With the transition to almost entirely online education in the past year, I have often wondered whether professors can see what I do during classes. I am not alone in this as both teachers and students have an increased interest in the capabilities of learning management platforms such as Blackboard to track activities during classes and exams.
Blackboard provides inbuilt analytic features including access to different parts of the course environment as well as activity timelines for tests and assignments. The functionality is limited when it comes to real-time tracking during online lectures but can be extended during online exams.
Given the benefits provided by learning management platforms and the cost-effective nature of online learning, it is likely that these methods will be used for the foreseeable future. This means that it is good for students to know the new ways they are being monitored as many are unaware of the amount of information accessible to their professors.
Blackboard and student activity
Monitoring student activity has always been a priority for both teachers and institutions as it is a fundamental part of quality education. In a normal environment, teachers can make use of non-verbal signs by students to adjust their lecturing style and have the ability to observe students working on their in-class assignments. This allows them to follow the progress of their pupils and make sure that no one is falling behind.
The online environment introduces a lot of changes to this process and it comes with both positive and negative sides. On one hand, lecturing becomes more difficult because the lecturers do not receive the normal cues from the class and cannot gauge students’ attentiveness and engagement. Moreover, the home environment provides a lot of distractions and teachers often wonder whether anyone is even listening while students wonder whether they can substitute a lecture that they might not enjoy with their favorite TV show.
On the other hand, the learning management platforms such as Blackboard can provide information on students’ engagement with different aspects of the course, including discussion forums and online assignments and tests. Professors and universities are increasingly interested in these activity indicators to balance the negative consequences of remote lecturing.
More importantly, Blackboard can conduct proctored exams which can make cheating virtually impossible by having control over and recording all of your activity. I have summarized the information that can answer most of the important questions that students might have with a specific emphasis on monitoring activity during exams.
What can Blackboard tell about me?
The transition of many courses to an entirely online environment allows Blackboard to collect data about modules that are normally conducted physically. This results in more varied types of data about students’ activity which can be divided into three large groups.
- Discussion Forums –a lot of the students’ interaction is done through the discussion forums. The teachers can gather information on the amount and length of posts by every student. This comes with tools to compare individual students with the average for the course.
- Interaction with modules – Blackboard knows whether you have downloaded documents, watched video materials, how much time you have spent on course pages, and when was your last login to the environment. It comes with average statistics for the class as a whole as well as for individuals.
- Assignments and tests – by default Blackboard creates timestamps and activity timelines for assignments. This includes the time you have opened assignments and tests, the time for completion, and the grade. If an assignment is done unusually fast it can be detected as suspicious activity. This means that even during exams that are not proctored, accessing course materials on Blackboard will be detected and can be flagged as potential cheating.
By following the trends of the students, teachers want to make sure that they can react if someone is struggling. In large classes, this process can be helped by filters that send notifications to teachers.
Can Blackboard record me during lectures?
Your weekly lectures might be done in the online lecture environment of Blackboard through Blackboard Collaborate. This functions as a conference video call and as such Blackboard has access to your webcam and microphone.
The lectures can be recorded and that is announced by the lecturer beforehand. However, the students are allowed to have their cameras and microphones disabled. Blackboard cannot record you while your camera and microphone are disabled. This might not be the case during exams.
During group activities in Blackboard collaborate, the professor can join to see whether you are active but even if the lecture is recorded the group conversations are not. The same goes for the chat activity available during lectures.
The normal environment is usually accessed by your computer’s default browser. This means that Blackboard cannot detect anything about your other activities. It cannot detect whether other applications are running or whether you are on a different browser tab.
This means that during online lectures teachers can know very little about your activity unless you are required to talk or do an assignment in another section of Blackboard.
Can Blackboard detect cheating during exams?
Blackboard comes with tools that can make cheating almost impossible. It comes with tools to administer proctored exams and detect plagiarism. The detection of plagiarism is automatic and the proctored exams require a specialized browser.
Blackboard uses SafeAssign as a plagiarism detection tool. It automatically compares any text submission against a database of published articles as well as the submissions of every other student. It generates a report of the overlaps and can be used to detect cheating.
When it comes to proctored exams Blackboard uses Respondus LockDown browser. Depending on your university, the browser might be different but the functionality of most lockdown browsers is quite similar.
Can lockdown browsers record my activity?
These browsers have complete access to the majority of your computer devices. It can record everything from webcam and microphone to mouse clicks and keyboard strokes. This results in a large audio video and interaction feed for the proctors to observe. On some occasions, there are automatic systems that follow the gaze of the test takers and flag unusual eye movements. The same can be done with voice detection from the microphone.
The browser itself shows only the exam page and no new tabs can be opened for the duration of the exam. It can also forbid you to use any other application on your computer until you are done with the exam. Most key combination commands cannot be used.
Some universities go further and store a recording of the entire feed for later use if there is a suspicion of cheating during grading. This means that doing an exam on Blackboard is like having the proctor over your shoulder the entire time. That said if you have a good internet connection you can do it from anywhere on the planet.
What about my privacy?
While Blackboard can record a lot of data during an exam everything is done following privacy laws and regulations. The laws are different across countries and in the case of the USA across states. In any case, you will be informed about what activity will be monitored and recorded during exams.
The way that this is done will vary depending on the university’s internal policies. The details of the procedures are public and can be accessed by both teachers and students. If you have concerns with anything, you should contact your university for more information.
The transition to an increasingly extensive online education has been now enforced in many places due to lockdowns or other COVID-related measures. Consequently, universities are exploring the full capabilities provided by learning management platforms to provide the best quality education they can.
While this allows universities and professors to examine the activity of their students, now you have a better understanding of what activities can and cannot be detected and recorded.
I know that some of you wanted to see whether Blackboard can detect whether you are watching Netflix instead of listening to the lecturer while others are looking for a loophole in the activity monitoring during exams. I cannot tell you to pay attention during a lecture, but I’d strongly advise against attempting to cheat during online exams.
The anti-cheat policies for online exams are strict in general and the massive transition to completely remote education has made them a priority. Universities are not only more vigilant but are introducing more severe punishments to students.