Friday, May 02, 2014

Why I Wouldn't Turnitin

I am not a Language Arts teacher, nor do I play one on TV. I do not have 3-5 distinct Language Arts preps, a student load of between 120 and 220 each semester, or the number of papers to grade that comes with that student load. I am not trained in how best to help students learn Language Arts, nor am I steeped in all the Language Arts standards and habits of mind that we'd like our students to develop.

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.
There's one more interesting piece to this (assuming you've found any of this interesting), and that's the fact that my daughter will be a ninth grader at my school next year. Some folks are undoubtedly wondering whether we will "opt her out" of Turnitin. The answer is probably not, just like we haven't opted her out of standardized testing. But what we will do is give her the choice of whether to opt-out, just like we have with standardized testing. (So far she's chosen not to opt-out of standardized testing, because she doesn't want to be "different." Oh, how apropos, not opting-out of standardized testing because you don't want to be different.) If she should decide that she does want to opt-out of Turnitin (unlikely as that is), we will support her.

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).

50 comments:

  1. Great post--thoughtful ideas. I agree with your number 2 too--I find it to be the more important one in the message we are sending to our students--we expect you to plagiarize.

    I'm interested too in your thoughts about writing about literature. I'm not an English major but I do think there is some value in writing about a piece of literature because it takes you to a better understanding of some aspect of the work. I'm thinking it might be like a 2 column proof in math--do they still do those? Or something like it, that it is the thinking that matters more than the actual product. The thinking involved helps you build a deeper understanding. That's me from a reading teacher perspective!

    Thanks for writing this. I think it poses lots of important questions for teachers to think abut.

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    1. Thanks Franki.

      Yes, I definitely see some value in writing about a piece of literature, if it's a piece of literature that you care about and want to get a better understanding of. But if everyone in class is required to read the same particular work, and then write a paper on it, I think its somewhat unlikely that everyone is going to care about it and want to get a better understanding.

      But I also think there are many other activities that we can do with a piece of literature that are also likely to deepen our understanding of it, but that don't look very much like writing a paper. (To their credit, my Language Arts teachers do an amazing job with these other activities.)

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    2. In response to the "presumption of guilt" argument, I, too have struggled with this concept for years. But, what I have always come up with is this:
      If I presume that all students are not plagiarizing, that doesn't mean that they aren't.
      If I don't know that they plagiarized, that doesn't mean that they didn't.
      So, presumption of guilt by default? I suppose. But If I don't know who plagiarized, then I can't teach that student how NOT to do it, or that plagiarism has unique and severe consequences in the real world.
      As I stated in my comments below, plagiarism is just too tempting and often unintentional. Assumption of guilt is actually more practical as disheartening as that may be.

      Karl, I too do many non-written activities to assess my students' learning and deepen their understanding of literature. But I still have them write papers. And yes, if I assign all of the students to write about the same piece of literature, there are many that are writing about a piece of literature that is not their favorite. But with underclassmen especially, the act of studying a piece of literature as a whole class and writing about it in a similar manner/method provides the scaffolding for students to begin to write effectively on their own choice of literature and in their own way. I do quickly take away that scaffold and give them much more autonomy as the year progresses, but I think a blanket statement that all group study of and writing about literature is ineffective is not true, at least in my experience.

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    3. Thanks for helping me think this through more deeply.

      I get the practical part, I really do. For me it's just a question of whether it outweighs the rest of it and, for *me*, it doesn't.

      The NSA is currently using a similar argument. Some people are terrorists. We can't find all the terrorists using our current methods (i.e., adhering to the Constitution). Some folks are okay with that, figuring the (presumed) increase in safety is worth the loss of privacy and rights. Others are not. Any guess as to which camp I'm in? :-)

      Or perhaps a different analogy. Some teachers are lazy. Some teachers arrive at school late and leave early. Some teachers don't adequately plan for their classes. If I'm an administrator (I'm not), I don't always know which teachers those are. So I'm going to put an RFID tag on every teacher's id card and track when they are in the building and when they are not (time-clock systems are so industrial revolution). And I'm going to have them submit all their lesson plans in advance for approval and, since we have the subscription anyway, I'm going to run them through Turnitin just to make sure they aren't copied from someone else's lesson plans.

      I agree that *sometimes* an entire class reading the same piece can be very valuable, I'm just not sure that I see writing a paper on it as being a necessary part of that experience.

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  2. Oh yes! Not all reading the same piece and writing about the same piece. Ew! I never learned anything when I did that.

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  3. Thank you I appreciate your article. The last half is really the strong points that need to be emphasized and considered. Should we be assigning work that even could be plagiarized?

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    1. Unfortunately, even the most creative, unique, and "your own opinion" assignments can be plagiarized. There are simply some students who either do not want to do the work and will submit someone else's, or just don't understand how to incorporate others' work into their own. I cannot imagine an assignment, individual or group, literature-based or otherwise, which cannot be plagiarized in some way.

