Tagged academic surveillance

A bookcase opens to reveal a secret passageway.

Back Doors, Trap Doors, and Fourth-Party Deals: How You End up with Harmful Academic Surveillance Technology on Your Campus without Even Knowing


In this paper we describe fourth-party vendor relationships between remote proctoring tools and other companies in higher education with a specific focus on the remote proctoring company Proctorio. We unpack the problematic nature of such relationships in general but note that they are exacerbated when dealing with technologies as harmful as remote proctoring. Fourth-party relationships are particularly troublesome because those who work at institutions of higher learning are often unaware of their existence or can do little to impact or change them. We present a “harm index” reviewing literature around the harms of remote proctoring systems. We describe the nature of different types of fourth-party relationships and perform a content analysis of the partnerships listed on Proctorio’s website. We use an autoethnographic approach to share our experience as instructional designers, at an institution which has taken steps to limit the use of remote proctoring, and of attempting (and succeeding) to get the fourth-party integration of Proctorio removed from our learning management system’s integration with McGraw Hill Connect. The paper concludes with a discussion of the discourse and rhetoric used to rationalize this harmful technology, and our recommendations for how institutions might exert more control over fourth-party integrations with harmful surveillance technology.


The year is 2026, and Regional State University (RSU) has bounced back from the enrollment woes that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and 2021. After intensive faculty development efforts during the pandemic, the majority of instructors on campus became skilled online instructors. RSU set itself apart during the pandemic by rejecting remote proctoring systems by issuing several strong recommendations against such tools to their faculty and offering faculty development opportunities around authentic assessments. RSU was featured in several national news articles for their stance on remote proctoring and celebrated for their attention to student privacy. New students were attracted to RSU because of its reputation for having strong online programs and also because of RSU’s commitment to student privacy and authentic assessments.

Aisha is a new student who specifically came to RSU because of its reputation for providing an excellent education with a personal touch. She had a friend, a year older than her, who had ended up at one of the for-profit online education schools and was routinely subjected to various forms of invasive surveillance. So, when Aisha’s math professor told the class that they would be using a remote proctoring system for some of their homework assignments she was a little put off. She knew the school did not have an official ban on such technologies but she had read the news articles and the Provost’s and the President’s statements advocating for student privacy. She tried to talk to her professor and asked specific questions about what data would be collected and how long it would be held but the professor only directed her to a long “terms of service” and privacy policy that was hard to understand. She decides to bite the bullet and just use the technology for this one class.

On her first attempt to use the technology she has to pass an identity check using facial recognition. She keeps getting an error that the software cannot detect her face and decides to call RSU’s technology help desk to see what the problem might be but no one there seems to know about this software. They ask her how she got access to this system and in tracing her steps she mentions that she started by clicking a link in the Learning Management System (LMS). So they transfer her to Summer, an administrator of the LMS. Summer tells Aisha that though she got to this proctoring system through the LMS that the school does not have any administrative access to this remote proctoring system and cannot help her in any way—that she will need to contact the remote proctoring company’s help line.

Little does Aisha know that Summer is a student privacy advocate and is shocked to hear that some students are being subjected to a remote proctoring system. Summer begins the process of trying to figure out what is going on but while waiting to hear back from the customer support rep at the math homework system she sees that RSU is in the national news—headline: “RSU Student Humiliated.” The article features Aisha who is recounting her experience with the remote proctoring company’s help line that Summer referred her to, and it just sounds horrible. They asked Aisha to jump through various hoops including shining a light on her face and even asked her to remove her hijab. Matters are made worse when a week later the proctoring company suffers a major data breach potentially exposing a massive amount of student data on the dark web. Summer is at a complete loss for what to do. Protecting student privacy is part of her job, but the company violating students’ privacy has no real relationship or accountability to RSU. She finds a clause buried in the university’s contract with the math homework system saying that they consider the contract to be binding for themselves but also for any partnerships that they enter into. Summer wonders if this means that the math homework company is legally responsible for the remote proctoring company—even so, it sure feels like the damage to student trust will fall back on the university.

The story above is a semi-fictional speculative account of potential harms that can come from fourth-party vendor relationships, in which outside companies partner with one another with little oversight by the educational institution. Ross (2017) explains how “speculative methods are particularly important for the study and analysis of digital education because of its rapidly changing nature, and the need to anticipate potential ‘unintended consequences’ of such rapid changes.” We based this story on real events that we experienced in our own professional context and the documented experiences of other students, faculty, and staff, which are reviewed in our remote proctoring Harm Index (Table 2). In this paper we will define fourth-party vendor relationships and investigate how the harms of remote proctoring technology are particularly pernicious in the context of a fourth-party deal.

We describe the nature of different types of fourth-party relationships with a focus on the remote proctoring company Proctorio’s partnerships. Our decision to focus on Proctorio is due to our practical experience working with the product through an integration with McGraw Hill Connect, a program that provides electronic textbooks and other learning materials. This paper adds to the larger body of literature that takes a critical view of educational technologies, in that these technologies often act as “mechanisms of economic capture, surveillance, and control” (Paris et al. 2021) and often work against the core pedagogical goals of educational institutions. In that institutions of higher education have a responsibility to treat students’ data responsibly and monitor the data privacy practices of vendors with access to student data, we suggest that fourth-party partnerships obstruct educational institutions’ regular oversight of student information.


Literature review

As remote proctoring technologies are relatively new and knowledge about them and their harms is rapidly evolving, the literature we have reviewed includes not just scholarly works but also news stories, especially accounts from students who have been exposed to remote proctoring technology in educational settings. Because we aim to define and detail the harms of these technologies, both generally and in the context of fourth-party deals, we found it necessary to focus on literature by and about students, faculty, and staff who had been negatively impacted by these technologies.

Content analysis

Our methodology includes content analysis of Proctorio’s website, help documentation, and publicly available information about their partnerships with other education technology companies (Hsieh and Shannon 2005). We analyze these materials to understand the nature of the relationships between Proctorio and its partner companies. The appendix outlines the documents analyzed in our content analysis.


We use collaborative autoethnography to analyze our experience identifying the existence of a fourth-party surveillance company operating on our university campus, and requesting that the third party restrict the fourth-party from working with our campus users (faculty and students). Autoethnography is a method used to systematically analyze and interpret personal experiences (Ellis, Adams, and Bochner 2011). Collaborative autoethnography enables researchers to work together to combine their shared and personal narratives to make meaning out of experiences (Chang, Ngunjiri, and Hernandez 2016). Our collaborative ethnography was constructed using alternating personal narratives, in which we engage in critical reflection on the experience of identifying and ultimately removing a fourth-party proctoring service from the campus where they are both employed as instructional designers. Our perspective is one of current instructional design and educational technology professionals in higher education, employed at University of Michigan–Dearborn (a small, undergraduate-focused campus of the U of M). Both of us were already opposed to remote proctoring for the reasons detailed in Table 2 before the events in our autoethnography unfolded and had participated in public conversation about the harms of remote proctoring on social media. We additionally co-authored a peer-reviewed paper with colleagues about authentic assessment as an alternative to remote proctoring and issued a press release with Fight for the Future about the paper and expressing our difficulties with the McGraw Hill partnership with Proctorio. These experiences shape our narrative in that we likely had more prior knowledge of the harms of remote proctoring and the potential roadblocks to removing it from our campus. As our narrative will show, the process was complex, frustrating, and time-consuming despite our prior knowledge and preparation.

