Considering the Use of Turnitin

Earlier this week an article from Inside Higher Ed (IHE) caught my eye. Sign with hand and text reading prevent plagiarism. In New Salvo Against Turnitin (June 19, 2017) Nick Roll summarizes an essay by Sean Michael Morris, Instructional Designer in the Office of Digital Learning at Middlebury College, and Jesse Stommel, Executive Director, Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington. The essay authors argue that faculty should rethink the use of Turnitin, questioning not only “…the control and use of people’s data by corporations…” but “…Turnitin’s entire business model, as well as the effects on academia brought on by its widespread popularity.” Morris and Stommel further contend that those using Turnitin “supplant good teaching with the use of inferior technology” reducing the student-instructor relationship to one where suspicion and mistrust are at the forefront. [Turnitin is a software application used to detect plagiarism, and Morris and Stommel are not the first to decry the company’s business model and practices.]

Although the IHE article provides a fair summary, as well as additional comments by Morris and Stommel, it is worth reading the 3,928 word essay—A Guide for Resisting Edtech: The Case Against Turnitin (Digital Pedagogy Lab, June 15, 2017)—to appreciate the complex argument. I agree with some of the concerns the authors address and feel we should be doing more individually and collectively to school ourselves and our students in the critical evaluation of digital tools, but disagree with what I feel are over-simplifications and unfair assumptions. Morris and Stommel cast faculty who use Turnitin as “surrendering efficiency over complication” by not taking the time and effort to use plagiarism as a teachable moment. Further, they state that Turnitin takes advantage of faculty who are characterized as being, at the core, mistrustful of students.

The assumption that faculty using Turnitin are not actively engaging in conversations around and instruction of ethical behavior, including plagiarism, and are not using other tools and resources in these activities is simply not correct. The assertion that faculty using Turnitin are suspicious teachers who are embracing an easy out via an efficient educational technology is also not accurate.

The reality is that some students will plagiarize, intentionally or not, and the Internet, social media practices, and cultural differences have rendered complicated students’ understanding of intellectual property. I believe that many of our institutions of higher learning, and faculty and library staff therein, make concerted efforts to teach students about academic integrity. This includes the meaning and value of intellectual property, as well as finer points of what constitutes plagiarism and strategies to avoid it.

I believe it is relevant to note that Middlebury College’s website boasts a mean class size of 16, while the University of Mary Washington lists an average class size of 19. Student-faculty ratios are 8 to1 and 14 to 1 respectively.  I cannot help but feel that Morris and Stommel are speaking from a point of privilege working in these two institutions. Instructors who teach at large, underfunded, state universities with classes of hundreds of students, relying on a corps of teaching assistants to grade their essays, are in a different boat.

The authors state: “So, if you’re not worried about paying Turnitin to traffic your students’ intellectual property, and you’re not worried about how the company has glossed a complicated pedagogical issue to offer a simple solution, you might worry about how Turnitin reinforces the divide between teachers and students, short-circuiting the human tools we have to cross that divide.” In fact, we may all be worried about Turnitin’s business model and be seeking a better solution. Yet in this essay nothing more concrete is given us on those human tools and how faculty in less privileged circumstances can realistically and effectively make use of them.

The Innovative Instructor has in the past posted on Teaching Your Students to Avoid Plagiarism (November 5, 2012, Macie Hall), and using Turnitin as a teaching tool: Plagiarism Detection: Moving from “Gotcha” to Teachable Moment (October 9, 2013, Brian Cole and Macie Hall). This articles may be helpful for faculty struggling with the issues at hand.

Yes, we should all be critical thinkers about the pedagogical tools we use; in the real world, sometimes we face hard choices and must fall back on less than ideal solutions.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Microsoft Clip Art edited by Macie Hall