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    2. So why don't the students want to do the work?

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    3. I'm sure you know as well as I do, and it's not as simple as "the work is not engaging them enough for them to want to do it." Sure, that can be the reason, but more likely:

      With many students, it is about time management and being over-extended inside and outside of school.
      With some students, it is about personal issues at home or elsewhere that prevent them from getting the work done.

      Yes, I should and DO address these issues, as they are the root cause of the plagiarism. But, nonetheless, students plagiarize. So to address the idea that we should not assign work that could be plagiarized, I just think that is an unrealistic idea. Any written work can be plagiarized. Of course, bland, "standardized", "regurgitation of facts" work is more likely to be plagiarized than creative or opinion-based work, but even that does not prevent all plagiarism.

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    4. But why are students overextended? I think we have a fundamental issue that we need to address as educators. We load them up with tons of work (some of it perhaps valuable but much of it not), and we (society) don't provide the community safety nets to help with the other issues, but then we turn around and blame them for plagiarizing to get through it. We're treating the symptom when we should be attacking the cause.

      I would disagree slightly, I think the "root cause of plagiarism" is that they don't see the value of the work. Sure, engaging is better than not engaging, but if they truly valued the work, then plagiarism wouldn't be an issue either way. I'm not saying that's an easy problem to solve, but I'd rather we try to solve it then turn to "solutions" that try to "cure' the symptoms.

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  4. As an English teacher who has used Turnitin for nearly 9 years, I do understand your concerns about Turnitin. I'm not going to touch the "relevance of writing about literature" discussion, but I will explain why I use this tool and advocate for the use of Turnitin:
    1. Far from a tool which "presumes guilt" of a student, I find that using Turnitin.com has made me less suspicious overall of my students' work. Without Turnitin, I found myself Googling phrases of student work frequently to check for plagiarism. I recognized that, other than using Google, there was no way for me to know if the student's work was origina or how much a student relied on and closely paraphrased certain sources. Since using Turnitin.com, it is not only clear to the students what the expectations for original work are, but it is clear that those expectations will actually be reliably enforced. Therefore, I am much more confident that the students are going to adhere to those standards.
    2. Much of student plagiarism is unintentional, but still constitutes plagiarism. Turnitin allows me to show those students exactly where they have improperly used others' work, and how they can ensure that their work is original. In high school, where the consequences for plagiarism are far lower than they will be in college and careers, Turnitin provides a vehicle for learning how to write without plagiarizing others' work. It is not a "gotcha" tool in my classroom- it is a teaching tool.
    3. The plagiarism checking tool is useful, but what I use Turnitin for the most is as a digital portfolio and a way to comment on student work in a clear and efficient manner. Yes, there are other digital tools that do this, but Turnitin is geared specifically for writing teachers. It is easy to manage student submissions, to see who is missing work, and to compile multiple drafts of student papers. The commenting tools are again tailored to teachers as opposed to being generic "track changes" comments that one might see in Word or Google Docs. I can import and score rubrics in addition to leaving voice and text comments, and students never have issues with reading or understanding my comments, as they might have when I hand-wrote comments for hundreds of papers.

    There are things about Turnitin that I'm not happy with, and yes, the fact that it is a for-profit company that charges a steep price to schools for its use does not sit well with me. But, it is simply the best tool that I have found which benefits both me and my students. My students get more and clearer feedback and they learn how not to plagiarize. I think that in itself outweighs the drawbacks of this tool.

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    1. Thanks Heather.

      I appreciate that you use Turnitin as a teaching tool, and I'm glad to hear that the feedback mechanism works well. Again, I tried to make clear that I haven't used it, so therefore I couldn't comment on those pieces of it.

      I think it's great that it has made you less suspicious, but that's from your perspective. That doesn't change the fact that it presumes guilt from the get go by it's very nature (this comment is just focusing on the plagiarism piece of Turnitin, not the feedback piece).

      I appreciate that some student plagiarism is unintentional and that something like Turnitin could help identify that. I guess my concern is that in my "perfect world, ideal writing process, no grades" school, that would rarely or ever come up, so it's a solution looking for a problem.

      If one could purchase the digital portfolio piece of Turnitin without the rest, I'd be good :-).

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    2. How is that a "solution looking for a problem"? I think it is clear to everyone here that you are living in a fantasy "perfect world", but does that fantasy mean that you just plain do not believe that plagiarism exists? I have had discussions with people who believe that copyrights and intellectual property are ridiculous, and that freedom of information should remove these concepts, but is that what you are saying? As someone who clearly stated above "how would you feel if" someone took your intellectual property and used it for their gain without your permission, I would think that you would firmly believe in others' rights to their intellectual property. The problem is very real, and, as an English teacher myself, I come face-to-face with it every week.

