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Proctored Examinations: The Key to Integrity for Online Learning

Proctored examinations help qualify a student’s achievements in distance education, but the responsibility should be on the institution to ensure that proctors are found, reliable and accepted by all parties.

Academic integrity is of major concern in online and blended learning environments, and a wide range of choices are available to an instructor who wants to ensure integrity. For writing assignments these could include using software to uncover plagiarism, asking students to expand on a difficult concept in a submitted paper, or having students reflect on an assignment in a discussion forum. For online exams and quizzes, strategies could include setting a strict and tight time limit for an exam to prevent looking up answers, setting a short window in which the exam can be taken to limit question sharing or randomizing questions, question order and answer choice order to limit sharing of information.

While all of the above methods discourage academic integrity violation, proctored examinations still rank highest in ensuring it. Many instructors, however, are reluctant to enforce required proctored exams, and with good reason. Vetting possible proctors and then sending out paper exams or passwords is a very time-consuming process. Without a database to record previously approved proctors, new students start the search process anew every semester. Also, the process may result in inconsistencies across instructors as one may approve a proctor and another instructor may find the same proctor unacceptable. Finally, there is the sense among students and faculty that an online course should not have a face-to-face component.

When I first started teaching an online course in 2001, I never considered not having at least one proctored exam for my course. Perhaps it is my business background, but I expected employers to ask how a university awarding a degree could ensure that the person receiving the degree had actually earned it. So, from that first semester and for the next four years, I managed my own proctoring network. Students would find acceptable proctors, and I would vet them. At exam time, I would either email the exam as an attachment to be faxed back or the password to a computer-enabled exam, typically within the learning management system. Students who could attend a physical exam meeting did so. These sessions were on-campus and I proctored them.

There were some issues in the early stages, of course. Not all faculty teaching online in the college supported the same things, which led to great confusion for the students when one instructor approved a proctor and another did not. Although professors used departmental fax machines in their home department, proctors sometimes faxed all exams back to one number, making finding the exams challenging. In 2005, the college implemented a more formalized, but still manual approach to proctoring. Proctor approval and exam distribution were centralized. Faculty now sent exams and exam information to the proctoring office which then distributed them. There was a small space for in-person proctoring for students who could come to campus. The office collected completed exams and sent them to the instructor. Some automation took place, but the process was still largely manual and very time consuming. Faculty and students from other units at the university often asked the office to assist them with their exams as well.

In an attempt to update the process, the university met with information technology staff at the University of North Carolina General Administration Office in 2009 to begin development of an automated proctoring system. In fall 2010, the system was put into production on one UNC campus. It is currently being used on six campuses.

The network standardizes and streamlines the proctoring process for instructors, students, and proctors. While some universities in the US have made approved proctor lists available to students and others have internal proctoring systems, the University of North Carolina system is the only one that offers this level of automation to all its campuses. The network is, in essence, a “one-stop” process for all. Instructors add exams; students register with a proctor; the proctor accesses the exam materials. The network filters available proctors based on student location, exam type, length, and time window. The network allows students to auto-schedule exams with proctors who use all the features of the system, taking the onus off students.

A recently added feature of the system is the use of electronic, real-time proctors. E-proctors enable students enrolled in UNC Online courses to complete their exams from any location they choose. The only requirements include a computer, a reliable Internet connection, and a web camera and microphone. This helps working adults in particular as they juggle career, family, and education.

Since fall 2010, the system has processed nearly 6000 exams. More than 700 approved proctors are available. These proctors come from more than 40 states as well as 20 countries, including Israel and Venezuela. While scheduling exams is limited to students at UNC institutions, anyone can use the system to search for a nearby proctor.