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Privacy is important, but UU won’t ban Zoom or online proctoring

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The university’s board things the privacy of students and employees at Utrecht University is important, but banning Zoom or online proctoring in these times of crisis is a step too far. This was the result of the most recent university council meeting, in which the students asked for their privacy to be taken seriously.

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“Students shouldn’t have to choose between their privacy and a study delay.” With this statement, student council member Anneke Marien tried to get the student members of the University Council to ban Zoom and online proctoring during the council meeting on April 20. The Executive Board thinks that in this crisis, the concerns about privacy of students and employees are subservient to avoiding study delays by continuing education and examination online. “We do of course take privacy seriously, but needs must,” rector Henk Kummeling responds.

Zoom and proctoring
In the current circumstances caused by the corona measures, the university’s education has to find its way online. For courses with many students enrolled, a number of teachers use Zoom, a programme for online teaching and video conferencing. The American company behind Zoom, however, is the subject of some controversy. It’s said that it doesn’t protect the privacy of its users, and that it’s easy to hack.

For online surveillance during exams that students take at home, the university uses proctoring for some courses. Online proctoring usually uses programmes with which students identify themselves in front of a webcam, and then let themselves be observed, sharing their screen with remote proctors. The students in the University Council also have their doubts about these types of programmes. They’ve heard, for instance, that UU students have to hold their ID cards in front of the webcam – which, they claim, is something that can be taken advantage of by others.

Concerns about privacy
The UU student council members aren’t the only ones concerned about the security of online proctoring. Student union LSVb is also critical of these programmes, and students at Tilburg University have started a petition to end online proctoring. Timo Diedering, student of artificial intelligence, wrote an op-ed for DUB in which he says he refuses this form of online proctoring, which violates his privacy.

The student council members ask the university board to ban the use of Zoom. They also want alternative tests instead of exams that use online proctoring. In any case, they want UU students to be better informed about the privacy risks of online proctoring, and it wants an alternative exam for those who do not wish to participate in exams that use online proctoring. That alternative exam should be offered in the same academic year in order to prevent study delays. Now, students have the option of refusing to participate, but will have to wait to take the test until it’s possible to do so at the university. Considering the corona measures, this will almost certainly cause study delays.

Within the privacy discipline
Rector Henk Kummeling says the Executive Board does not recommend the use of Zoom, but that it will not prohibit its use. “Some departments at this university have designed their online education for use with Zoom, for instance in the case of Medicine classes. Considering the current crisis, we’ve said that we’ll tolerate the use of Zoom until at least block 4, but prohibiting the use of Zoom right now will cause too much hassle. Some universities have indeed banned Zoom, but within the privacy discipline, others think about this with more nuance.”

The rector does say that teachers and students will be warned about deciding what to show on screen. The university will also look into other solutions, and “in time, we will say that we will no longer use certain programmes”.

As for online proctoring during exams, the rector says this system has been in use for years. “Five years in Wageningen now, and nearly as long at other universities as well. Our students can either choose to participate or wait until an exam at the university is once again possible.” That’s not a question of choosing between privacy or study delays, he says, but a consequence of the reality we live in.

Alternative testing
Alternatives to exams that use online proctoring, for instance writing essays or open-book exams, which the students in the University Council are asking for, aren’t possible for a number of courses, the rector says. “We do call for teachers to turn to these options, but considering the scale some things are done at, that isn’t always realistic. In those cases, proctoring is an option.” Online proctoring is only used in a limited number of exams, he says. The most recent email the university board sent all students and employees last Thursday, the ‘corona update’, says that in block 3 and 4 taken together, around twenty of the 1,600 courses use online proctoring.

The board does promise to better inform students and teachers about the privacy issues of taking an exam, or teaching in front of a webcam. “We will provide clearer instructions,” says head of education Renée Filius, who was also present during the online University Council meeting. “If students have to show their ID cards, we’ll advise them to cover their BSN numbers, for instance.”

The Higher Education Press writes today that political party D66 has submitted questions to minister Van Engelshoven about the privacy objections of online exams. D66 also urges the government to study “whether perhaps it might be possible to have universities and universities of applied sciences reopen in a limited capacity for the remainder of the academic year, for examination only, or as an alternative to exams via proctoring.”

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