      I think you need to be aware that, no matter how many sentimental movies there are about a teacher being able to emotionally "move" a class to great heights of intellectual and moral thinking, we are dealing with kids. They are not full cooked yet, if you will forgive the crude analogy. Many of them are still in the psychological phase of "the only reason why I DON'T do this is because I know there is a consequence." They act impulsively. They procrastinate and then panic at the deadline. Many of them really don't even know that what they are doing may be wrong. If we do not use the tools at out disposal to guide them, then we are not doing our jobs. They depend upon us to show them where the boundaries are and to enforce them. By having this tool in place, it simply removes that option (plagiarism) from the equation. When everyone knows where they stand, it makes for a much more pleasant and structured environment. When I was a college student, my university used Turnitin and I greatly appreciated how simple and effective it was and how my professors used it to give awesome feedback. I never felt in the least way victimized or accused or like I was not trusted.

      When it comes to your "presumption of innocence" spiel- does that mean that you think the police should not be patrolling dangerous areas that have a higher concentration of crime? They should just "presume" that there is nothing untoward going on until they actually get the call to say that something happened and they were not there to prevent it? This may be a bit of a harsh analogy, but then so are yours, such as the blatant use of the Constitution in an analogy above. I do presume that my students are innocent- even when they do pop up as having plagiarized. I see that as an opportunity to teach- not to condemn. As Heather just said, the stakes in high school are much lower than in college. There will be no "rainbows and puppies" education when they get to college and may end up facing expulsion for accidental plagiarism because their teacher in high school did not take the opportunity to teach them about it. You're not doing your students any favors.

      In other words- you're right. You don't have any credibility. Finish off your ice cream in la-la land and come rejoin us here on earth.

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    3. Thompson - Sorry, I don't know if that's a first name or a last name, so I'm not quite sure whether there should be a Mr., Ms. or Mrs. in front of it.

      I don't know if it's a harsh analogy, just a bad one. Our students aren't criminals and we shouldn't treat them as such.

      Any argument that begins with "because colleges . . ." isn't a good argument, for a variety of reasons including that 75% of our students will never graduate from college and that just because they are "colleges" doesn't mean they are doing the right thing.

      What kind of ice cream?

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  5. I find the arguments you offer to not use Turnitin are inappropriate or inconsistent.

    In Higher Ed, if not also in K-12, courses are contracts for hire. Students contract to be taught, and instructors contract to assess and report on how well the student has learned. A contract assures that both parties fulfill their requisite duties with framework of their roles as a worker (student) and a supervisor (instructor). The presumption of innocence (on either side) is supplemented by fair means to assure that all obligations under that contract are met properly (by both parties). In this contract, Turnitin is a test that is as valid as a policeman parked at a red light or school crossing zone. We may be innocent until proven guilty, but, under properly-defined frameworks, those responsible to enforce the laws (the instructors) are allowed to watch those who are to hold to them (the students) with an a prior presumption that someone will at some point do something to break them (purposely or otherwise).

    Even as we continue to allow the contract between a student and the instructor to run as a perfect democracy, Turnitin must still be a valid tool on equal with any other at hand for the situation. One could otherwise argue conclusively that an instructor is at fault (breaks the presumption of innocence principle) even to go to a search engine, visit the library, or hold two submissions side-by-side in his/her quest to assure that plagiarism has not occurred. In doing any of these tests to prove guilt, the instructor applies the tool based on an a prior assumption, not with an a posteriori proof. Otherwise, we have to grant that an instructor must be an all-knowing creature in the realm of God. So, as the case stands, we have no reliable method to confirm that plagiarism has occurred but to presume up front that it will and then use the best (fairest) tools available to check behind.

    The question of whether Turnitin may be breaking a law or laws is under scrutiny as you rightly note, especially by the reference document (thank you!). The issue is whether some level of copyright infringement is occurring. Plagiarism is but one aspect of a violation of copyright. When plagiarism would be the only aspect of copyright infringement, the case might be easier to resolve. The question of how we “feel” about something that _could be_ wrong does not enter in to relevance in scrutinizing violations of the current law. It enters in to discussions about how we change existing laws.

    Suppose that still we continue to allow the model of a perfect democracy to stand in course instruction. Under that model, any proclamation that we must not use Turnitin because it _potentially_ is doing something wrong (i.e. _may_ be breaking a law) is also inconsistent with the one principle that has been pulled out as the hallmark of a perfect democracy - presumption of innocence. Turnitin has not been proven guilty of breaking a law for the case at hand. Certainly this means therefore we must not proclaim that instructors must stop using Turnitin because its methods _do_ break some law.

    As to the fact that Turnitin charges for its services and makes a profit … Welcome to the free market! The irony is not lost, but again questions about “feelings” toward current lawful practices direct whether to change laws not whether to point fingers.