Defining the Fourth-Party Relationship

Three circles show a kind of venn diagram. Circle 1 is labeled Originating Party (1st and 2nd party): Institution and Direct Constituents - Students/Faculty/Public. Circle 2 is overlapping with Circle 1 and is labeled The 3rd Party - Outsourced Vendors. The overlap between these two circles is meant to show their relationship and reads Contract negotiated by institution; support staff from institution. Circle 3 is positioned under Circle 2 and is overlapping Circle 2. The overlap between these two is meant to show their relationship and reads Contract negotiated between vendors. In the lower left of the image there is text that reads Lack of relationship between Originating Party and 4th Party(ies) with a large arrow pointing to the lack of overlap in circles between Circle 1 and Circle 3
Figure 1. Diagram of fourth party relationships.

Third party services are common in the educational technology industry. For example, instead of building a platform on which to administer online courses, a university will often contract with a company to provide a Learning Management System (LMS). The company hosts and maintains the software, and the university pays a fee to use it. A fourth-party relationship comes about when vendor A, with whom the institution has an established relationship, partners with vendor B with whom the institution does not have an established relationship (Aldoriso 2020). Language can be confusing here because the vendor may refer to the partners as their third-party partners. This is because they see themselves as the originating party. However, this is an erasure of the institution as the originating party.

This kind of vendor relationship in higher education is a problematic one in that it is once removed from a direct contractual relationship with the higher education institution. Contracts and or user agreements with institutions may simply note that external services may be offered through Vendor A’s product, but the use of Vendor B’s product is governed by Vendor B’s terms of use. Note that these clauses are general, referring to a hypothetical Vendor B, rather than a specific one. For example, McGraw Hill Education’s terms of use states,

The Products may contain links or connections to third-party websites, services, or other technology provided by third parties that are not owned or controlled by us (“Third-Party Services”). When you access Third-Party Services, you accept that there are risks in doing so, and that we are not responsible for such risks. A Third-Party Service may include or be accompanied by a separate service, license, privacy policy, or other agreement (“Third-Party Agreement”), in which case that Third-Party Service is provided solely under the terms of that separate Third-Party Agreement. (McGraw Hill Education 2020)

Here, we see McGraw Hill (a third party to the university) referring to other services as a third party. This is confusing because what they refer to as a third party in these terms of use is the same as what we refer to in this paper as a fourth party because we recognize the university as the originating party. Even though McGraw Hill’s “third parties” (fourth parties to the university) are yet unknown to the user, McGraw Hill has already absolved itself of responsibility for these products. While it is entirely possible that in the process of using an add on (such as a Proctorio to McGraw Hill) the user will have to accept the fourth parties terms of use, it is only the end user (likely a faculty member or student) that comes in contact with those terms, rather than a representative of the institution with expertise in learning technology and student data privacy.

Fourth-party partnerships almost always introduce a new feature or functionality to the third-party product. Depending on the product and where any particular individual exists in the university hierarchy, new features from this relationship may be perceived as desirable or neutral (Gogia 2021). However, these partnerships merit increased suspicion when the fourth-party product does not have an obvious connection to the third-party product, or does not have an educational value. While such spurious partnerships could be viewed as simple money-making opportunities, these relationships can have dangerous implications when they involve problematic technologies that have a history of harming students, such as remote proctoring, because these technologies make their way into classrooms with little institutional input or support.

Jones et al. (2020) argue that institutions of higher education are examples of “information fiduciaries” (Balkin 2016), meaning that they have a particular obligation to treat the data of their primary stakeholders (students) responsibly. Fourth-party agreements constitute a threat to educational institutions’ responsibility to their students in terms of data privacy because, as we describe above, they expose students and their information to technologies that may harm their students or operate with bias.

Doorways Between Companies and Institutions

There are many examples of university maintained systems that allow for the possibility of integration with third-party or fourth-party vendors. For example, Google Apps for Education allow for various integrations with their suite of tools and Zoom has a marketplace where vendors can be allowed to offer integrations. One common option for a university-maintained Learning Management System (LMS) has long been the possibility to use plug-ins, and more recently the Learn Tools Interoperability (LTI) protocol (Severance, Hanss, and Hardin 2010), for integrating tools. There is an important distinction between a “true” fourth-party partnership and an integration option with a university maintained system. In instances where there is a possibility for integration, a university has some direct influence to work with the vendor to negotiate and navigate university policies around such integrations; for instance data privacy or procurement protocols. In some way (either by a dedicated employee or by a university committee) the university works directly with the vendor. This is different from fourth-party relationships which are inherently relationships between vendors which bypass the university entirely. It is also important to note that these kinds of integrations can actually act as the mechanism through which fourth-party vendors can come in; considering that once a third party is integrated that third party can then easily partner with a fourth party.

Relationships between a third-party and a fourth-party vendor can vary widely depending on the business partnership but ultimately these relationships act as doors into the institution. Just as there are many different types of doors: french doors, sliding doors, split doors; which can be in multiple states (open, closed, ajar), there are many different kinds of relationships between third- and fourth-party vendors. It is important to understand these relationships as they can deeply alter the power dynamics that are at play. Below are several relevant examples of relationships that can apply to partnerships between educational technology companies:

    • Integration Possibility – an option for two technologies to work together when an institution has separate agreements with both of them. Often a precursor to a fourth -party integration but not necessarily a fourth-party integration in and of itself.
    • Free – the third party offers the fourth-party service or product for free within their system.
    • Freemium – the third party offers some basic functions of the fourth party’s service or product for free with an option to pay for more advanced features. The free product in the Freemium model may not be totally free for the user—they may “pay” using an alternative currency known as “mind share,” or the “development of awareness for the provider’s brand and the consideration for purchase of future commercial products and services” (Pujol 2010). The free version, while a product or service in itself priced at $0, also serves as a type of marketing device for the paid product.
    • Resell – the third party offers the fourth party’s service or product at a cost. The cost can be charged to the institution, but is also frequently placed on the student.

Identifying the Doors: A Content Analysis of Proctorio’s Fourth-Party Partnerships

The remote proctoring company Proctorio lists a number of partnerships with other companies on its website, which are all presented under the category of “assessment platforms.” Our content analysis of these partnerships is summarized in Table 1 and details of the sites reviewed can be found in the Appendix.

