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I don’t need to see the pores on your face to proctor your exam.

Updated: Mar 21

By Nelson Santini, BSI

I can show you a substantially blurred digital image and, while you may not see the subject’s perfect details, you can still make out what you're looking at. That is because the human brain is an incredible computer. It is used to “filling in the blanks” and “completing pictures” by making assumptions based on previously received information.

The botched restoration of "Ecce Homo"
The botched restoration of "Ecce Homo"

In the early days of MPEG and digital television, some of the greatest TV production expenses were linked to “studio set remodeling”. Why? Because before digital television in HD we couldn’t tell the difference between painted plywood or a real mahogany inlaid wall. Our brain simply recognized the faux wood before; and now we can almost feel the texture of the grain.

Digital imaging and video technology has advanced to such a degree that today’s computer cameras allow us to read the warning label on a lamp shade 15 feet behind the subject. As cool as this capability is; technology can be a serious problem for those who wield it.

In the recent “Ogletree Vs. Cleveland State University” decision, the court ruled that the plaintiff’s 4th amendments rights to privacy were violated when his room was “unreasonably searched” during the course of a distance learning online video class. The school’s remote learning management system proctoring software was used to conduct an inspection of the room prior to an exam.

Park the inspection procedure aside for a moment, and imagine a more mundane situation where another student, in a different school is participating in a distant learning class. The course goes well until they are suddenly expelled from their school because a teacher or classmate saw “controversial” materials posted on the student’s room walls. Perhaps even a faint “+” or “positive” symbol on a plastic item on the shelve behind them started unfounded rumors in school, and they had to drop out because of peer and social pressure.

Distance learning became mainstream with COVID and that is a great thing which we don’t see ever going away. Today’s technology allows schools to take the classroom to students wherever they may be. Schools and teachers can even test their students remotely, so long as they can prove that no cheating is taking place. That said and if we are not careful, technology can also broadcast our student’s most private safe space and its secrets to the world. That can be at best a violation of the student’s privacy and at worst, a critical personal security and safety violation.

Can we provide quality distance education courses, protect our school’s integrity, and our student’s privacy? Yes.

An ideal solution to this problem would be to use technology with the capability to teach courses and proctor exams remotely, while verifying the student’s identity without collecting, documenting, or revealing the slightest personal identifiable information (PII). That is a doable do.

You see, the same principles that we used to developed digital imaging and broadcasting, combined with a touch of ML and AI sauce combine to give us a solution that allows for just for that - attribution with privacy.

Advanced algorithms can capture real world images and pre-process them in such a way that the macro-blocked or pixelated content can still be interpreted by the computer to know if:

  • A student is “live” and in the room (vs. a flat Stanley)

  • Two or more students are in the room (even recognize between twins)

  • If the student’s eyes were drifting from the screen (perhaps to a cheat sheet)

All of this without collecting or storing a single image containing PII or any other detail about the remote “classroom”. Not even the number of Monster Energy© cans used to complete the last coding lab.

How is this possible you ask? Well, because computers, like our brain, don’t need to see the complete image in full detail to interpret what it is seeing.

Distance learning is a great equalizer that delivers on the promise of knowledge maturing into wisdom. Technology is here to further that noble quest. It should not be leveraged to the point that it encroaches on the student’s rights to privacy, or kills the very promise it seeks to enable.

Listen, if a human can still understand what they are seeing in the banner picture of this article, I can assure you, that with some of today’s test proctoring technology designed to respect the 4th amendment, you don’t need to see the pores on a student’s face to understand they just got to the question in the exam where this emoji can safely replace their face: 😱

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