Now that I've thoroughly destroyed any credibility I might have to talk about this issue, I'd ask you to continue reading anyway.
My school is probably going to adopt Turnitin next year. If you're not familiar with this, it's a service that allows you to have your students submit their writing to Turnitin where it is rapidly checked against their massive database of other student work to check for plagiarism. It also helps teachers and peers provide feedback. From their About page:
Turnitin is used by more than 10,000 institutions in 135 countries to manage the submission, tracking and evaluation of student papers online.I have not used Turnitin, so I can't comment on how well it does what it purports to do, but I've heard that it does a good job and is pretty user-friendly for both teachers and students.
I wouldn't use it.
I have several concerns about the use of Turnitin, but I'll focus on just two here. First, by contracting with Turnitin, you're basically agreeing to submit your students' work to a large corporation so that they can use that work to make money. The more folks that use Turnitin, and the more student work that is submitted, the more valuable it becomes for Turnitin. You're allowing (actually, enabling) a corporation to monetize the intellectual property of your students.
Now, I realize this argument will seem rather esoteric to many folks. They'll suggest that elevating our students' work to "intellectual property" is a bit of a stretch, and that the goal of using Turnitin is to actually help the students, and it's okay if people make money along the way. Both of those may have some validity, but I'd ask you to think about this scenario. How would you feel if your school district took some of your work as a teacher and then sold it, and kept the profits? (By the way, they probably can do that since it's work product, but my question is how would you feel.) It's essentially the same thing for our students, except they didn't have a choice (you did when you accepted this job), nor do they get paid for their time (you get paid for your work, even if you wouldn't get the proceeds from the sale of your work product). I find it somewhat ironic that we are attempting to teach our students that copying is wrong by copying and sharing their work with someone who will profit from it.
Second, and this is the bigger issue for me, is the assumption of guilt. By using Turnitin we're essentially saying to our students, "you are guilty until proven innocent . . . by Turnitin." We don't trust you, we assume you're going to cheat, and in order to deter that we're going to submit everything you do under the assumption that you are cheating.
Now, last time I checked, one of the basic principles of our country is the presumption of innocence; the assumption that you are innocent until proven guilty. Not only that, but there has to be probable cause to pursue the matter to determine your guilt. What kind of message does it send to our students when we flip that on its head?
I get why Language Arts teachers would want to use this product. I get the overwhelming workload and the frustration of dealing with student plagiarism. If I was a Language Arts teacher I might even swallow my concerns and use Turnitin myself. But I'm not, and that's the beauty of this post, I can at least attempt to evaluate the use of Turnitin from a big-picture perspective without the annoying reality I would face as a Language Arts classroom teacher. And, evaluated on the "rightness" of using it, it's no contest - don't do it.
So how would I address the issue of plagiarism? I don't know, at least not to any level of detail. I think there are certainly some partial solutions that can help, such as not giving standard assignments with standard prompts that are easy to plagiarize, or having students complete writing tasks in class. But I realize those only go so far, but I think it would be worth our time to flesh out that list and perhaps we could come up with a more complete list that might - on the whole - be a better alternative to Turnitin.
I can foresee some folks asking question like, "But don't you value Literature? And don't you value writing?" And my answer is that I very much value Literature, and I very much value writing. Do I value writing about Literature? Not so much. That doesn't mean I think writing about Literature is necessarily bad, not at all, as long as that's what you want and choose to do. But I do think that forced, mandatory writing about Literature that is assigned to you that you then turn in for a grade is perhaps not the best way to help students become better writers or lovers of Literature.
A serious question for Language Arts teachers: When is the last time you wrote a paper about a work of Literature? And, no, graduate school doesn't count. You don't get to justify doing something to your students in school because someone else did something to you in school. I'd even ask a follow-up question, when is the last time you wrote anything longer and more involved than an email? If (school) writing is so important, so critical to our students, that we would spend some of our budget on a service that assumes our students are guilty until proven innocent, then I think you need to show the writing you do in your life.
I know many of the folks reading this will be able to do that, because if you're reading my blog then there's a better-than-average chance that you're a blogger yourself. But I wonder what percentage of Language Arts teachers write anything significant on a regular basis? And of those that do, I wonder how much of that writing resembles the writing they are asking their students to do and then submit to Turnitin? I wonder how many Language Arts Departments - all the teachers in the department combined - have written even as much as I alone have in the last eight or so years on this blog? That's not to say there's anything special about me for writing on this blog, but that is suggesting that they should put their (school district) money where their writing is.
I think writing is more important than ever. But I think the most important writing done today doesn't look very much like school writing.
- Important writing is done because you want to accomplish a task, you want to change something. School writing is often done just to get a rather dubious grade.
- Important writing is done for an authentic audience, for an audience that cares about and needs what you are writing about; it's meant to be shared. School writing is done for an audience of one, and that one usually has to read between 30 and 200 other pieces of inauthentic writing at the same time. It's rarely shared.
- Important writing is often (although not always) done collaboratively. School writing is rarely done collaboratively.
- Important writing today frequently uses hyperlinks that allow you to actually click through and read the source material, and we frequently do. School writing frequently uses citations in MLA or APA format, where we seemingly care more about the appropriate placement of punctuation then we do about the usefulness, relevance, and importance of the source material. Rarely in school writing does anyone actually read the source material.
- Important writing is difficult to plagiarize, because you have something to say, and it's yours. School writing is often easy to plagiarize, because you may not have anything to say, and it's not really yours.
Does this mean that I think Language Arts teachers who use Turnitin are "bad" or "evil"? Not at all; as I said, I can see where it would be helpful to them in dealing with the realities of their classroom situations. But it does mean that I wish we would question the realities of our classroom situations and perhaps, just perhaps, spend our time and energy on changing those situations instead of using a flawed and ultimately harmful tool.
For an interesting discussion of copyright and other issues related to Turnitin, this article from the Florida Law Review (pdf) is very interesting (and lengthy).