Partner Nature of relationship to Proctorio (free, freemium, resell, integration) How partner defines their business (assessment, learning) Pricing for students/institutions How partner describes what Proctorio does
TopHat Student Resell – Top Hat resells Proctorio by directly charging students Active Learning Platform Each student pays $30 for access to TopHat Pro and then $10 per course for access to Proctorio “Partnership ensures higher education institutions transitioning to remote teaching can preserve the integrity of their tests and exams.”
McGraw Hill Connect Freemium/Student Resell – McGraw Hill Connect provides a freemium Proctorio plan directly to instructors, resells a more advanced product directly to students Course Management and Adaptive Learning Free for all instructors to require for their students. Instructors can additionally require a premium option for $15 a semester paid by students “You’re in control. Ensure your course’s academic integrity.”
Cirrus Assessment Integration possibility – Integration is possible with separate agreement with Proctorio End to end assessments platform “To make use of Proctorio you should have an agreement with Proctorio. Once the agreement is final, Proctorio will share K&S Keys for Cirrus to setup. Once the K&S details are received by Cirrus it will take a maximum of 24 hours to setup.” “Recordings of the exam sessions can be viewed and cheating behaviour is automatically flagged by the AI.”
Ans* Integration possibility – Integration is possible with separate agreement with Proctorio “Ans* is designed to support paper, digital and hybrid examinations. With a click of a button, you can convert a digital test into a face-to-face exam and vice versa.” “When a licence has been acquired, Ans* will support you in setting up the configuration by following these steps:…” “By enabling the integration with Proctorio, the security of the administration of the exam is increased. Proctorio collects information that can be used to handle fraud procedures of your institution. With online proctoring, you’re able to administer exams in a more secure way anyplace, anywhere.”

“Within the gradebook, suspicious behavior of the student is flagged.”

Ascend Learning Integration possibility – Ascend can facilitate the integrations without a separate agreement with Proctorio Integrated software, assessment, and analytics solutions Unknown “Proctors are monitoring for odd or disruptive behavior. Do not engage in misconduct or disruption. If you do, you will be dismissed, and your exam will not be scored.”
Derivita Freemium – unclear how much is paid for extra features and who pays “Derivita is a first of its kind STEM technology platform and complete computer algebra system.” “Lockdown” at no cost, other features “Derivita has been fully integrated with Proctorio’s remote proctoring platform. This enables educators to administer STEM assignments within the LMS, using Derivita’s content and technology, while ensuring rigorous adherence to academic integrity standards.”
EvaExam Unknown – While the partnership with EvaExam is listed on Proctorio’s site, EvaExam’s site does not detail the cost structure or nature of the partnership Testing Platform Unknown “ID verification, recording video, audio, the participant’s screen, and any web traffic on the system used may be centrally controlled, automated, and are legally compliant with the additional Proctorio plugin.”
QuestionMark Unknown – likely freemium. Questionmark offers an AI proctoring service called “record and review” that is facilitated by Proctorio, but also offer a live remote proctoring service Assessment platform Unknown “The automated system observes and records the exam session on video, for potential review later. The system flags potential anomalies, such as a second person on screen. When the system flags an anomaly, the customer can review it or send it to Questionmark for inspection. This makes it harder for a test-taker to cheat or to copy the exam questions to pass onto others.”
Table 1. Overview of Proctorio partnerships with “Assessment Platforms.”

The Proctorio website groups all of these partnerships together as “assessment platforms,” a decision which obscures the significant differences between the services that the partner provides (e.g. textbooks, assessments, active learning) but also what the nature of the partnership is between the company and Proctorio. For example, at the time of this writing, Proctorio’s partnership with McGraw Hill Connect allows any instructor who has adopted a McGraw Hill text to enable Proctorio on student activities that are assigned through the Connect platform (and additionally to enable a paid premium product for students), while Proctorio can only be used on the Cirrus Assessment platform when an institution has a separate (paid) agreement with Proctorio—an agreement that likely requires some attention from someone at the university.

Loose Hinges: Inconsistent Messaging in Fourth Party Relationships

Fourth-party relationships can introduce confusion about the purpose and functionality of the products involved. Proctorio defines itself as a tool for promoting academic integrity, which gives instructors information that they can use to make their own decisions about whether cheating has occurred during a given assessment. However, because many instructors encounter and use Proctorio’s product through these other fourth-party products, they may receive all of their information about Proctorio through the help documentation of this other vendor. These Proctorio partners and resellers can describe the purpose of Proctorio’s product in their documentation in ways that are not entirely congruent with Procotrio’s stated purpose. For example, at the time of this writing, Cirrus Assessment’s help documentation page titled Integration with Remote Proctoring from Proctorio states that “Cheating behaviour is automatically detected by the AI” (see Appendix).

Screenshot of Cirrus Assessment website. Text reads: On Friday the 6th (last week) we released an integration with the remote proctoring solution of Proctorio. We've run several successful pilots this week and are now opening up the possibility of remote proctoring through Proctorio for all our customers. The integration is seamless and is fully automated. Highlighted text reads: Cheated behavior is detected by the built-in AI. (red arrow points to highlighted text) How does it work? Remote proctored exams cannot be started unless in a proctored mode.
Figure 2. Screenshot from Cirrus help documentation.

Although we strongly object to the idea that any behavior detected by an AI can represent “cheating behavior,” this statement from Cirrus is notably at odds even with Proctorio’s public statements about their product. On their FAQ page under the question “Does Proctorio utilize algorithmic decision making?” Proctorio states that “No,… Proctorio’s software does not perform any type of algorithmic decision making such as determining if a breach of exam integrity has occurred. All decisions regarding exam integrity are left up to the exam administrator or institution” (see Appendix).

Screenshot showing text from Proctorio FAQ with Proctorio logo in upper left corner. Text reads No, Proctorio only uses algorithms for face and gaze detection if certain settings are enabled on an assessment. Proctorio's software (bolded) does not (end bolded text) perform any type of algorithmic decision making, such as determining if a breach of exam integrity has occurred. All decisions regarding exam integrity are left up to the exam administrator or institution.
Figure 3. Proctorio’s FAQ question about AI decision making.

Additionally on the Proctorio FAQ page for the question “How do you decide what behaviour counts as ‘cheating’?”, Proctorio themselves state, “Only the exam administrator or the institution can dictate what type of behaviour they want to monitor over the course of an exam. Exam administrators will then review exam attempts to determine whether any flagged behavior was truly infringing on the integrity of the exam” (see Appendix). Moreover, Proctorio’s own “acceptable use policy” prohibits punishment of students based solely on Proctorio reports. The policy states that “Institutions and their representatives are prohibited from making any negative decisions regarding exam integrity or from imposing any other negative consequence or detriment on an End User based partly or entirely on Proctorio’s analysis” (see Appendix).

Screenshot of Proctorio website showing the page URL and the Proctorio logo. Text on page reads Institutions and their representatives are prohibited from making any negative decisions regarding exam integrity or from imposing any other negative consequence or detriment on an End User based partly or entirely on Proctorio’s analysis. Institutions and their representatives must conduct their own independent, non-automated review, and analysis of any relevant data (including any available audio, video, screen recordings or images that were the subject of Proctorio’s analysis or that the Institution otherwise deems relevant) prior to imposing any such negative consequence or detriment
Figure 4. Excerpt from Proctorio’s Acceptable Use Policy.

Miscommunications like these about what the product is for and how it can be used, show how misleading fourth-party relationships can be. But while fourth-party partnerships are complex they are not inherently bad. Returning to our speculative narrative from the introduction, the math homework system we mention could integrate a digital graphing calculator from an outside vendor to assist students with their work with little negative consequence. However, when fourth-party deals are made with companies that offer harmful products these relationships become particularly problematic.

What’s the Harm?

