To Lock or Not to Lock?

Slides from IGNIS Webinar (4/26/18)

Last fall, I was working as a part-time librarian at a community college when a student approached me at the reference desk and asked where she could take her test. She explained that she needed to download a software called Respondus that would lock down her browser, and she needed to use a webcam because she would be recorded during the test. It was through that interaction that I first learned about the complicated world of online exam proctoring.

Now that I’ve had some time to think about this topic a little more (and get over my initial shock), I’ve come to the conclusion that the decision to secure online assessments is part of the instructional design process. I’ve read some interesting pieces, suggested below, which made me think about the various factors that instructors need to weigh before deciding to use online exam security.

Faculty who teach online can’t ignore the imperative to ensure that the student who is taking the online course is the one completing the work. This is specified in the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA). However, HEOA does not specify exactly how programs must verify identity, and it suggests a range of options including secure logins, proctoring, and other technology.

Some courses don’t use exams at all. However, in courses that do rely heavily on exams, especially for large portions of the student’s overall grade, the instructor may feel strongly that they need to verify the student’s identity and ensure that the student is not receiving any outside help during the exam. Online proctoring software may include features that require students to show photo ID and limit the student’s computer capabilities (by locking down the browser). Some companies offer live remote proctoring where the student is monitored via webcam to ensure the student is following the rules of the exam.

In institutions where faculty do not have access to proctoring software (all of the companies offering these services are costly), instructors may add features to their exams to make it more difficult for students to cheat. This could include randomizing answers, timing questions, showing only one question at a time, preventing students from reviewing correct answers, and limiting the time window during which the exam can be taken.

At the same time, making online assessments more difficult to take can hinder accessibility and equity. Randomizing answers can slow down learners who depend on a consistent pattern of answers in order to answer questions successfully. It’s also recommended that faculty shorten the time window that tests are available to prevent collaboration and the sharing of answers. This sounds good in theory, but can create burdens on students may need to shift work/childcare schedules in order to take a test during a limited time frame.

There are many ways to discourage academic dishonesty in online courses without using proctoring (which is costly to the institution and still does not completely prevent cheating). I think the first step is to look at the course’s learning outcomes and determine if any of the outcomes can be assessed without using simple multiple choice exams. Moving away from exams to other kinds of assessments, including group work, portfolios, problem-based assignments, essays, and reflective writing, can give a clearer picture of students’ learning.

If exams must be used, it is best to limit their value (e.g., make them worth less of a student’s overall grade). Another option is to use automatically-graded multiple choice tests as simple knowledge checks that unlock the next module, but do not have an impact on the learner’s grade.

When I think back to the scenario of the student who needed somewhere to take her exam, the real head-scratcher for me is that she was not taking a fully-online course. She was taking a face-to-face course and, obviously, since she was standing in front of me, she was a student who came to campus regularly. She asked me this question very early in the quarter, far too early to be taking any kind of summative assessment like a midterm or final exam. So why did her instructor feel it was necessary to use online proctoring software? If it was a low-value quiz, couldn’t it have been taken in person, during class? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but these are the kinds of conversations I’d like to have with faculty to better understand their thoughts about securing assessments.

Suggested Reading

Alessio, H. M., Malay, N., Maurer, K., Bailer, A. J., & Rubin, B. (2017). Examining the effect of proctoring on online test scores. Online Learning, 21(1), 146-161.

Higher Learning Commission. (2018, January). Federal compliance overview. Retrieved from

Michael, T.B., & Williams, M.A. (2013). Student equity: Discouraging cheating in online courses. Administrative Issues 3(2). Retrieved from

Schaffhauser, D. (2016, April 6). How students try to bamboozle online proctors. Campus Technology. Retrieved from

Smith, C. & Noviello, S. (2012, September). Best practices in authentication and verification of students in online education [Presentation]. Retrieved from

Stuber-McEwen, D., Wiseley, P., & Hoggatt, S. (2009). Point, click, and cheat: Frequency and type of academic dishonesty in the virtual classroom. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 12(3), 1-10.

Watson, G. & Sottile, J. (2010). Cheating in the digital age: Do students cheat more in online courses?. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 13(1). Retrieved from



Featured image by Mike Szczepanski on Unsplash