare into space. One beheld the exam questions with a gaze suggestive of an attempt to determine if Nietzsche was correct, and the abyss really does stare back. I will guarantee that none of them were cheating. They all did well in my classes.
    Restricting normal human functions to staring directly and unflinchingly at a computer screen is downright stupid. The people who run these companies are selling snake oil. Anyone who unhesitatingly believes in the verdicts of these amoral and inaccurate programs immediately gives up all claims to be an educator… or an intelligent adult, for that matter.
    Let me ramble on a while longer and I’ll tell you what I really think. 😉

  3. Curmie’s wise resort to having the students write essays reminded me of my best teachers and the debt I owe them.

    After teaching in another country myself for many years, I thought I was ready to tackle a job as a sub in the local high school system at home only to find very quickly that two things had gone missing in the US while I was out of the country : an honor system and a positive attitude toward learning. I then turned to another profession (coward!), but continued to tutor at the local libraries, focusing on those adults, who signed up (verbally) as being unable to read and write. None of them were “functionally” illiterate. Most of them spoke openly (some with pride) at being adept at avoiding society’s shame, if not their own embarrassment: indeed, most had bootstrapped their way to a comfortable living for themselves and their families. In common, they were Learners in life, if not schooling, with superior memories and recognition, absorbing information with all their senses, all the time. My version of an essay test subject grew out of recording (Walkman-style) and transcribing something they’d enjoyed mentioning, letting them listen to and read what they’d said, then asking them to write something more about it. Unfortunately, the library was redesigned and the space was no longer available for this kind of program. The people who ran the program (all volunteers, retired teachers) were let go without notice, all the records disappeared, and the space was thereafter taken up by … more computers.


  4. Well I’d NEVER be able to pass a test under those conditions. I’d be constantly looking down at my keyboard and mouse to make sure my fingers were in the right spots for the former, and so that I didn’t accidentally knock the latter off the table when reaching for it.


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