Given that fourth-party integrations can expand the functionality of a third-party tool, often for free, what is the harm? Why would some schools not want free access to more functions? To explore this we review literature around the various harms that have been caused by remote proctoring systems. Reports of the many harms of remote proctoring systems have been widely documented especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Walker et al. (2020) outlined harms of remote proctoring technologies specific to nursing students, the nursing profession, and to the public. To address the important question of “What is the harm?” we have indexed harms from a broad perspective to create our Harm Index of Remote Proctoring Systems, which we present in Table 2. Here we are exploring three different levels of potential harm: harm to the student, harm to the institution, and harm to larger society.

Harm to student – *
Harm to institution – +
Harm to larger society – ^
Data Security

  • Some remote proctoring companies store student recordings for years (Gogia 2020) *.
  • Remote proctoring companies have experienced data breaches (Abrams 2020)*.
  • Teaching students to install software that undermines the integrity of their computing environment can ingrain poor data security habits (Fox Cahn et al. 2020)*^.
Does Not Prevent Cheating/There are better kinds of assessments

  • Students have found ways around proctoring software and publicize these hacks (Geiger 2021)+.
  • Real-life tasks are a better assessment of real-life skills – students are assessed the the most effective ways (Crosslin 2021; Feathers 2020b; Silverman et al. 2021)*.
Test Anxiety

  • Remote proctoring systems can raise student anxiety (Chin 2020)*.
  • Student performance can suffer when they have test anxiety (Woldeab and Brothen 2019)*.

  • Remote proctoring features may not be compatible with adaptive technologies such as screen readers(Office of Information Technology 2021)*+.
  • Basic access to these technologies are often difficult (Feathers 2020a)*+.
Bias – Race, Ability, Gender

  • Those with certain kinds of disabilities can trigger cheating flags of no fault of their own – tics, eye movements, self-massage, needing to go to the bathroom (Brown 2020)*+^.
  • Flagging these behaviors is a feature not a bug of AI proctoring systems – they are designed to look for “atypical” behavior (Patil and Bromwich 2020) *+^.
  • Algorithmic proctoring uses facial recognition/detection technology which can fail to recognize those with dark skin (Clark 2021)*+^.
  • Students can be locked out of exams if a face is not detected in the frame (Chin 2021)*.
  • Reaching out to support can lead to degrading practices to “troubleshoot the problem” like being asked to shine a light on your face (Caplan-Bricker 2021)*.
  • AI identification methods can be compromising for trans and non-binary students (Swauger 2020)*+ .
Invasion of Privacy

  • Room scans are invasive and intrusive – they can reveal personal information the student doesn’t wish to share (Harwell 2020a)*.
  • Product features sometimes ask students to show parts of their bodies (their lap) in inappropriate ways (Harris 2020) *+.

  • Proctoring can cost upwards of $500,000 a year (Harwell 2020b)+.
  • High costs of proctoring borne by students or budget-squeezed institutions (Malone 2019; Wan 2019)+^.
  • Additional costs from the possibility of court cases and public relations (McKenzie 2021)+.

  • Proctoring services may not always be in compliance with state or local laws about student surveillance or collection of biometric data (Long 2021)*+^.
  • Human proctors are “alone” with students and may harass or otherwise harm them while the student is involved in course activities (Bhat 2021)*+.
Digital Divide/Digital Redlining

  • Many remote proctoring technologies require expensive hardware (laptop, webcam, microphone) that students may not have or software (a certain browser, a browser extension) that students may not consent to installing (Selinger and Gilliard 2021; Yun 2020)*.
  • Internet bandwidth is not the same everywhere and some students may struggle with connections (Flaherty 2021)*.
Larger harms to freedoms and society

  • Chilling effect on academic freedom – regarding research and choice in teaching
    • Australian researchers found that their research was hindered due to the litigious nature of proctoring companies and the larger negative climate around remote proctoring (Selwyn et al. 2021) +^.
    • Academic Integrity Researcher Phillip Dawson had to return grant funds because he could not find a remote proctoring company that would let him research their tool to see if it actually prevented cheating (CRADLEdeakin 2020)+^.
    • Some instructors are not given a choice about using this technology *+^.
  • Normalization of surveillance on students and faculty
    • Surveillance technologies are used in conjunction with human rights violations all over the word – proctoring normalizes surveillance for students (Fox Cahn et al. 2020)*^.
    • Short distance from surveillance of students in learning activities to surveillance of faculty during official university business (teaching, communications, etc.) (@hypervisible 2020)*+^
  • Degrading Trust
    • Remote proctoring systems have implications for eroding student trust (Stewart 2020)*+^.
Table 2. Harm index of remote proctoring systems.

Closing the Backdoor

The following is an autoethnographic reflection between us (the two authors) about our experience discovering and investigating a fourth-party proctoring option at our university, which had a stated anti-proctoring technology stance (Silverman et al. 2021). These events took place between February 5th and May 15th of 2021 and it is of importance to note this is the time it took to have a technology removed that was never vetted or approved by the university in any way. McGraw Hill’s partnership with Proctorio was established as early as February of 2020 (@mheducation 2020) potentially in response to the mass transition to online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as this autoethnography will show, no one at the institution seemed to have any knowledge of it for a year. The partnership began to draw wider attention when a parent’s group published an open letter asking McGraw Hill to end their partnership with Proctorio (Ongweso 2020).

Autumm: In February of 2021 I was browsing twitter when I came across conversations about a McGraw Hill Connect (MHConnect) partnership with Proctorio. I did some googling and came across their webpage outlining this partnership and stating that the proctoring options would be part of any text with a 2019 copyright or newer. Days prior, I had been in a Canvas administrators meeting for our institution where the MHConnect integration had been discussed. It was noted that the new integration was mostly a “pass through” over to the publisher’s private platform, which they controlled. I had thought this was a good thing at first, that perhaps it meant that less of our student’s data would be passing between systems but then realized when I saw the Proctorio partnership that this would mean that our students could be subjected to this harmful technology without much oversight from our institution. This upset me for personal reasons but also because our campus had specifically rejected remote proctoring since the beginning of the pandemic. I reached out to Sarah on Twitter DM to vent.

Sarah: When Autumm contacted me to tell me about the McGraw Hill Connect partnership with Proctorio and how it might affect our students I was first and foremost angry. But then I immediately thought about our campus decision to reject remote proctoring (as Autumm mentions) and how that should carry some weight in our working relationship with McGraw Hill. After all, we are a customer and partner of theirs, and it is very common for customers of technology companies to ask to have the product configured to their liking (just take a look at several different universities’ instances of the Canvas LMS to see an example of edtech customization). I suggested to Autumm that we attempt to have Proctorio removed from MH Connect platform for UM-D users, assuming that this would be an easy request to fulfill.

