A Guide for Resisting Edtech: the Case Against Turnitin

Students often find themselves uploading their content — their creative work — into the learning management system. Perhaps they retain a copy of the file on their computer; but with learning analytics and plagiarism detection software, they still often find themselves having their data scanned and monetized, often without their knowledge or consent.

~ Audrey Watters, “Education Technology’s Completely Over”

A funny thing happened on the way to academic integrity. Plagiarism detection software (PDS), like Turnitin, has seized control of student intellectual property. While students who use Turnitin are discouraged from copying other work, the company itself can strip mine and sell student work for profit.

For this bait-and-switch to succeed, Turnitin relies upon the uncritical adoption of their platform by universities, colleges, community colleges, and K12 schools. All institutions that, in theory, have critical thinking as a core value in their educational missions. And yet they are complicit in the abuse of students by corporations like Turnitin.

The internet is increasingly a privately-owned public space. On April 3, 2017, Donald Trump signed into law a bill overturning Obama-era protections for internet users. The new law permits Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to access, without permission, data about our internet use patterns — from the sites we visit to the search terms we use. And this data isn’t restricted to the work we do on computers. Thanks to the “internet of things,” all our various connections can be monitored by our ISPs — from our physical location to the temperature we keep our homes to the music we ask Alexa to play for us. (In fact, Alexa processes all of our speech when it is on, even when we are not addressing it.)

Every day, we participate in a digital culture owned and operated by others — designers, engineers, technologists, CEOs — who have come to understand how easily they can harvest our intellectual property, data, and the minute details of our lives. To resist this (or even to more consciously participate in it), we need skills that allow us to “read” our world (in the Freirean sense) and to act with agency.

Critical Digital Literacies

Tim Amidon writes in “(dis)Owning Tech: Ensuring Value and Agency at the Moment of Interface”,

Educational technologies, as interfaces, offer students and educators opportunities to discover and enact agency through strategic rhetorical action. Yet, realizing this agency is complex work … [that] requires an increasingly sophisticated array of multiliteracies.

Developing these critical multiliteracies is vital if we want scholars and students — and all the digital citizenry — to retain ownership over their intellectual property, their data, their privacy, their ideas, their voices. Even tools we love — that have potential to do good work in the world — need careful scrutiny. It is, in fact, part of our care for those tools and students who use them that demands we approach educational technology critically. There is no good use in tool fidelity. For example, uncritical belief in the superiority of the Mac OS over Windows or Linux may lead us to overlook how single-platform solutions exclude those without access to them. Tools (and software) are not something we should ever be “loyal” to. Even when a company’s ideology is sound, the execution of that ideology through the platform may be flawed. For this reason, it’s important to understand how to look deeply at any digital tool.

This isn’t, as Howard Rheingold writes in Net Smart, “rocket science. It’s not even algebra. Becoming acquainted with the fundamentals of Web credibility testing is easier than learning the multiplication tables. The hard part, as always, is the exercise of flabby think-for-yourself muscles.” There is no special magic to digital literacies, whether we’re assessing information or which word processing tool to use — and no pre-defined set of “transferrable skills” that can only be drawn upon by “experts” in the field. Rather, the work involves a shift in orientation and acknowledgement that the Web works upon its objects and people in specific and nuanced ways.

At the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institutes where we’ve taught, there’s one exercise in particular we return to again and again. In our “crap detection” exercise (named for Rheingold’s use of the term), participants use a rubric to assess one of a number of digital tools. The tools are pitted, head to head, in a sort of edtech celebrity deathmatch. Participants compare Blackboard and Canvas, for instance, or WordPress and Medium, Twitter and Facebook, Genius and Hypothes.is.

We start by seeing what the tools say they do and comparing that to what they actually do. But the work asks educators to do more than simply look at the platform’s own web site, which more often than not says only the very best things (and sometimes directly misleading things) about the company and its tool. We encourage participants to do research — to find forums, articles, and blog posts written about the platform, to read the tool’s terms of service, and even to tweet questions directly to the company’s CEO.

This last has led to some interesting discussions on Twitter. One CEO, for example, wondered defensively what his own politics had to do with his tool. Others have been incredibly receptive to the conversations this activity has generated. We would contend that this is the exact kind of work we should do when choosing what tools to use with students. (Jesse has also done the activity with a group of digital studies students at University of Mary Washington.) Educators should be looking under the hood of edtech tools and talking more directly with technologists. Meanwhile, edtech CEOs should be encouraged (and sometimes compelled) to better understand what happens in our classrooms. Otherwise, we end up with tools — like ProctorU and Turnitin — that not only try to anticipate (or invent) the needs of teachers, but ultimately do damage by working directly at odds with our pedagogies.