    In the end, Turnitin is probably the most efficient practical tool that we currently have to spot plagiarism. The use of it by a classroom instructor in that way cannot be held to violate any first principles of democracy. Holding to that line leads to gross inconsistencies or impossible presumptions. Turnitin is under review for whether it violates levels of copyright law in how it processes, stores, and administers its content, and the review is on-going. You do well to point out this issue. Because it is a fee-for-service tool operating at present within the laws of a free-market economy yet subject to ongoing scrutiny within those laws, any user should certainly take a well-reasoned approach of caveat emptor.

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    1. "One could otherwise argue conclusively that an instructor is at fault (breaks the presumption of innocence principle) even to go to a search engine, visit the library, or hold two submissions side-by-side in his/her quest to assure that plagiarism has not occurred."

      No, if an instructor has "probable cause" to do any of those things - a reason to suspect plagiarism and wants to verify it so that they can work with the student - then they are welcome to do those things. Without probable cause, it's an assumption of guilt.

      My argument was not at all about whether Turnitin may be breaking the law - the courts have sided with them. My argument is all about whether we are doing something wrong.

      I view my classroom as a place to help students learn. There is no "contract for hire" or "workers" or "supervisors" - there's just us. Learning.

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    2. Regardless of your views, when you are in a paid position, you have contract. A university contract requires you to provide assessments of the performance of students (grades), and it requires you to certify the integrity of their work. The students have a contract to do their own original work. That contract is often encapsulated in a written code of ethics or misconduct documented at the University level. You may even be required to tell your students explicitly about their obligations under this code (and if you are not required to do this or worse your university has no code of conduct for students, then shame on your university).

      When you neglect these important facts as you administer your courses, you FAIL to fulfill a serious part of your contract with the university. You also CHEAT your students out of their right to fulfill their duties with integrity. As an honest student in your course, I would feel sorely repressed by my classmates who trick the system to their benefit rather than put forward an honest effort. Your failure to bring integrity forward as an obligation would make the class a jungle with no laws rather than a structured environment for proper learning.

      With this in mind, an instructor who is paid by a university that requires students who take courses to adhere to a code of academic conduct has no need to justify that he or she will police EVERYONE in the class using a given tool ("insight", the Web, a trip to the Library, or Turnitin) for plagiarism. This is just as a cop with a radar gun has no reason to justify with probable cause why he will check the speed of EVERYONE who passes by him. Under contract, it is the job of the teacher in the class to be a policeman, and it should the understanding of the students to expect that they will be policed.

      So, in answer to your question … Yes, you ARE apparently doing something wrong. You are neglecting your obligations to the university by ignoring or refusing to admit that you and your students both have a contract to fulfill when you walk in to your classrooms. Your honorable ideologies aside, a classroom that is run solely a place just to “learn stuff" could just as well be done as a harmonic show in a subway station. Ask yourself how long you would expect payment from the university for that level of “teaching”.

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    3. What about your obligation to your students, Mr. Weimer? I would never allow my children to take a class, especially a college level class where the 'teacher' presumes they are guilty until proven otherwise. Please examine your motives as you continue doing your 'job'.

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    4. I have no automatic presumptions of guilt. I have an obligation in my job to police for mistakes and dishonesty. You confuse the two because they lead to the same action. The motivates in the former are distrust. The motivates in the latter are to enforce academic integrity.

      Just because I might run all submissions through Turnitin does not mean that I believe all students are dishonest. That type of thinking is a serious confusion that can never be proven even as principal.

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    5. Jeffrey - First of all, I am not employed by a University, I am employed by a public high school where students are compelled by law to attend to the age of 16, and effectively compelled by a lot of other reasons to attend until 18 or they graduate. If they chose to pay Turnitin a fee to submit their work to get feedback, then I would say that is a free market decision. This clearly is not.

      As far as "As an honest student in your course, I would feel sorely repressed by my classmates who trick the system to their benefit rather than put forward an honest effort. " - I'm a bit confused how you can be "repressed" by another student who "tricks" the system.

      I do feel like we have very, very, very different views of students, and education. While I'm not quite sure what a "harmonic show in a subway station" is, if learning is taking place, I wouldn't have a problem with it.

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    6. "I'm a bit confused how you can be "repressed" by another student who "tricks" the system."

      Repressed is the wrong word here. I would feel sorely cheated if I got a lower grade for working hard on an original submission while someone else who only copies the assignment GETS AWAY WITH IT and gets a higher grade.

      "I do feel like we have very, very, very different views of students, and education. While I'm not quite sure what a "harmonic show in a subway station" is, if learning is taking place, I wouldn't have a problem with it."

      There is a core difference between singing around the campfire to learn new songs (or standing around in a subway to learn some harmonic tune) and doing work to show one's aptitude, skill, or knowledge. I very much appreciate that learning can happen in both cases. The latter activity however demands an additional appreciation by both parties (teacher and students) that a contract is involved because the end result of the work will be evaluated for a performance score.