Autumm: When I contacted Sarah I was feeling that we were somewhat at a dead end because of the nature of the integration that I had heard about in the admin meeting days prior. It did not sound like other integrations that I’d had experience with (having LMS admin experience from previous roles) that would bring outside functionality to the LMS—and over which an LMS admin would have more control. Rather, this integration just seemed to pass credentials over to another McGraw Hill controlled platform. Talking with Sarah she questioned my assumptions and asked many questions about configurations and customizations that might be possible. She made good points and I felt like it was a long shot but I reached out to our institution’s lead LMS administrator to point out this new partnership and question if customizations or a shut-off might be possible. He was not aware of this partnership but agreed that it was concerning and said that he would reach out to McGraw Hill. After waiting about two weeks and hearing nothing I reached back out to him and he said he would reach out again. Two days later he wrote to me to say he had met with representatives of McGraw Hill who said that they would turn the integration off for our school but that there were conditions: (1) that they wanted to look and see if there was anyone using the integration and (2) that they needed two weeks to turn it off. I was unhappy about the two week waiting period, especially since we had already waited two-weeks to initially get a response, and I never fully understood why it was required. Later that day one faculty member was identified as already using the integration and McGraw Hill additionally requested an email from the associate provost to perform the shut off. Arrangements were made to work with the faculty member who was using the system to find alternatives and the official email from the associate provost requesting the shut off went out. However, a month later Sarah was working with a faculty member who was using MHConnect and found that the options for proctoring were still there.

Sarah: That particular faculty member hadn’t wanted to use the proctoring feature but noticed that it became available. I think it is important to note that it was a complete coincidence that I was working with an instructor that was using MHConnect, and thus was able to verify that the proctoring feature had not been turned off. Absent my working relationship with this faculty member, none of the instructional designers on our campus would have access to Connect or any fourth-party tools that are connected to it. Together, Autumm relayed that the proctoring feature was not turned off to the LMS administrator and our associate provost, who contacted McGraw Hill again. At this point, we were assuming there was some sort of technical misunderstanding. We eventually heard back that while McGraw Hill could turn off the integration for users that accessed Connect through the LMS, it could not turn it off for those that logged in directly through the Connect site. Late in April I tweeted, “Frustrating day for resisting surveillance and e-proctoring. Found out that McGraw Hill cannot disable the Proctorio integration in “Connect” for all our users. This integration is built on the presumption that eproctoring is an uncomplicated value-add to any course. It is not.” Evidently, someone from McGraw Hill saw this tweet, and reached out to our associate provost by email offering to have a Zoom call in which we could clarify the details of McGraw Hill’s position.

Sarah and Autumm: We accepted the offer for a Zoom call, and decided to use it as an opportunity to better understand how Proctorio partners with McGraw Hill in addition to discussing how Proctorio could be removed for our campus users. We discussed a plan for McGraw Hill to deactivate Proctorio for all our campus users, both those that log in through our LMS and those that log in through the McGraw HIll Connect site. We then inquired as to whether the Data Privacy Agreement (DPA) we had signed with McGraw Hill covered other partnerships that they chose to make, such as the one with Proctorio. They responded that they viewed the DPA as applicable to any other technology companies that they partner with, meaning that our original DPA covered Proctorio being used through McGraw Hill Connect by our users. They also reiterated that they did not want to force Proctorio on anyone, and that they were happy to pursue various avenues to restrict its use on our campus if that is what we desired. In response to our dissatisfaction that they had integrated Proctorio into our users accounts without informing us or asking permission, they maintained that if we had a campus policy against remote proctoring, it was primarily our responsibility to inform faculty of the policy and enforce it.

Discussion and Recommendations

We have described the problematic nature of current fourth-party partnerships, but there is potential for more problematic future partnerships. Fourth-party partnerships may exist explicitly to circumvent campus decisions or policies (such as administrative policies, or faculty governance) or to respond to budget and purchasing constraints (Gogia 2021). The loopholes which are created as part of these deals can do real harm. Considering how we speak about and rationalize such technologies is an important part of analyzing how they end up existing on our campuses.

Caines (2021) described a weaponization of care around surveillance technologies where they are sold and rationalized under a rhetoric of care and gives specific examples from remote proctoring companies. Adjacent to this frame we also see remote proctoring companies using what Herzog (2010) called the “banality of surveillance.” With this construct we see companies making the case that the technology is essential and, though it may not be perfect, we need to suffer with the drawbacks because the good outweighs the bad (McFarland 2021). Third parties that form relationships with remote proctoring companies also implicitly make the case that remote proctoring is essential (and harmless) by integrating it into their product without user or institutional consent. But the banality of surveillance around remote proctoring is nothing but smoke and mirrors, as our Harm Index (Table 2) shows. The harms suffered by students, institutions, and larger constructs such as academic freedom from these technologies is very real. Additionally, multiple educators have pointed out that other, more authentic kinds of assessments do not even require exams (Crosslin 2021; Silverman et al. 2021).

Relationships between educational technology companies and educational institutions can be fraught. Often, there is a disconnect between how institutionally approved technologies are chosen and whether they support the kind of education the institution wants to provide (Cohn 2021). Our first recommendation for institutions to have more control over fourth-party integrations is for universities to consider not only which technologies to adopt, but which technologies, and specifically what functionalities, they do not want to adopt. Methods and tools need to be created to assist with alignment of the university’s mission, strategic plan, or other guiding principles for evaluating not just the benefits but also the harms of technologies. The addition of new functionalities to an existing educational technology tool through a fourth-party relationship can be particularly subtle and they often come with a techno-utopian sales rhetoric that fails to imagine that this addition could be anything but a good thing. Without consideration of where boundaries exist for the institution in regards to what technology is acceptable and what is not it is impossible to express issues with fourth-party relationships. Passing resolutions and offering recommendations against such technologies can go a long way against limiting the use of harmful technology.

Our second recommendation is for institutions to leverage their influence as direct paying customers, or as the provider of a sales environment of these tools, to demand that the third party remove the surveillance functions provided by the fourth-party companies. Enterprise systems are regularly configured to customers specifications. Shutting off these integrations is technically possible. Success in getting a fourth-party integration removed may vary depending on the specifics of the fourth-party partnership (as discussed above). We speculate that McGraw Hill was willing to grant our request for several reasons. For one, on balance it is better for them to retain us as a satisfied customer than to insist on proctoring functionality in our school. In addition, there is the name recognition of our institution and our relationship with our flagship university. Finally, it is important to note that we did take steps to bring public light on our situation. We wrote a peer-reviewed paper about our experiences and issued a press release (Fight for the Future 2021), which could have impacted our ability to successfully get this integration removed. While resisting harmful fourth-party integrations is a difficult, time-consuming, and unpredictable endeavor, we hope that other educators feel empowered to do so based on our experiences.


