Using Pros and Cons

I recently had an interesting and productive discussion on Twitter with some of my colleagues about the use of, and since I’ve been a user for about ten years now, the discussion prompted me to think again about my use of this educational technology and to make explicit, at least to myself, my reasons for using it.

I also think this discussion is important to higher education in general in that is one of many vendors associated with the higher education industry, and it’s a significant one. As of the time of this writing, it boasts being used by 15,000 educational institutions and thirty million students on the front page of its website., like many other vendors, provides products or services designed to support higher education in a number of ways (not all are directly related to instruction), and they all work on a for-profit model.

Since higher education is for the most part non-profit, sometimes these partnerships can be uneasy, sometimes exploitative, sometimes at cross-purposes for student service, but also sometimes beneficial to varying degrees. Some vendors provide excellent products. So if a university chooses to use a vendor to serve its students in any way, it needs to pay close attention to its own reasons for doing so, to the quality of that service, and to how much reliance on this vendor actually benefits students and instructors.

First, a bit of discussion about how works. is a web-based “student paper processing service” that runs externally to a college or university website. Colleges or universities who use this service have to contact the service to receive a customized quote, so there aren’t any solid figures on how much the service costs. Financial Times, however, estimated in 2012 that it costs about $2.00 per student per year. Other articles have since indicated significant price increases over the last couple of years, so let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that the service now typically costs $4.00 per student per year. I do not know how much it costs my own institution, and I suspect institutions sign non-disclosure agreements about their specific costs, so if I did know its actual cost I probably would not be allowed to report it. can now be integrated with learning management systems (LMS) such as Moodle so that it will appear to be fully integrated into the online component of any student’s course. Despite that appearance, however, it’s still an off-site service. When it is fully integrated into an LMS, students just click on a link and upload their papers. When it is used off-site, instructors have to log in to the service, create a course, create a course-specific password, and then either share that password with their students or upload a list of student email addresses to enroll students in their specific course.

What happens once a student’s paper is uploaded? The instructor can use the service for a number of purposes:

  1. Plagiarism detection. was originally created for this purpose. When a student’s paper is uploaded to the website, the student’s paper is saved in a repository with other student papers and compared to all other student papers in that repository. It is also compared to journals, periodicals, publications, and to readily accessible material on the internet.
    1. What does it do when it makes this comparison? It generates an “Originality Report” score in the form of a percentage of material on the student’s paper that matches other sources. Matching text is highlighted in different colors by source. Links back to the original sources are also provided.
    2. What it does not do: tell instructors if the student plagiarized. Remember, we are allowed to quote other people’s works. How we signal those quotations determines whether or not we’re plagiarizing, so a match by itself is not plagiarism. Determinations about plagiarism are always made by the instructor, not the service
    3. Is plagiarism checking optional? Yes. It’s possible to use the service and opt out of storing student papers, and to opt out of checking them against any specific type of source (such as the repository of student papers, the internet, and publications).
    4. Instructors can also ask the service to ignore small matches, such as three words or fewer, and they can set the number. I always ask it to do this.
    5. Instructors can also ask the service to ignore the paper’s bibliography, which will always come up with matches when a bunch of students are writing about the same material from the same texts. I set this up too.

      How does this part of the service work? Spotty, but not bad overall. There are problems with false or irrelevant matches fairly regularly. These can be caused by the use of block quotes, as the service seems to look for quotation marks to exclude matches, by the use of long titles (more than three words), and sometimes even by the student’s own header information. If a student puts an incorrect space between a quotation mark and quoted material, the quotation might be read as a match. Overall, it’s very important that the instructor not just read the originality report score, but actually read the student paper before making a determination about plagiarism.

      It also provides the unexpected benefit of telling instructors how much of the student’s paper is quoted, which can be useful pedagogically as well.