      I imagine that you have some merit criteria that you use to rank your students. Those criteria are what you contract to the students that you will apply to their work in a consistent and fair manner. I imagine that you try very hard to be clear about those criteria before and during your classes. I would hope that you appreciate that otherwise you are begin grossly unjust to your students when you would purposely hide your grading criteria and then “trick” their grades in your own subjective way. In the same way, your students contract to you to do submit their own work (i.e., not to cheat). In a university setting where a code of academic misconduct stands written, this is an explicit contract. I expect your high school should also have some code of honor that it tells the students somehow, even if not explicitly. Or, better said, I am certain that you do not tell students “Because this high school has no written code of ethical conduct about the work you are to submit, I cannot check anyone for cheating on their assignments”.

      So, what we differ about is not our view of learning. What we differ about is the level of appreciation for the contractual obligations that an educational institution puts on both the teachers and students who are in it. To paraphrase Abe Lincoln … As I would not tolerate cheating (academic misconduct) by students in my classrooms, so I would not seek to cheat them from the full justice of the grade they earn. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is a dishonest educational experience (regardless of the level of learning that goes on).

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    7. Thanks for clarifying the "repressed" comment. I can see where you would feel that way (as I would as well) but, in the end, does it change your learning?

      I guess I don't see the core difference between those two things. If the goal is to learn the tune, I'm not sure what difference it makes.

      Again, I would suggest there is a difference between "checking a student for cheating" when there is some reason to suspect it, and checking all students for cheating. And, no, I don't think I'm going to convince you :-).

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    8. "... in the end, does it change your learning"? Yes. I learn that I should just cheat in my work from now on. It is easier to do and I will get paid more. :-\

      It may or may not make a difference in how well one learns a tune. It certainly makes a difference when it comes to whether one is or is not evaluated as to whether the tune has been learned.

      Suppose that you absolutely hold to the purist mantra that all students have a perfect, preemptive presumption of innocence in the work they submit. Then just a belief in the potential that cheating has taken place cannot stand as a valid reason for you to check a student's work. The perfect presumption of innocence requires that any a priori belief must itself be taken as a false presumption to start. You must have a reason outside of your an a prior "belief" or suspicion. You must have an empirical piece of evidence first to check.

      OK, so you say that you "remember" Student B said something that looks exactly like what student A is saying. That is a valid reason to check, right? Well, OK. I might grant that. However ... warning! ... You have a piece of evidence already. You have what you remember from Student A's work.

      Now, you say that you also "remember" that Joan of Arc said something that looks exactly like what student C submitting. You just need to confirm by going to the library to check. I will grant this one too.

      Ooops. Now you say that you "remember" that your distant second cousin submitted something verbatim five years ago that may loook exactly like what student D is submitting. I'll give you some time to dig out the records and make the phone calls.

      Oh, but now here is Student E who has cleverly submitted verbatim a copy of the lost articles of Thomas the Dragon Slayer. Of course, how can you "remember" that prose since you never read it? It may look suspicious to you, but students always get a perfect presumption of innocence, suspicious "looking" things violate that mantra, and you have no evidence that you can "remember" to compare against Student E. Good job Student E! You get a perfect grade!

      All Turnitin is doing on a grand scale is holding each student's work against someone else's to help "remember" whether it is or is not original. What you do from this point is when the presumption of innocence applies.

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    9. The evidence I'm thinking of is that I know my student. I don't need to have read anything or research anything to know whether there might be a problem. And then I talk to them. (Or, preferably, I've been working with them all the time as they've been writing it . . . but I realize that may not be practical for everyone.)

      If this is as big a problem as some of the folks commenting are saying it is, then I would again suggest that we have a much bigger problem than plagiarism.

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    10. What you claim here to know is not an objective criteria. It is a subjective opinion. As an instructor, you are to put subjective opinion aside when you do your evaluations of work for their originality.

      Otherwise, I will have all full rights to claim bias in how you graded my work.

      "Mr. Fisch gave me a C on my assignment. That dog! Doesn't he _know_ me well enough to _know_ how hard I worked on it".

      It bites both ways.

      And yes, plagiarism can be a big problem.

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    11. So if it's a big problem, would you say it's a systemic problem? And if it's systemic, don't you think that perhaps the system is part of the problem?

      It's not a question of how hard they worked (although I do agree that is very important), it's a question of knowing my students. If I don't know my students - and their writing - well enough to judge whether it's their writing, then I think that's a problem. Does that mean that occasionally I could be fooled? Sure. Which means (for me) we're back to the presumption of innocence question. I'd rather some students "get away" with it then presume all are guilty.

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  6. I wrote a similar post, Karl, a couple of years ago: http://avenue4learning.com/2011/12/01/plagiarism-obsession/

    Academia has become a boring wasteland of papers that mean very little or nothing to the students involved. Don't get me wrong... I LOVE to research and publish important and meaningful work. In most of the required work of children (yes, they are still children) however, "important" and "meaningful" are missing.