Slide of the Critically Evaluating Digital Tools assignment; text (copied below in article) on rainbow-striped background

The goal of the exercise is not to “take down” or malign any specific digital tools or edtech companies, but rather for participants to think in ways they haven’t about the tools they already use or might consider asking students to use.

Here’s the rubric for the exercise:

  1. Who owns the tool? What is the name of the company, the CEO? What are their politics? What does the tool say it does? What does it actually do?
  2. What data are we required to provide in order to use the tool (login, e-mail, birthdate, etc.)? What flexibility do we have to be anonymous, or to protect our data? Where is data housed; who owns the data? What are the implications for in-class use? Will others be able to use/copy/own our work there?
  3. How does this tool act or not act as a mediator for our pedagogies? Does the tool attempt to dictate our pedagogies? How is its design pedagogical? Or exactly not pedagogical? Does the tool offer a way that “learning can most deeply and intimately begin”?

Over time, the exercise has evolved as the educators we’ve worked with have developed further questions through their research. Accessibility, for example, has always been an implicit component of the activity, which we’ve now brought more distinctly to the fore, adding these questions: How accessible is the tool? For a blind student? For a hearing-impaired student? For a student with a learning disability? For introverts? For extroverts? Etc. What statements does the company make about accessibility?

Ultimately, this is a critical thinking exercise aimed at asking critical questions, empowering critical relationships, encouraging new digital literacies.

In “Critical Pedagogy and Design,” Sean describes these kinds of literacies as a vital component of teaching and learning in digital spaces:

What lies at the heart of these literacies also forms the primary concern of critical digital pedagogy: that is, agency. The agency to know, understand, and thereby be able to act upon, create, or resist one’s reality. For the student, this can mean anything from knowing how and why to read terms of service for a digital product or platform; recognizing the availability of networks and community in digital spaces, even in the LMS; understanding the multitude of ways that digital identity can be built, compromised, and protected; discovering methods for establishing presence and voice, and the wherewithal to reach out to others who are trying to discover the same.

This is ethical, activist work. While not exactly the Luddism of the 19th Century, we must ask ourselves when we’re choosing edtech tools who profits and from what? Audrey Watters reminds us that, for the Luddites, “It was never about the loom per se. It’s always about who owns the machines; it’s about who benefits from one’s labor, from one’s craft.” Because so much of educational technology runs on the labor of students and teachers, profiting off the work they do in the course of a day, quarter, or semester, it’s imperative that we understand deeply our relationship to that technology — and more importantly the relationship, or “arranged marriage,” we are brokering for students.

Because what’s especially problematic in all of this is that instructors compel students to comply with the terms of these software and tools. And administrators or institutions compel faculty to compel students to comply. Meanwhile, everyone involved is being sold a “product,” some of which, like Turnitin, are designed to eat our intellectual property and spit out control and hierarchy on the other end. When adopting new platforms, we shouldn’t invest in or cede control to for-profit companies more interested in profit than education. And, when our institutions (or teachers) make unethical choices, we must (if we are able) find ways to say “no.”

In “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville writes, “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.” We must become conscious of, as Jesse observes in “I Would Prefer Not To,”

the ways we respond (both actively and passively) in the face of institutional demands we find unethical or pedagogically harmful … And if we object to the increasing standardization of education, how and where do we build sites of resistance? What strategies can we employ to protect ourselves and students? What work-arounds can we employ as we build courage and community for revolt? What systems of privilege must we first dismantle?

Critical analysis is resistance. Questions are our sabots.

Turnitin: Academic Integrity at $2 per Student

Some platforms are not agnostic. Not all tools can be hacked to good use. Critical Digital Pedagogy demands we approach our tools and technologies always with one eyebrow raised. Some tools have good intentions squandered at the level of interface. Some tools have no good intentions at all. And when tools like these are adopted across an institution, the risks in mounting a resistance can be incredibly high, especially for contingent staff, students, and untenured faculty.

Turnitin isn’t selling teachers and administrators a product. The marketing on their website frames the Turnitin brand less as software and more as a pedagogical lifestyle brand. In fact, the word “plagiarism” is used only twice on their home page, in spite of the fact that the tool is first and foremost a plagiarism detection service. The rest of the copy and images are smoke and mirrors. They are “your partner in education with integrity.” They are “trusted by 15,000 institutions and 30 million students.” (We feel certain they didn’t ask those 30 million students whether they “trust” Turnitin.) The “products” most prominently featured are their “revision assistant” and “feedback studio.” For the teachers and administrators using Turnitin as a plagiarism detector, these features function like carbon offsetting. When asked whether their institution uses Turnitin, they can point to all the other things Turnitin can be used for — all the other things that Turnitin is not really used for. The site even attempts to hide its core functionality behind a smokescreen; in the description for the “feedback studio,” plagiarism detection is called “similarity checking.”