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Appendix: Documents Analyzed from Proctorio’s Site and Partner Sites

Company Name Page Name URL
Proctorio Integration https://proctorio.com/about/integration

Archived https://web.archive.org/web/20210617040222/https://proctorio.com/about/integration

Proctorio Frequently Asked Questions https://proctorio.com/faq

Archived https://web.archive.org/web/20210617040359/https://proctorio.com/faq

Proctorio Acceptable Use Policy https://proctorio.com/policies#all&all&aup&section-acceptableusepolicy
TopHat TopHat Partners with Proctorio https://tophat.com/press-releases/top-hat-partners-with-proctorio/

Archived https://web.archive.org/web/20210310041915/https://tophat.com/press-releases/top-hat-partners-with-proctorio/

TopHat Professor: Remotely Monitored (Proctorio) Tests https://success.tophat.com/s/article/Teaching-Online-Remotely-Proctored-Tests

Does not archive properly

TopHat Choose the Right Plan for Your Course https://tophat.com/pricing/


McGraw Hill Connect Online Assessment Integrity https://www.mheducation.com/highered/connect/proctorio.html

Archived https://web.archive.org/web/20210616055843/https://www.mheducation.com/highered/connect/proctorio.html

Cirrus Assessments Integration with Remote Proctoring from Proctorio https://cirrus.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/360012584799-Integration-with-remote-proctoring-from-Proctorio

Archived https://web.archive.org/web/20210617040838/https://cirrus.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/360012584799-Integration-with-remote-proctoring-from-Proctorio

Cirrus Assessments Automated Proctoring by Proctorio https://cirrus.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/360012590719-Automated-proctoring-by-Proctorio

Archived https://web.archive.org/web/20210617041251/https://cirrus.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/360012590719-Automated-proctoring-by-Proctorio

Ans* Set up the Proctorio Integration https://support.ans.app/hc/en-us/articles/360011850058–Set-up-the-Proctorio-integration

Archived https://web.archive.org/web/20210301032302/https://support.ans.app/hc/en-us/articles/360011850058-Set-up-the-Proctorio-integration

Ascend Learning The ATI TEAS Exam with Proctorio https://www.atitesting.com/teas/the-ati-teas-exam-with-proctorio

Archived https://web.archive.org/web/20210413071454/https://atitesting.com/teas/the-ati-teas-exam-with-proctorio/

Ascend Learning About https://www.ascendlearning.com/about/


Derivita Math with Integrity https://www.derivita.com/proctoring

Unable to be archived

Derivita Home https://www.derivita.com/

Trouble archiving https://web.archive.org/web/20201031103007/https://www.derivita.com/

EvaExam Online Exams https://evasys.de/en/online-exams/

Trouble archiving https://web.archive.org/web/20210617041927/https://evasys.de/en/online-exams/

QuestionMark Frequently Asked Questions https://www.questionmark.com/platform-services/faqs/
QuestionMark How do I take a “record and review” proctored assignment? https://support.questionmark.com/content/taking-a-record-and-review-proctoring-assessment
QuestionMark Proctoring Hub https://www.questionmark.com/platform-services/proctoring/

About the Authors

Sarah Silverman is an instructional designer at the Hub for Teaching and Learning Resources at the University of Michigan–Dearborn. In addition to educational technology criticism, her interests include Universal Design for Learning and Disability Studies. A scientist by training, she received her PhD in Entomology from UC Davis and worked in teaching and learning support at UC Davis and UW Madison before coming to UM Dearborn. She currently resides in New Haven, CT.

Autumm Caines is an instructional designer at the University of Michigan–Dearborn. Autumm’s scholarly and research interests include blended/hybrid and online learning, open education, digital literacy/citizenship with a focus on equity and access, and online community development. This blend of interests has led to a concern about mounting ethical issues in educational technology and recent publications and presentations on topics concerning educational surveillance, student data collection, and remote proctoring. Autumm has taught honors students at small liberal arts colleges as well as traditional students, working professionals, and veterans at a regional public university. More at autumm.org.

A laptop floating in grey space projects its screen in several layers into the air.

Black Mirror Pedagogy: Dystopian Stories for Technoskeptical Imaginations


New technologies are introduced into people’s lives today at a rate unprecedented in human history. The benefits of technologies and the onslaught of corporate messaging can result in a pervasive techno-optimism that leaves people unaware of the downsides or collateral effects of technologies until harms are already done. With the show Black Mirror as muse, we open by imagining the story of Oya, a first-year college student unwittingly trapped by educational “innovations.” After reviewing examples of technological resistance from antiquity to Black women scholars today, we then propose two activities educators can employ to engage students’ technoskeptical imagining. First, we developed a MadLib activity that employs play as a means to creatively speculate about technologies. Second, we offer a fill-in-the-blank creative writing activity that builds on the MadLib activity while providing more flexibility in crafting their own dystopian stories. We hope this approach and these activities can work toward protecting those who are most vulnerable to the harms of technologies.


Meet Oya, a first-year college student at a new venture-capital-backed school located on the campus of Alvara College, a traditional liberal arts college. Oya is not a typical undergraduate student; they have been targeted by Petra Capital’s recruitment team to supplement the traditional demographics of the college’s student body. As part of The Alvara Personalized Experience (TAPE), they live in a dormitory specifically built for students enrolled in this special recruitment strategy.

The door opens and a 30-year-old woman begins to move in and unpack her things just as Oya settles into their dorm room on the first day. Oya learns that their new roommate, Barbara, is an important component of TAPE. Barbara is Oya’s assigned success guardian. In this role, Barbara will observe and document everything Oya does and everywhere they go. Barbara will offer suggestions to Oya about what they can do to improve their college experience, including recommendations about diet, sleep, study habits, time management, and even social opportunities on campus. Oya does not have to follow these prompts, but Barbara will report Oya’s choices to their professors and the financial aid office.

Oya’s story is fictional and may seem outlandish. The idea of a personalized college experience enhanced by a “success guardian” following a young undergraduate student to monitor and report their every action may seem absurdly intrusive and disruptive. However, many schools have deployed surveillance technologies that perform similar functions in the name of student success. Surveillance activities that would feel invasive and even creepy if conducted in person were popularized and normalized by Google and Facebook (Zuboff 2019), and these practices increasingly creep into “smart” technologies (i.e., Internet of Things) and educational technologies. The expanding tentacles of surveillance have only tightened their grip since so many institutions and people were pushed online during the COVID-19 pandemic. As students, workers, and educators become further habituated to these digital systems, it is harder for them to critically evaluate the risks and harms that can come from such “personalization.”

While tech creators make techno-utopian promises about what educational technologies can deliver, legislators and regulators have done little to protect people against their negative effects. Policy and legal reforms around the collection of student data have been proposed—and in some cases already implemented—but as Caines and Glass (2019, 94–95) warned, “While laws and internal policies are critical, they take time to develop, and in that time new models and practices come forward to bypass proposed and existing regulations.” Users of these technologies—including teachers and students—are often left to fend for themselves. Few people will read and interpret Terms of Service (ToS) that are often written to obfuscate more than inform (see, e.g., Lindh and Nolin 2016). Few users of new technologies will research collateral effects. Simply put, the cards are stacked against us.

As a result, educators need pedagogical approaches, tools, and assessments to work alongside students in making decisions about technologies in their individual, civic, and educational lives. In this paper, we discuss the development of two educational activities that use dystopian fiction as a device for helping students develop technoskeptical imaginations.


Contemplating and confronting ethical issues around technologies is not new. Humans have long resisted new technologies which they believe impinge on their values, livelihoods, or very lives. Plato wrote of the god Thamus, who evaluated technologies and rejected writing as a technology that would result in a “conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom” (Postman 1992, 4). The Luddites of nineteenth-century England rejected textile machinery that threatened their craft (Jones 2013). The science fiction genre has long speculated on the possible harms of technologies, and the recent Black Mirror show has offered particularly vivid visions of technological dystopia (Conley and Burroughs 2020; Fiesler 2018). The critique of technologies is not reserved solely to the world of science fiction, but has been taken up by academics as well. For instance, nearly a half-century ago, Bunge (1975) coined the term technoethics in his call for technologists to be more aware of the social implications of their inventions.