    Yes, kids need to learn to write studies. Yes, kids need to learn to research. Yes, kids need to learn about ownership and proper attribution. (We're definitely not respecting THEIR work by using tools that collect their work with no consent from the child.) How can we teach this differently while also finding what excites them... what may become a life-long passion for them? When the work is meaningful, plagiarism isn't a problem.

    Thanks for writing this, Karl, and for being an advocate for kids. Always.

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    1. "(We're definitely not respecting THEIR work by using tools that collect their work with no consent from the child.) "

      When someone hands in work that requires originality and is to be assessed for its level of performance as such, that person automatically gives permission for it to be assessed as such by whatever legally acceptable tools we choose to use. The disrespect comes when we pretend otherwise, keep this notion hidden from the person involved, or do not tell the person what tools we will use. Then, we treat the person who submits the work worse than we might treat a child.

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  7. First, Turnitin protects the intellectual property of students by preventing other students from copying their work.

    RE: "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."

    That is simply not true. If we really want to hold to this principle, teachers would walk out of the classroom during tests, or allow tests to be completed at home. The very fact that teachers monitor assessments is a direct acknowledgement that not all students can be trusted. Turnitin is simply a logical extension of that monitoring.

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    1. So what is the problem with students completing tests at home?

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    2. Hmmm... For that matter, why do students need to complete tests at all? Wouldn't rich and authentic tasks for a real purpose and audience be equally valid (and probably more meaningful) assessments? Wouldn't this kind of assessment also eliminate the need for Turnitin? (at least the plagiarism detection part, and there are other and probably better answers to the feedback part).

      And yes, I know that testing (often high stakes and frequent) is a reality in many places, and not preparing students for that reality would be doing them a disservice. But in a perfect world...

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  8. My comp students use turnitin as a teaching tool. They have to submit their papers at least two times. The first time is their rough draft. They can view how closely they have "plagiarized" their sources and rewrite their sentences using better signal phrases or paraphrases. I also use this submission to attach "formatted" comments that I frequently use on papers as well as write original ones as needed. My students usually print these out so that they can go through and fix their cases of "plagiarism" as well as grammatical errors.

    The second time that they submit to turnitin is for their final paper. I will add that I teach a dual credit class (college/high school) and paper submission to turnitin is a requirement to pass the college class. However, some of the students also have submitted papers from other classes just to "make sure" that they are not using their sources too loosely.

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    1. Your approach is very well structured and nicely brings Turnitin forward as a tool to teach, not as an instrument of punishment.

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  9. Modern Everyman5/3/14, 7:30 PM

    I have various thoughts, but I'll just comment on a couple. I teach High School English, and I've done a bit of research on Turnitin. From what I've heard I'd like my department to purchase it because I suspect that there's more plagiarism going on than I have been able to prove. With the extremely heavy workload, a teacher really can only spend a few minutes trying to prove plagiarism, and those are only in cases when a teacher suspects blatant plagiarism. I might be paranoid about plagiarism, but from what I've read, my conversations with other teachers, and my own teaching experiences, plagiarism is on the rise. Many students just don't feel badly about plagiarizing...they'll try it and deal with the consequences IF they get caught. You more or less state that students plagiarize because the writing isn't important to them, and I agree that the writing often isn't important to them. On some of my high school and college assignments, the writing wasn't very important either. But I did it because it was the right thing to do, I had a respect for education, and I didn't want to disappoint my teachers and my parents. Why can't students do the same today? I agree with your point that teachers need to strive to make the writing important to the students, but we can't do it all. You're not going to be excited about all your school writing assignments, just like you're not going to be excited about A LOT of the requirements and tasks of life. Suck it up and do the right thing. In some ways, this article sounds like the comments I hear from my 17-year-old students..."This isn't interesting." Meet the teacher halfway and accept that much of life will not be interesting. On the other hand, I will say that education needs to change quickly and engage students better...we are poor at changing with the times, myself included. My final thoughts are on your point that Language Arts teachers don't write much. One of the reasons we might not write as much as we'd like is because we're teaching 10 months of the year and trying to give your child the best education possible. We're also grading papers, we're spouses, we're parents, we're sons and daughters. Personally I've done a bit of blogging, I wrote a poem a while back, I wrote half of a short story, I wrote some stand-up comedy bits, so I've written some pieces "longer than an email." I hear some condescension in that question..."when is the last time you wrote anything longer and more involved than an email?" Do you really know "us" that well to make that kind of assumption? And lastly...you ask why students plagiarize? I think they do it partly because it's hard work. Reading a book, deciding on a thesis, constructing an argument...it's all very hard work and a lot of students don't want to take the time to do it properly because "they're so busy." "So busy" meaning "I'd rather be on social media or doing what I want to do." People wonder why American students can't analyze and don't have critical thinking skills...it's because they don't do the kind of papers you criticize here. Granted you can analyze a novel without writing a research paper, but one of the reasons students can't make a lengthy argument is because they avoid the assignments that ask them to do exactly that.

