The University of Wisconsin-Madison has decided to renew its contract with online proctoring software company Honorlock, drawing some criticism from students and campus community members who disagree with the restrictions the software places on students.
Honorlock is a digital proctoring software that professors use when giving online tests to their students. Honorlock was first used in 2020 at UW-Madison when the pandemic hit and classes went fully online. The university is signing another one-year contract with Honorlock, which will run through the end of this school year and cover 20,000 users, assistant vice chancellor of university communications John Lucas said. The estimated cost is $267,800, which is about the same cost as last year’s contract when school was online.
The software uses technology including artificial intelligence, facial detection software and eye-tracking technology that flags down behaviors that may indicate that students are cheating on their tests. Students must show a form of ID before taking their test and scan their room as a precaution to show there are no other students in the room that could help them with their exam.
Some campus community members have expressed concern over using the testing technology because it is “creepy,” “invasive” and discriminatory. Critics disapprove of Honorlock because the technology imposes on students’ privacy and adds to the anxiety students already have when taking a test. The software also discriminates against certain test-takers who are students of color, and their behavior or skin color may be flagged down by the software.
“Honorlock makes me so anxious, and I can’t focus on taking my test because I am so worried and aware of the software flagging me down for suspicious behavior, when really, I am just looking down for a second to think,” UW-Madison junior Lucy Kresia said.
Students have complained that Honorlock does not detect students of color and impedes on one’s privacy because the software records students and their surroundings while they are taking an exam. Students’ appearance and behaviors may get flagged by Honorlock as abnormal. Honorlock and colleges dispute these claims and believe that Honorlock provides a fair testing environment.
The software was successful in detecting cheating. According to UW System data reported by Wisconsin Public Radio, misconduct cases increased from 317 cases in the 2019-20 school year to 608 in the 2020-21 school year.
However, now that classes are in person, community members are unsure as to why UW-Madison renewed its contract with the software company. University officials note that the use of the proctoring software for monitoring exams has decreased since the fall semester began.
“UW-Madison contracted with Honorlock to provide digital proctoring services to campus starting in July 2020 and continuing through the 2021-22 academic year. While the majority of courses this year are being offered in person, some are being offered virtually or in a hybrid form,” UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone said in an email.
Professors and faculty will use Honorlock for online exams for the rest of the university’s contract with the software. However, professors can disable the facial recognition setting.
“The instructor can customize the Honorlock settings based on the overall goals of the assessment,” McGlone said, highlighting features such as a scientific calculator and browser guard function.
"All students who have mentioned this testing platform to me have had nothing but negative things to say," one academic adviser wrote to the Wisconsin State Journal. "It is an unnecessary added burden to students who are already struggling to learn virtually, and it hurts already disadvantaged students at a higher rate. This needs to go!"
Some students are surprised that UW-Madison is renewing their Honorlock contract. Not only because of the privacy concerns and in-person classes resuming, but because of the settings and tools used by the software.
“I don’t like Honorlock because it adds another level of stress to online learning and taking tests online, also students will find other ways to cheat so it’s better to not use a discriminatory software system,” UW-Madison junior Marla Mitchell said. “I’m very surprised that the University is renewing their contract with Honorlock.”
Despite student sentiments, the university remains committed to the tool as a way to ensure academic integrity.
“UW-Madison continues to take a thoughtful approach to digital proctoring that balances concerns about privacy and stress with fairness and academic integrity. Offering Honorlock as a centrally supported digital proctoring tool supports this approach. It is also better in terms of accessibility and cybersecurity — and it improves the student experience, since students do not have to learn how to navigate different digital tools for different courses,” McGlone said.