Students in the UAE have opposed a move to allow university staff watch them take their online exams at home using webcams and microphones.
Hundreds of undergraduates believe the new measures – designed to prevent cheating as students complete tests at home because of the coronavirus pandemic – are impractical, breach their privacy and are insensitive to Islamic traditions and culture.
Abu Dhabi University issued a policy document, seen by The National, in which students are told they must have webcams and microphones turned on during exams, so that their activities, surroundings and even what they are wearing can be remotely monitored.
In a statement, the university acknowledged that its approach “may be disconcerting for some students” but said the policy had been drawn up to comply with UAE government rules. It is working with students to address their fears, a spokeswoman said.
However, more than 500 people have signed an online petition demanding the rules are scrapped while many have voiced their opposition on social media.
Implications for privacy was the main concern of students, Rami Altai, a second year computer engineering student at ADU, said.
“You wouldn’t let a stranger into your house, and the camera and microphone combination isn’t any better,” he said. “The feeling of being watched constantly makes the student anxious and causes nervousness.
“Consider also the students who share their rooms with their siblings, or who live in smaller apartments. They can’t force the family to stop moving or making noises.
“Not to mention the other, more frustrating side, which is the cultural structure. Basically, female students from reserved families cannot accept this.
“We understand that the academy integrity is extremely important, but there should be a balance.”
There was also concern about the length of time recordings would be stored for.
According to the policy document sent to students by ADU, dated April 2020, either an inbuilt camera or external webcam must be used by students taking exams.
“The camera must be movable by hand or by lifting the laptop to show the proctor [invigilator] a 360-degree view of the room whenever requested to do so,” the rules state. Students are warned they must “be dressed appropriately” for exams and that compliance “will be monitored via camera by the instructor”.
Students are also told that they must use an “internal (built-in) or external microphone that is not part of a headset to communicate with the instructor.”
Some have complained that they do not have webcams, and that they are hard to acquire given long delivery times at many online retailers.
One first year ADU student, who asked not to be named, said she felt “belittled” by the measures.
“Why are we being treated like delinquents rather than university students with ambitions and careers?”
“The rules raised issues for female students from traditional Muslim families, some students have said, because of fears that family members who would normally wear a veil outside the home could inadvertently be pictured,” she said.
“Culturally speaking many women do not feel comfortable, or it’s against their family’s wishes.”
The rules were drawn up as universities worldwide grapple with how to maintain academic integrity with buildings shut down to prevent the spread of Covid-19. While lectures and classes have moved online, exams have presented new challenges.
Some institutions have decided to judge students on coursework, while others have persisted with exams.
While ADU has encountered the largest public backlash, some students said other institutions in the UAE were also insisting on webcams. A spokeswoman for Khalifa University declined to comment when asked to clarify its policy. An email circulating online appeared to show that American University Sharjah had abandoned its webcam policy for engineering students, although the university did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokeswoman for ADU said its policy was drawn up to “protect the integrity of the academic process” and to comply with a ministerial decree about distance learning in higher education.
“The decree explicitly states that institutions are required to implement electronic monitoring/proctoring tools (such as the use of cameras) to monitor remote assessment as needed,” she said.
“We have consulted with the Student’s Council at ADU on the use of web cameras during exams, and while we understand that this approach may be disconcerting for some students, in light of the current circumstances, we are required to comply with the Ministry’s direction and therefore are unable to provide an adequate alternative monitoring solution at this time.
“That said, we have been, and will continue to take our students’ feedback on this matter very seriously. We are working closely with them to ease their concerns and address any challenges that they have with regards to this issue on a case-by-case basis.”