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    1. I completely agree that "We're also grading papers, we're spouses, we're parents, we're sons and daughters" makes it difficult to find time to write. My question is, why doesn't that apply to our students as well?

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    2. Modern Everyman5/4/14, 12:40 PM

      I'm not sure what you mean.

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    3. It does apply to our students. They have to learn how to juggle their responsibilities as well, and that is why we do try to make sure our assessments are valid and authentic. What they want to do is take the easy way out to squeeze in a few more minutes of Twitter and Snapchat. I will not lower the bar for my students by simply ceasing to require difficult tasks- but I will help them learn how to manage their time and priorities appropriately as they will have to as adults.

      I also agree with you Everyman- the blatant condescension in this post is galling. The thinly veiled implication is that the reason why we don't all have time to type up a bunch of blogs is because we are somehow remiss in our duties as educators and educated people in general. Maybe it is because I am busy trying to rework some lesson plans that were not effective for my remedial students last week so that they can better grasp the material. On that note, I do not have time for this. Use it or don't use it- but try to climb off the high horse, and watch your step.

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    4. Modern Everyman - What I was trying to get at is that if you (we) feel like you don't have the time to write in your life, then how do we think that our students have the time? They go to school, have sports and activities, perhaps a job or volunteer work, church or other commitments, and then also 2-4 hours of homework (at typical suburban schools like mine at least).

      So if we, and specifically Language Arts teachers since that's what we're focusing on, don't have time in our busy lives to write, then perhaps we need to re-evaluate what we are asking our students to do.

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    5. Anonymous - Hey, can I call you Anonymous? It's kinda hard to take what you write seriously if you're not willing to attach your name to it.

      I apologize if it comes across as condescending, that was not the intent. It's a serious question. We seem to insist that writing is so important for our students (and their futures), yet apparently many of us never write. So if you know how to write well, but never write, does it matter?

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    6. Modern Everyman5/4/14, 5:43 PM

      You're right that many of us don't write a lot, but you need to think of writing as the vehicle to measure students' thinking. I cannot have a 15 minute conversation one-on-one with each student to check for understanding, competency, etc. so writing is the vehicle to measure their progress. I even consider speaking to be "writing" in some way. Let's say a student becomes a CEO of a company...say they got an MBA. That person has succeeded at the various levels of education (hopefully). The person can analyze, critique, persuade, research...all the things you need to be able to do to be successful in his/her position, and they've been able to show this through their writing. Of course they've done presentations, etc etc, but much of their thinking along the way was measured through their writing. Is every CEO a fantastic writer? Of course not. Could you be a poor reader and writer and be a fantastic CEO? Who knows...maybe. If your proposal is to eliminate or significantly decrease writing in schools, what are your ideas to replace it in terms of a vehicle to measure their thinking and progress?

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    7. No, as I stated in the post, I very much value writing. In fact, I think it's more important than ever. But I do question some of the writing we ask our students to do and when we ask them to do it. I value our students' time and think too many of us are too quick to dismiss the very real constraints on our students and how those constraints might contribute to the problem of plagiarism. So I wish we would spend as much time, effort and budget dollars on attempting to address those issues as we do on services like Turnitin. As I said somewhere else in this seemingly endless comment stream, I think we are focusing too much on the symptom and not enough on the cause.

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  10. I am joining this conversation a little late, but I still want to chime in. Of all the comments I have read, I identify closest to Tammy. I am a professor at a private university. We have Turnitin integrated into our LMS, and I use it for every writing assignment. I don't know how every other professor/instructor/teacher uses this tool, but I teach the students to use it to keep themselves honest. Yes, I have caught cheaters with Turnitin, but that is not my primary intention.

    The way the tool is set up, you can choose to let students see their similarity percentage when they submit the assignment then re-submit if a significant amount of their paper matches word for word other text sources. The first thing a lot of the students ask when I talk about Turnitin is how high of a similarity index I will accept. My response every time is that they are asking the wrong question. I am not concerned with the percentage as much as I am concerned with the nature of the similarities. I have seen papers with a similarity index below 25% (acceptable by Turnitin standards, with a green label), yet one or two paragraphs are copied verbatim from a paper a previous student submitted the previous semester. A quick Google search will reveal that these two people, the current and previous student, are in the same "campus organization denoted by Greek letters" and when I confront them they admit that what they did was wrong. In other instances I have seen papers with a similarity index of 50% or more, but when I look at the detailed report I find that every flagged match is properly cited. In this case, I still schedule a meeting with the student and explain that when a paper is 50% direct quotations, that means only 50% is the student's authentic intellectual work. Students who have done this are always surprised that they actually quoted this much, and I will have them revise the paper using their own paraphrase of the quotations and resubmit. I should also note that I take time in class to explain the difference between paraphrasing and quoting, and when each is appropriate. They know going in that quotes should be used judiciously.