The field of technoethics also has a more embodied tradition, grounded in the work of Black feminist scholars who have challenged algorithms of oppression (Noble 2018), discriminatory design (Benjamin 2019), and biased facial recognition (Buolamwini and Gebru 2018) that amplify and sustain anti-Black racism and sexism in society. Amrute (2019) challenged top-down models of technoethics by calling for attunements that attend to techno-affects, centering the bodies and knowledge of those most vulnerable to—or targeted by—technological harm.

An embodied technoethics perspective is particularly critical for our authorship team of four white scholars working from the relative comfort of academic spaces. We acknowledge that we must recognize how our intersectional positionalities in a sexist, racist, classist, and ableist society require us to listen to, and support, those who may face the disproportionate negative impacts of technologies. Technologies in education, as well as the educational practices surrounding their integration, often uphold whiteness and perpetuate structural injustices (Heath and Segal 2021). How can educators help students see the ways technologies extend, amplify, or create social problems?

As Geraldine Forsberg (2017, 232) argued, “Questions can help break the power that technologies have over us. Questions can help us critique the technological bluffs that are being communicated through advertisements, political and scientific discourse and education.” Building on the work already done in the field, three authors of this paper (Krutka, Heath, and Staudt Willet 2019) proposed technoethical questions that educational technology scholars and practitioners could use to investigate and interrogate technologies with students:

  • Was this technology designed ethically and is it used ethically?
  • Are laws that apply to our use of this technology just?
  • Does this technology afford or constrain democracy and justice for all people and groups?
  • Are the ways the developers profit from this technology ethical?
  • What are unintended and unobvious problems to which this technology might contribute?
  • In what ways does this technology afford and constrain learning opportunities about technologies?

In the past two years, in collaboration with students in our classes, we have conducted technoethical audits of Google’s suite of apps (Krutka, Smits, and Willhelm 2021), and of educators’ use of Google Classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic (Gleason and Heath 2021). In response to reading the public accounts of this research, Autumm Caines adapted the tool into an online format to help faculty conduct self-directed technoethical audits of educational technologies.

Through sharing our experiences in conducting these technoethical audits, our authorship team eventually agreed that asking these technoethical questions of students did not always generate the deep, critical thinking about technologies we sought. These uneven results may partially be attributed to the techno-optimism (Postman 1992) and techno-solutionism (Papert 1988) that are pervasive in the U.S. We therefore sought out other approaches that could challenge students and teachers to confront such narratives of technological progress.

Dystopian Storytelling about Technology

Building on our technoethical questions and with Black Mirror as our muse, we sought to identify activities that might more readily spur students’ technoskeptical imaginations. The show Black Mirror is a “sci-fi anthology series [that] explores a twisted, high-tech near-future where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide” (Netflix n.d.). Episodes address technoethical topics in digital censorship, virtual reality gaming, and artificially intelligent toys, among others. In societies where technology is often equated with progress (Benjamin 2019; Jones 2013; Krutka 2018; Postman 1992), Black Mirror disrupts such narratives and creates space to question how technology should be limited or even banned.

Educators have drawn inspiration from Black Mirror, and dystopian fiction more broadly, to develop educational approaches and activities. For instance, Emanuelle Burton, Judy Goldsmith, and Nicholas Mattei (2018) responded to the difficulties of teaching ethics in computer science curriculum by using science fiction as a powerful pedagogical tool. Casey Fiesler (2018) detailed her use of Black Mirror to help college students “think through different possibilities” for technology in the future. Episodes served as launching points for her students to engage in “creative speculation” about ethical issues that arose from the plots of the shows and consider existing or possible laws (Feisler 2018). The Screening Surveillance project (2019) from the Surveillance Studies Center “is a short film series that uses near future fiction storytelling based on research to highlight potential social and privacy issues that arise as a result of big data surveillance.” sava saheli singh, who conceptualized and produced the series, partnered with educators on multiple occasions to incorporate the work of dystopian fiction with the intention of addressing contemporary technoethical issues. From the perspective of the 2040s, Felicitas Macgilchrist, Heidrun Allert, and Anne Bruch (2020, 77) imagined “a kind of social science fiction to speculate on how technology will have been used in schools, and what this means for how future student-subjects will have been addressed in the future past of the 2020s.” This type of imagining played out malignant alternative futures for educational technologies where students would be “smooth users,” “digital nomads,” or ecological humans embedded in “collective agency.”

Here we describe two activities designed for education students, but adaptable for others, that encourage technoskeptical imagination around technologies in general and edtech specifically. This scholarly experiment has proved promising in our initial exploratory teaching.

MadLibs Activity

Building on the work from Krutka, Heath, and Staudt Willet (2019) to consider how to encourage educators to consider technoethical questions, we incorporate a construct of play to inspire technoskeptical imagining. Although technoskeptical thinking can be rewarding, continued consideration of systemic inequities and injustices can be emotionally draining. Play can be a powerful means to disrupt power hierarchies, challenge authority, and encourage agency, particularly for youth whose intersecting identities are marginalized (Yoon 2021).

Through this playful lens, we created a dystopian MadLibs activity (see Table 1). MadLibs is a two-person children’s word game that was traditionally produced in hard copy books and employed a phrasal template. The phrasal template is a story with several missing words that are defined grammatically or descriptively. For instance, a blank (i.e., missing word) could be labeled as needing a verb, noun, or even type of plant to complete the sentence. One player reads out loud the label of the blank and the second player (who cannot see the context of the story) provides answers. These answers are plugged into the story, which results in a funny, amusing, and often absurd tale.

In adapting MadLibs as an educational warm-up activity to spark technoskeptical imaginations, we embraced the notion of absurdity. In preparation, we wrote out the frame of a dystopian story with missing details. However, instead of missing grammatical items, we left blank the specifics of a company or technology, as well as the functions of the technology. We designed the MadLibs activity to be delivered during a synchronous instructional session when the blanks could be crowdsourced from students. The instructor needs to plan for activities in which students can participate for a few minutes while a facilitator plugs the crowdsourced elements into the dystopian story, accounting for verb tense and grammatical flow, and then reads the story aloud to students.

Although the story is written with a more serious and dystopian plot, the final story still contains elements of absurdity, because students did not know the narrative context when they chose the missing elements. The reading of the final, somewhat farcical story can be met with amusement. This levity can then be followed by a more serious discussion where students interrogate connections between the MadLibs story and their lived experiences with technology. As a result, the MadLibs activity is a warm-up to the Fill-in-the-Blank Creative Writing activity where students engage in writing dystopian fiction.

MadLibs Play

Company =

Company slogan =

Group with institutional power (plural) =

Think of what the technology does generally, not just for you, when thinking of these three functions:

Function #1 of technology (beginning with verb ending in “ing”) =

Function #2 of technology (beginning with present tense verb) =

Function #3 of technology (beginning with present tense verb) =

After many controversies where citizens have accused us of doublespeak, [COMPANY] wants to remind you of our mission: [COMPANY SLOGAN]. Some people say that profits get in the way of our mission to make the world a better place. Many critics have called our product a weapon of oppression. Do not listen to these un-American troublemakers who are only jealous of our immense success!

