Using Turnitin.com: Pros and Cons

I recently had an interesting and productive discussion on Twitter with some of my colleagues about the use of turnitin.com, and since I’ve been a turnitin.com 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 turnitin.com 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. Turnitin.com, 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 turnitin.com works. Turnitin.com 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.

Turnitin.com 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. Turnitin.com was originally created for this purpose. When a student’s paper is uploaded to the turnitin.com 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 turnitin.com 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. Turnitin.com 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 turnitin.com account linked to their own email address, the student’s work is protected as their own. I uploaded my dissertation to turnitin.com for this very reason.
        4. Uploading student papers to turnitin.com’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 turnitin.com 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.

LJN Radio Interview — Technically Speaking: Utilizing Technology in Education

I’m happy to announce that my second interview with LJN Radio, “Technically Speaking: Utilizing Technology in Education” is now available on the LJN Radio website.

From the website:

Various uses of technology can be invaluable when it comes to educational success and improved learning. At the same time, people need to be cautious in seeing all forms of technology as an easy fix to how people are taught. Jim Rovira, associate professor of English at Tiffin University, explains to Tim Muma how important it is to ensure students are matched with the appropriate use of technology. Whether it’s taking online classes or utilizing in-class technology for lessons and assessment, it’s imperative educators understand that each student has different needs and will succeed or fail based on the fit of the technology they use.

On Technically Speaking, we explore the latest social media applications for the modern day workplace. Together we’ll discover the hottest technology jobs on the market and keep up with the latest high-tech trends.

Duration: 18 Minutes

Why You Should Take Notes By Hand

Students From A Technical University Sitting In A Lecture Hall

UPDATES 9-7-2014: First, I’m proud to say that in just three days this post now has the top number of hits on my entire blog. It’s hardly viral, but it’s certainly been popular. My top four posts are all about higher ed followed by my post about Frozen. Next, I’m happy to say I’ve had some great and productive conversations about this topic on LinkedIn. I’ve added some insights from that conversation at the end of the post.

*****

Why you should take notes by hand, or, how technology is working against your learning.

Here’s what happens according to a couple of well-designed studies:

1. Because of the way that human beings interact with laptops, studies indicated that students who take notes on laptops don’t learn nearly as much as those who write out their notes on notepads.

2. This learning differential doesn’t exist only because students are distracted on their laptops by other things. It’s actually the use of the laptop itself. What happens is that students taking notes on a laptop attempt to capture everything that’s being said, so that they’re acting more like passive recipients of information — like stenographers — than actually thinking about what’s being said.

On the other hand, students who take notes by hand have to think about what they’re writing down, because they can’t possibly capture everything. That means they’re more cognitively engaged with the lecture material than the laptop note taker. Even a week later, students who take notes by hand score higher on tests for both conceptual and factual content than laptop note takers.

3. But students ARE ALSO distracted by other things on their laptops: according to other studies, 40% of the time students are looking at non-course related material while in class if they’re using a laptop in class. Facebook, email, chats, etc.

The results:

1. Because students aren’t learning as much, they complain about the quality of their education (yes, a result noted in the study as well).

2. Administrators who have never taught a day in their lives or hardly at all listen to student complaints and pontificate about outmoded instructional methods (when they’ve never tried any of them and don’t know what it’s like to be a teacher in a classroom watching students as you teach).

3. To appear innovative, they then spend a lot of money on educational technology that puts learning onto a screen.

4. They have to spend millions of dollars on this stuff, and on their own bonuses, so they have to adjunctify the faculty pool. Adjuncts are not only cheaper, but they’re easier to control.

5. You have your current higher educational system that everyone says is “broken” because of “outmoded instructional methods” but that no one thought was “broken” until relatively recently (say the last ten to fifteen years).

The real fix: shut off the laptop and take notes on paper. Just read the reporting about the study linked above, and then read the study. Click the image above and see for yourself.

Some great points made during a LinkedIn discussion:

  • Handwriting on a tablet may well be a good middle way between typing on a computer and handwriting notes on a pad and paper, if you can get a good app for that. I haven’t had any luck. I get the impression others have. I use an iPad Air.
  • There is neuroscience supporting the idea that your brain processes things differently when handwriting rather than typing, so this may be a matter of how our brains and bodies work together as well. In fact, different areas of the brain are activated with printing out by hand compared to writing in cursive, so even different types of handwriting matter.
  • The study is just about one specific activity — note taking — so of course wouldn’t necessarily apply to group work and other tasks that require more engagement than passive recording of notes on a keyboard.