    If a professor is just looking at the Turninin dashboard for each assignment and penalizing based on the similarity index alone, I perceive this to be a misuse of the tool. I actually open up the detailed report and look closely at the nature of the matches. I can determine if exact matches are properly cited quotes, copied and pasted with no attribution, or cribbed directly from a friend's paper. The similarity percentage is meant to be a guide, not a hard deck (Maverick, 1986) that can't be crossed.

    One final thought ... most of my students are first and second year students at the university, and the majority of them were in the top 15% of their high schools. I still have to model for them what it means to support assertions with evidence or to analyze a text, and most of them show great improvement in their writing by the end of the semester. Another aspect of learning to write is discerning the nuances of when and how to integrate outside sources into their own cognitive processes, and this takes a lot time, practice, and meaningful feedback from instructors. Turnitin is a human-mediated digital resource meant for the purpose of helping instructors provide feedback to students, not a digitally-mediated cyber-crime tool meant to catch cheaters.

    In the short time I have been using Turnitin, I have read over 500 student papers and caught 6 cheaters, two of whom were sidekicks who gave their paper to a friend and did not actually submit a plagiarized paper. I have, however, seen many instances of students submitting a paper, seeing their similarity percentage, and resubmitting the paper. There is no penalty for resubmitting before the due date, and I am always proud of these students for showing some self-regulation and commitment to their own intellectual work. For this reason, I will continue to use Turnitin so students can receive this valuable feedback on their writing.

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    1. I definitely appreciate the way that you and Tammy are using Turnitin (and the Top Gun reference) and, if one were to use Turnitin, I would hope this is how it would be used (in addition to liberal use of the feedback tools that are apparently pretty good).

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  11. This article is so misguided. But the author warned us in the opening paragraphs. First, TII allows you to choose NOT to add student papers to the database as a "per assignment" setting. This is especially useful for draft submissions so that the final papers won't get flagged as duplicates of existing text. Opt out of the database, and your students' work IP is never in question.

    Second, TII calls them "originality reports" instread of "plagiarism checks" for a reason. Most teachers find it more useful that -- in this world of mass information -- TII indicates possible primary sources. So while you student got the text from website x, it may have actually been from website y as the orig source. TII also helps teachers know if the source material was cited properly, but that is a side benefit.

    Not adopting TII for assumptions of guilt or IP is just silly.

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    1. I think we're going to have to disagree on this. Assuming that you ever submit student papers to the database, then it's an issue. I'm curious as to what Turnitin's terms of service are regarding that, since if everyone chose not to submit to the database, then they have no database to check against (and no business model).

      I'm not sure why the assumption of guilt is just "silly." Our students deserve respect.

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    2. Karl, thanks for your reply. And thanks for what has turned out to be a very polarizing discussion on the topic. It's been interesting to read from the wide spectrum of comments.

      By 'silly' I was referring to 'not using' the tool rather than 'student respect.' I think that you and I both agree and disagree. I suspect that neither one of us would stop sweeping our floor because our broom was broken. We would either fix it or get a new one. Where we disagree is that I think you see TII itself as a broken tool (and therefore should not be used), whereas I see your description of its use as in need or repair.

      I'd be interested to see if, after a year or so of your school using it, your position changes at all. Maybe other teachers exploring the tool will yield some positive (albeit potentially controversial) results.

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  12. What I would say in summary ...

    When a student turns in something for evaluation at a university, he or she does so under contract (implicit or explicit) to submit original work. Turnitin is a tool to check for failure of the student to comply with that part of their educational contract.

    The presumption of innocence on the part of the student applies at the point when the teacher begins his or her evaluation of the results from Turnitin, not before.

    I have learned an interesting lesson here from those who use Turnitin to teach students about plagiarism before they apply the results as absolute verdicts. Thank you.

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    1. Well I'm glad this post was good for something . . . :-)

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  13. I've used Turnitin and I think there's something missing from this discussion. Which is that Turnitin is about automating part of the process that doesn't go away should you choose not to use it. Whether I used Turnitin or not, I would still need to evaluate the paper for plagiarism. Without T, that means sampling phrases and searching online. With T, I can take the time that I use checking for plagiarism and spend it writing more useful feedback that can help my students. Is my institution paying to automate part of the evaluation process? Yes. But they're also doing that with Blackboard for the purposes of grade calculation, which is also a for profit company. And before that, the company that produced those fancy grade books my teachers used in elementary school was also a for profit company.

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  14. On the history of "The Paper:" I am reminded of Ken Robinson's TED Talk, where he talks about academic inflation, and how schools used to be (or still are) places where the goal was to create "University Professors." Why else would they have students write all these "papers?" Because academia is the only place where "papers" are really the norm.

    Most students, I would venture to say, are not working to become professors, but I'm sure would enjoy the chance to write a fan-fiction novel or original screenplay. Or write a business pitch for a new product they'd like to see developed. No- to do that- you have to have a separate class called "Creative Writing," which demotes any other writing class to non-creative.

    The more authentic our writing- the less we'd need to check if our students are cheating.

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