These critics claim that [GROUP WITH INSTITUTIONAL POWER] will use our product to harm those under their control by [FUNCTION #1 OF TECH]. Some critics even say they feel intimidated by the ability of the technology to [FUNCTION #2 OF TECH]. But aren’t [GROUP WITH POWER] also just trying to make the world a better place? Meanwhile, the jealous critics claim that [GROUP WITH POWER] are using the technology to [FUNCTION #3 OF TECH] and that is causing social problems. But come on! Let the free market decide! If people did not love [COMPANY], then we would not be enjoying such incredible success. Technology is progress, and progress is good!

Table 1. MadLibs play.

Fill-in-the-Blank Creative Writing Activity

After completing the MadLibs activity, students are prompted to deepen their technoskeptical imagining by creating and writing their own dystopian fiction. Offering participants a prompt, particularly those in a one-off workshop, can provide provocation for the beginning of a story. To scaffold the activity, we created another phrasal template as part of the design of a Fill-in-the-Blank Creative Writing activity. This activity is facilitated through a series of Google Docs that all students or participants are able to edit directly. The Fill-in-the-Blank activity can be completed individually or in small groups. Like the MadLibs activity, parts of the dystopian story are missing; however, unlike the MadLibs activity, students can see the entire frame of the story. Missing elements, again, are not grammatical in nature but are instead elements of the story such as the “name of technology/company” and “group with power/group without power.” We recommend students be given free rein in this activity. That is, the use of a phrasal template does not have to be required; rather, it is provided as a prompt as needed. After completing their stories, students are asked to evaluate the narrative they wrote using the analytical tool developed by Krutka, Heath, and Staudt Willet (2019). We envision that this Fill-in-the-Blank Creative Writing activity could also be conducted asynchronously, where students would sit with the prompt (or develop their own) over the course of a longer period of time.

Dystopian Storytelling Activity

Welcome to this semi-true technology dystopia storytelling activity. Dystopia storytelling can help us to imagine some of the harms that technology can bring while at the same time making it okay for us to embellish a little. If you have watched or read any speculative or science fiction you know it is best when there are some elements of the truth to it – think about your favorite episodes of the show Black Mirror.

Below we have started you off with a dystopian fiction prompt with some elements missing – you will find these missing elements in all caps in the brackets. The idea is for you to replace these items as prompted with items of your own devising – which might be true but also could just come from your imagination. For instance you could replace [TECHNOLOGY] with Facebook, social media, Zoom, or even a toaster but you should stick with that and try to make the story make sense as you continue to write. Feel free to search for technology company websites and steal their own rhetoric and the way that they talk about themselves for things like the motto or stated intention. If you don’t like the story arc feel free to even change the text – make this story your own.

One note – depending on the technology you choose the name of the tech may be the same as the name of the company ie. Zoom or Facebook – or it could differ for instance Google is actually owned by Alphabet. Again, make this story your own and if little details bog you down just write them out.

Many people today use [TECHNOLOGY] to [EXPLAIN WHAT TECHNOLOGY ALLOWS PEOPLE TO DO]. It has become very popular and many humans use [TECHNOLOGY]. [COMPANY] even explains that [THE COMPANY MOTTO OR STATED INTENTION]. However, we have come from the future to tell you [TECHNOLOGY] is not a tool, but a weapon intended to hurt people!


If the use of this technology continues then this could lead to the long-term destruction of [EXPLAIN WHAT COULD BE PERMANENTLY DESTROYED]. [COMPANY] is even trying to trick people into thinking they’re changing their ways by pushing for legislation that [DESCRIBE LAWS THAT ALLOW FOR CONTINUED ABUSE BUT GIVE THE APPEARANCE OF MAKING CHANGE].

And it is all about profits for [COMPANY]! We discovered that they are making money by [EXPLAIN HOW THE COMPANY PROFITS FROM THEIR WEAPON]. They’re also exploiting [NAME GROUP THAT IS EXPLOITED SUCH AS WORKERS OR USERS] by [IDENTIFY ACTION THAT OF TECHNOLOGY THAT CAUSES HARM], and harming the environment by [EXPLAIN HARMS TO ENVIRONMENT]. The consequences are widespread! We hope you can stop the evil use of [TECHNOLOGY] before it’s too late!

Table 2. Dystopian storytelling activity.

Next Steps

Revisiting Oya, envision a scenario in which their experience did not include a human success guardian but instead the surveillance technologies to which many students are already subjected. How might Oya’s situation have been different if they had practiced developing their technoskeptical imagining? Armed with the ability to imagine something more than utopian rhetoric, Oya sees the harmful outcomes that could result from surveillance technologies. Oya is then prepared to ask questions and look for ways to democratize the technology, rather than letting it control them. They ask the stakeholders (e.g., student services offices, professors) issuing the technology to also imagine negative consequences. Oya also takes the time to read critiques of the company from technology journalists and digital rights activists to better understand their context, purpose, and profit models. They talk with classmates and family members back home, and Oya writes about technoethical concerns to inform a larger audience about risks and dangers. Finally, Oya organizes a local chapter of a digital rights group so they are better equipped to challenge multinational technology corporations and their own school.

Evaluating technology from an ethical perspective is difficult. Corporate sales pitches are ubiquitous. For many of us, our livelihoods depend on our use of such tools. We must therefore reflect on our own lived experiences and those of the people around us. Potential harms often lie beneath the surface. Embracing technoskeptical imagination and creative power can offer a step towards enabling students to better protect themselves in their use of technological tools. If educators aim to stop harms in the present, and mitigate risks in the future, we might raise technoethical consciousness through dystopian storytelling.


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About the Authors

Daniel G. Krutka (he/him/his) is a human, probably too tethered to his smartphone, but human nonetheless. He is a former high school teacher and his current job is Associate Professor of Social Studies Education at the University of North Texas. He researches intersections of technology, democracy, and social studies. You can listen to him host educators and researchers on the Visions of Education podcast (VisionsOfEd.com) or amplify his retweets at @dankrutka.

Autumm Caines (she/her/hers) is an instructional designer at the University of Michigan—Dearborn. Autumm’s scholarly and research interests include blended/hybrid and online learning, open education, digital literacy/citizenship with a focus on equity and access, and online community development. This blend of interests has led to a concern about mounting ethical issues in educational technology and recently publications and presentations on topics concerning educational surveillance, student data collection, and remote proctoring. Autumm has taught honors students at a small liberal arts colleges as well as traditional students, working professionals, and veterans at a regional public university. More at autumm.org.

Marie K. Heath (she/her/hers) is an Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at Loyola University Maryland. Prior to her work in higher education, Marie taught high school social studies in Baltimore County Public Schools. Her work in public schools informs her commitment to education that promotes a robust and multi-racial democracy through liberatory education. Marie’s research focuses on the intersection of education, civic engagement, and technology to foster social change. Her scholarship interrogates educational technology, confronts White supremacy, and advocates for teacher activism.

K. Bret Staudt Willet (he/him/his) is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Systems & Learning Technologies at Florida State University. Bret’s research investigates self-directed learning through social media. He has several ongoing projects related to this research area. First, he examines networked learning in online communities, such as those hosted by Twitter and Reddit. Second, he studies how new teachers expand their professional support systems during their induction transition. Third, he explores the connections between informal learning and invisible labor. Learn more on his website, bretsw.com.

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