  2. Providing feedback on student papers. This is the reason why I use the service, which can perform the following tasks. Take note, though, that some of these services are only available through the external website, not the LMS embedded version:
    1. Allow instructors to provide voice comments.
    2. Allow instructors to provide their own custom comments on the student paper in the form of little bubbles. Students mouse over the bubbles to see instructor comments.
    3. Allow instructors to pre-set paper comments and drag and drop them onto the student’s paper. The service comes with three or four dozen preset comments, and instructors can create their own as well.
    4. Allow instructors to set up any number of rubrics and score and grade the paper using this rubric.
    5. Link instructor comments to rubric measures. When you do this, the rubric will show the number of instructor comments linked to each rubric point.
    6. Allow instructors to provide long text feedback.
    7. Allow instructors to set up peer review assignments — students submitting a peer reviewed assignment will have their paper emailed to two peers, have two of their peers’ papers emailed to them, and they will be able to leave comments on their peers’ papers just like their instructor.
    8. Keep the student grade book.
    9. Keep a course blog.
    10. Allow access for teaching assistants to grade papers.
    11. Built-in grammar checker. Every time I’ve used it, it sucked, but it’s still there.
    12. Download feedback and originality reports in the form of .pdf files.
  3. What are the drawbacks to this service? Here’s where we get into the details of my Twitter discussion. Some of these points have also been raised in other discussions of around the web.
    1. The service creates the impression that students aren’t to be trusted.
      1. This concern is legitimate, but I think it varies by institution. I have seen places where high premiums were placed on student course evaluations, and as a result many instructors got into the habit of looking the other way at plagiarism. These very dysfunctional institutions worked on an implicit agreement between students and teachers in which teachers looked the other way at cheating and students gave these teachers stellar course evaluations in return (a situation which by itself justifies the tenure system, as this institution did not have tenure). Some students at this institution plagiarized on every paper and then just rewrote it when they got caught — which means that since they were only made to do the work initially assigned, they always came out “ahead” by plagiarizing in the sense of getting a grade for a course without doing any real work. This is an environment devoted to breeding criminals, and its students are stealing from themselves with the institution’s help.
      2. But what about better institutions? Even there, some students will plagiarize, but I think instructor dialog with students about the service is very important. I really do use it primarily for grading. I’m teaching a 5000/400 level English course right now in which I can honestly say I have no fear of a single student plagiarizing: I trust each one, personally, that much. But I still use the service because of all of its feedback functions, and I tried to let my students know that. I prefer it to Google docs or directly emailed Word files.
    2. The service makes instructors grade to the comments. This concern is about instructors only looking for items defined by pre-written comments rather than truly providing individualized feedback based on student need. I think this concern is 100% legitimate, and anyone who chooses to use the service needs to watch out for letting the service take over his or her feedback on student papers. Now that I’ve had this idea planted, I’m going to watch myself grade.
    3. The service exploits students. The argument here is that the service has value only because students are contributing papers to it, and then the service charges students to use it (through their institutions, of course — once the institution pays for a subscription, instructors and students use it for no additional charge).
      1. Defining “exploitation” as uncompensated or under-compensated labor, I think this argument doesn’t quite work for the following reasons:
        1. Student papers typically have no economic value apart from the service except to be sold to other students (so a dishonest one). The service itself therefore creates the economic value of student papers for the service, so it’s hard to say that students are being ripped off.
        2. If a student’s paper does have monetary value (e.g., can be sold for payment by the student for publication), the service does not prevent students from realizing that value. doesn’t own student work. Publish away. Get rich.
        3. The service provides value to student users in the form of a permanent, informal copyright on their work: once a student uploads a paper to the service from a account linked to their own email address, the student’s work is protected as their own. I uploaded my dissertation to for this very reason.
        4. Uploading student papers to’s repository is optional, as is plagiarism detection, therefore there’s no necessary link between using the service and uploading a student’s paper to the repository.
        5. The service provides many useful tools apart from plagiarism detection.
        6. The service provides a service in exchange for pay, so it isn’t exploiting students. If we reject this argument, we also have to affirm that teachers are exploiting students by taking a salary for their work. Since everyone deserves to be paid for their work, this service is non-exploitative.
        7. The service only costs students a very small amount: maybe $2.00 to $4.00 a year. If we’re really worried about student exploitation, maybe we should look at sports programs instead.
        8. Students don’t have a choice about use of the service. Yeah…so? They don’t have a choice about writing papers, getting graded, showing up for class, etc. What matters is whether or not these required activities benefit the student. What matters most of all is explaining to students the benefits of required activities. All of them

That’s my overview of the service. I intend to keep using it for many of the reasons described above. But I want to emphasize — we should use it deliberately, carefully, and consciously. It is not perfect. The bottom line is that is just a computer system, and computer systems don’t know how to read. They don’t understand meaning or context. Only instructors can do that. As a result, it’s a supplement to an instructor’s work and care with student papers, not a replacement for instructor care and attention.