Screenshot of Turnitin main page as of June 2017; relevant content discussed in article text

As we wrote above, thinking critically about digital tools means weighing what the tools say they do against what they actually do. In the case of Turnitin there are some marked discrepancies. For example, at the top of Turnitin’s Privacy page (which they grossly call their “Privacy Center”), a note from the CEO declares, “Integrity is at the heart of all we do; it defines us.” Then later, Turnitin declares that it “does not ever assert or claim copyright ownership of any works submitted to or through our service. Your property is YOUR property. We do not, and will not, use your intellectual property for any purpose other than to deliver, support, and develop our services, which are designed to protect and strengthen your copyright.” Even if it is true that Turnitin doesn’t assert ownership over the intellectual property it collects, their statement is misleading. They are basically saying our brand is your brand — that by helping them build their business we all simultaneously protect our own intellectual property. This is absurd.

Robin Wharton encourages educators, at the end of her 2006 piece “Re-Thinking Plagiarism as Unfair Competition,” “to take a long hard look at how their own practices may foster an environment in which students are disenfranchised and relegated to the status of mere consumers in the education process.”

In a recent conversation where he tried to explain why Turnitin’s violation of student intellectual property was a problem, Sean’s argument was countered with a question about whether that intellectual property was worth protecting. After all, most student work “isn’t worth publishing.” Ignoring for a moment this flagrant disregard for the value of student work, the point to make here is that Turnitin actively profits (to the tune of $752 million) from the work of students.

Let’s look closer at Turnitin’s terms of service, keeping in mind that complying with these terms is not optional for students required to submit their work to Turnitin.

Any communications or material of any kind that you e-mail, post, or transmit through the Site (excluding personally identifiable information of students and any papers submitted to the Site), including, questions, comments, suggestions, and other data and information (your “Communications”) will be treated as non-confidential and nonproprietary. You grant Turnitin a non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, world-wide, irrevocable license to reproduce, transmit, display, disclose, and otherwise use your Communications on the Site or elsewhere for our business purposes. We are free to use any ideas, concepts, techniques, know-how in your Communications for any purpose, including, but not limited to, the development and use of products and services based on the Communications. [emphasis added]

As Jesse writes in “The Dissertation in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: “What we see there is a blur of words and phrases separated by commas, of which ‘royalty-free, perpetual, world-wide, irrevocable’ are but a scary few. The rat-a-tat-tat of nouns, verbs, and adjectives is so bewildering that almost anyone would blindly click ‘agree’ just to avoid the deluge of legalese. But these words are serious and their ramifications pedagogical.” Note also that this rather crucial paragraph is currently buried in the middle of Turnitin’s TOS, over 5000 words in.

For papers submitted to the site specifically, the Turnitin TOS states “You hereby grant to Turnitin, its affiliates, vendors, service providers, and licensors a non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide, irrevocable license to use such papers, as well as feedback and results, for the limited purposes of a) providing the Services, and b) for improving the quality of the Services generally.” The gist: when you upload work to Turnitin, your property is, in no reasonable sense, YOUR property. Every essay students submit — representing hours, days, or even years of work — becomes part of the Turnitin database, which is then sold to universities. According to the company’s website, as of this writing, Turnitin has a “non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide, irrevocable license” to more than 734 million student papers.

734 million student papers.

Turnitin doesn’t reveal its pricing on its website, going instead for a “get a quote” model, but Financial Times reported in 2012 that the cost per student was around $2 per year. So, that means an institution of 10,000 students will pay Turnitin $20,000 per year so the company can build its business. But Turnitin does not do a large chunk of the labor it sells. Students do. And even if students don’t actively object to donating that labor, educators should never be in the business of removing student agency.

The abuse of student labor and intellectual property is only the beginning of the problem with Turnitin. If the company’s financial and legal model isn’t troubling enough, consider then how the application of its services affects the pedagogical relationship between students and teachers.

Tim Amidon observes:

iParadigms’ Turnitin employs a rhetoric of fear to turn educators away from, as Rebecca Moore Howard puts it [in “Understanding ‘Internet Plagiarism'”], “pedagogy that joins teachers and students in the educational enterprise [by choosing] … a machine that will separate them,” but also leaches the intellectual property students create within educational systems only to sell it back to schools.

Turnitin supplants teaching. Whereas intellectual property is a multivalent issue in the academy (especially in a digital age when authorship and ownership are mutable and contested), Turnitin’s solution is writ in black and white. “Students uploading their work to Turnitin are turned from learners into potential plagiarizers,” Jesse writes in “Who Controls Your Dissertation?,” “and the teaching moment (about attribution, citation, and scholarly generosity) is given away to an algorithm.” To an issue of academic integrity that has been the project of teaching for decades, educational technology answers with efficiency. Plug it in. Add it up. Point a finger.

