Security of online proctoring – lessons from the pandemic for test providers and accepting institutions

Published 26/05/2023

With its repeated lockdowns and lengthy and cumbersome travel restrictions, the pandemic has become a rare example of a truly universal and shared experience for billions of people.

It affected the livelihood of people, companies and organisations, and in the case of the international education industry, it has threatened the very core of its existence – international mobility.

Students moving in their hundreds of thousands between the sending and accepting countries fuelled the growth of the industry – until it all came to a grinding halt. Borders closed, students grounded, lecture halls – empty.

The meteoric rise of online proctoring

Institutions that had already been plotting the course for the digital future were able to pivot rapidly and adapt, choosing solutions that met one of their most burning needs at the time – providing alternative options for English language testing, a crucial element of the international admissions process.

With physical test centres out of action, academic admissions teams turned to online English language tests. The result was an accelerated acceptance of non-test centre delivery and consequently increased levels of awareness and experience of the different types of online proctoring available- along with the accompanying benefits and challenges.

“The literature that was provided to us gave us the reassurance we required about the scores provided by applicants, and the ability to verify them,” – Matt Hill, Senior Admissions Officer, Arts University Bournemouth

Security as the core requirement

The big lesson for academic institutions emerging from the pandemic was that easy access to the assessment must not come at a cost of compromising reliability, validity, and security of the test.

In November 2021, PSI conducted research with universities in the UK, USA, and Canada, which confirmed that security and reliability remain the two primary concerns of accepting institutions.

Without the trust that a test was taken by the person whose name appears on the score report, for instance, stakeholders are left without reassurance in both the test’s integrity and the test taker’s identity.

It is the test provider’s duty to ensure that their security measures be holistically designed and implemented to gain this trust – a duty that Skills for English takes seriously.

Consequently, PSI’s online proctoring solution is designed to address the following challenges:
⦁ Identity verification
⦁ Environmental security
⦁ Fraud prevention
⦁ Dealing with violations during the test

“We are running into fraud more and more since COVID has happened – [we want to know] that it is the student taking the test and not someone representing the student” – HEI, USA

Building trust and confidence in online proctoring

Online proctoring is not new in assessment – but it is new in language testing. The rise of remote working, compounded by recent lockdowns, has led to increased acceptance of online proctoring by higher education institutions that had previously been wary of remote methods of invigilation.

To combat security threats, test providers have to invest in robust software and training that enables them to recognise if a malicious actor is at play and prevent students’ work being affected.

PSI is an industry leader in career advancement certification testing, delivering 22 million assessments in 2022 alone – 4 million of which were via live online proctoring, using its proprietary online proctoring platform, PSI Bridge.

A language test with PSI Bridge comprises three distinct roles.

  1. The Test Taker is the person taking an online language test, either to gain entry into a Higher Education Institution or for other language demonstration purposes.
  2. The Check-in Specialist is trained to ensure that the test environment is secure and that the Test Taker is who they say they are. PSI Bridge ensures there is a one-to-one relationship between the Test Taker and the Check-in Specialist.
  3. The Proctor is the person who invigilates each test. They are trained to look for signs of security violation, content piracy or fraud during a test and to respond accordingly. With PSI Bridge, the standard ratio of Proctor to Test Taker is 4 to 1.

To build trust with stakeholders, be it governments or academic institutions, test providers need to be open and transparent about the security systems, measures and processes implemented at every step of the process.

In a traditional test setting, an exam proctor plays two vital roles: they ensure the test taker is comfortable throughout the examination process, and they protect the integrity of the test results.

With online testing, where the test taker is remote and proctoring delivered online, combining a great test taker experience with robust test security is more complex.

In the approach taken by PSI for Skills for English, secure test development and delivery extend beyond the technology platform. Successful security and test result integrity involves every facet of the assessment journey. It’s an end-to-end concern involving people, processes, and support:

  1. Identity verification
    2. Room scan
    3. Technical setup
    4. Taking the test
    5. Data forensics

The range of mechanisms and interventions employed to deliver Skills for English covers both prevention and detection of risks and infringements, extending from test development, through test delivery, incident tracking and reporting, to data forensics.

The process is explained in detail in this article: The Role of Online Proctoring in Language Testing.

About the author: Andy Harrison, Senior Director, International Business Development and Recognition, has over 15 years’ experience working in English language testing, and was responsible for expanding delivery of UKVI approved testing in three organisations and launching new online tests both pre- and post-pandemic.

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