Any comments? I’d love to hear from you.

Reporting this Week on Electric Cars

Here’s the problem with reporting on electric cars: According to the infographic below, there are about 6 million car accidents in the US every year, while 3 million people die in car accidents every year, but if one thing goes wrong with one electric car, it’s national news.

Tesla started collecting data on its users’ driving habits in October of 2014 and in November of 2015 activated its first Autopilot feature on these cars. Tesla has now released its first truly self-driving car. These cars have logged millions of miles of driving time since their release, and the first accident caused by autopilot just occurred April 29th when a Model S started itself up and drove under a trailer. One recent headline introduced the story this way: “Tesla’s first self-driving accident just happened: it’s time to start a serious discussion.”

So, 3 million people die in about 6 million regular car accidents every year, and no one questions that, but when Tesla’s product has one crash, we need to have a serious discussion. Similarly, there are about 152,000 car fires every year resulting in about 200 deaths and tens of millions of dollars of property damage (and never mind that these occur in cars carrying around its own thermal bomb in the form of a gas tank), but the handful of car fires caused by the lithium-ion batteries in electric cars — including about three Tesla cars (three total) — cause some people to question the use of electric cars and lead to demands for a federal investigation.

Tesla and other EV car makers do of course have an obligation to make their products as safe and as mistake-free as possible, even dummy-proof, but reporting on isolated or minimal safety incidents related to electric cars seems to lack a reasonable sense of proportion. Just look at the infographic below. That is what we’re willing to live with every year. We should be questioning that first.


Creation Anxiety in the Early Twentieth Century

Matt Novak’s “A Robot Has Shot Its Master: the 1930s hysteria about machines taking jobs and killing people” is an engaging Slate article from 2011 that attempts to explain the fears of robots, robotics, and mechanization in depression-era Europe and the United States. It exactly covers the topic of my book, Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (2010 hardcover, 2011 paperback), which asks the question, “Why do we fear what we create?” I locate the origin of this questioning in English literature in William Blake’s The [First] Book of Urizen (1795), an important predecessor to the godmother of all such literature, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818, 1831). What’s particularly interesting is that Novak’s article cites Frankenstein as a common reference point for the expression of these fears, though probably by way of James Whale’s 1931 film version of Frankenstein, which is probably a more immediate reference point for most people than Shelley’s novel. I’d especially like to encourage you to visit Novak’s article for the 1930s art and advertisements relating to fears of the robotic that are featured in a slideshow on that page. The featured image for this page is a sample of the slideshow, which could be an ad for a 1930s version of any one of the Terminator films. The work that needs to be done now is an exploration of the differences in eighteenth/nineteenth century creation anxiety and the creation anxiety of the early twentieth century, a difference I seek to explore and historicize in a future monograph.

Classic Books on Zoetic Press

Zoetic Press is a relatively new publishing company that produces interactive e-books using an app called “Lithomobilus.” It is at present only available only on iOS, but an Android version is coming soon. Their projects involve publishing ebooks that feature classic, public-domain novels alongside contemporary responses to them, and they have a literary magazine featuring books reviews as well. The table of contents for each work is a straight line down the middle of the screen displaying novel chapters to the left and contemporary responses to the right, chapter by chapter.

At present they have editions of Frankenstein, Alice in Wonderland, The Strangely-Brown Episode, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Wizard of Oz, Bulfinch’s Mythology, and The King in Yellow, plus one “Unbound” edition that is organized around an initial submission by a current writer followed up by response works. More are in the works.