Behind this surrender to efficiency over complication, Turnitin takes advantage of the perennial mistrust of students by teachers. Turnitin relies on suspicion of plagiarism as an assumed quantity in the teacher-student relationship, and it feeds that polemic through its marketing. In their “Plagiarism Spectrum” infographic, for example, student writing is reduced to quaint icons and graphics. Plagiarism comes in flavors — from CTRL-C to Hybrid, from Remix and Recycle to 404 Error — which assign students to 10 discrete types. Easily managed, simple to define, less than human.

Rebecca Moore Howard writes in “Arguing Against Turnitin”:

Many of our colleagues are entrenched in an agonistic stance toward students in the aggregate: students are lazy, illiterate, anti-intellectual cheaters who must prove their worth to the instructor. Turnitin and its automated assessment of student writing is a tool for that proof…

There’s something terribly parasitic about a service that plays on our insecurity about students and our fears of cheating. And it’s not just leaching student intellectual property, and reinforcing teachers’ mistrust of students, it’s actually handicapping teachers from exercising their pedagogical agency. Inside Higher Ed reported in 2015 that:

The Council of Writing Program Administrators has noted that “teachers often find themselves playing an adversarial role as ‘plagiarism police’ instead of a coaching role as educators.” As a result, the “suspi­cion of student plagiarism has begun to affect teachers at all levels, at times diverting them from the work of developing students’ writing, reading and critical thinking abilities,” the organization wrote in a statement on best practices from 2003.

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.

These arguments and others led the CCCC Intellectual Property Caucus to issue a statement about Turnitin and other plagiarism detection services. In short, the statement cites five irreconcilable problems with Turnitin (none of which even begin to mine its problematic business model):

Plagiarism detection services

  1. “undermine students’ authority” over their own work;
  2. place students in a role of needing to be “policed”;
  3. “create a hostile environment”;
  4. supplant good teaching with the use of inferior technology;
  5. violate student privacy.

Resisting Turnitin

How does a student push back against the flood of a tool like Turnitin, especially when that tool has been adopted across an institution? Resistance has to be on multiple fronts, offering individual students ways to respond when they are asked to compromise their intellectual property, while also addressing the systemic issues that leads to the institutional adoption of Turnitin in the first place. Many students instinctually understand the problems with a tool like Turnitin. Many have told us both how it feels to hit submit, turning over their work to an algorithm, and how helpless they feel to challenge a system that has distrust at its core. As educators, we can advocate and work to educate others about the problems of tools like Turnitin, but we find ourselves wanting better solutions, in the moment, for students who find themselves staring down the requirement of submitting to Turnitin.

Toward that end, we’ve put together a draft letter that students can send to faculty, that faculty can send to administrators, to help them better understand the problems with Turnitin. The tone of the letter is intentionally non-combative, and it includes a list of further resources. We encourage anyone to fork, remix, re-imagine this letter at will. Help us by offering suggestions on how we can continue to revise. And, if you send some version of it, let us know.

Dear [Name]:

In 2014, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, a branch of the National Council of Teachers of English, concluded that plagiarism detection services, like Turnitin by iParadigm, “create a hostile environment” in classrooms, “undermine students’ authority” over their own work, and violate student privacy. Despite this fact, I am asked to submit my work frequently through Turnitin in the name of academic integrity. Unfortunately, the use of student intellectual property and labor for profit by a third party is neither academic in practice or spirit, nor does it model integrity.

Plagiarism detection services rely upon the labor of students as their business model. Although Turnitin markets itself as a “partner in education,” “trusted by 15,000 institutions and 30 million students,” in fact the service does what no collaborator should do—forces me to license to them my intellectual property and makes it impossible for me to reclaim my full rights to that work. Turnitin’s terms of service state very clearly:

If You submit a paper or other content in connection with the Services, You hereby grant to Turnitin, its affiliates, vendors, service providers, and licensors a non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide, irrevocable license to use such papers, as well as feedback and results, for the limited purposes of a) providing the Services, and b) for improving the quality of the Services generally.

This means that, not only do I surrender the license to use my work in perpetuity to this plagiarism detection service, but Turnitin sells my work back to you.

I’ve gathered together a few resources on the matter for your consideration:

Please stop using Turnitin at our institution. Choose instead to keep academic integrity a human problem with human solutions. Or, at the very least, allow me to individually opt out. Should I ever unintentionally plagiarize, I would rather have the opportunity to speak with my instructor about my mistake than receive a machine-generated report. Please put teaching back in the hands of teachers, where it belongs.

There is no reason to surrender this institution’s tradition of teaching and academic integrity to a third-party technology solution. Thank you for your support.



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An Urgency of Teachers Copyright © 2018 by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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