This is an article that should be read. It is about Turnitin the computer software that detects plagiarism in student essays now introduced in UK universities. I have the tendency of being extremely skeptical about the future human societies based on the unmitigated faith on the goodness of technology. Think first how technology is apply and who ends to defined its application, and you will find more than one way that technologies as a tool can be use also to “screw the pooch” for the majority of us humans.

From the Guardian, by John Sutherland, Thursday May 10, 2007:

[…]What Turnitin sells is “course management” via “courseware”, in which “plagiarism prevention” is just one of multiple functions. One can see the attractiveness in institutions where the enrolments are large and the connections between staff and student necessarily impersonal. Turnitin is particularly useful where grading is farmed out to a team of TAs (Teaching Assistants), each of whom may have individual biases, or idiosyncratic criteria that need ironing out. The package usefully standardises all the activity surrounding written work – the trickiest, and legally most contentious area of undergraduate education. The hook, however, will always be plagiarism detection.

[…]The director of student writing in the American institution at which I teach is contemptuous. He only sees Turnitin as good for “cut and paste” plagiarism from open access sources on the web: plagiarism for dummies. It won’t, he points, pick out customised papers from essay-mills, or those concocted by more able dorm-buddies. Most objectionably, it shifts the educational stress from prevention and conscience to policing. It will lead over time, he predicts, to a climate of surveillance. A police state of the mind. Think Orwell.

It is true that Turnitin, as it now operates, is easily foiled. But that is probably a start-up feature, and temporary. If, like me, you’d started using email in the late 1980s, you might well have found it, as I did, clunky and not very useful. Now, if the server goes down for a half an hour, there’s a collective shriek of pain that can be heard on the moon. It would have been a mistake not to buy into email on the grounds that, like most things, it began primitive.

Once Google’s Book Search increases its reach, and Microsoft brings out its digitised textbook resource in a few years’ time, Turnitin’s range will be extended vastly. New content analysis programs – the kind of software the CIA and MI6 use to spy on email – will sophisticate their scrutiny. Turnitin is now like red / blue litmus paper in the 1940s. In a decade it will be as precise as DNA analysis.

It’s not the inefficiency of Turnitin that should concern the academic world, but its thought-provoking efficiencies. It is not a one-purpose tool, rooting up egregious cases of plagiarism like a digital truffle-pig or airport drug-hound. Turnitin creates a wholly new educational environment.

Once grafted into the teaching system it is easy to see how it could extend, seamlessly, into outsourced grading services. Why pay for in-house TAs (with all the trouble they cause) when routine, low-level marking can be done off-campus? Why shouldn’t Turnitin staff themselves handle peer review and discussion board functions? Essays are already deposited and stored with Turnitin. Why not go a stage further, reserving one’s own employees for the more demanding, higher-level “touch on the tiller” teaching and grading chores?

[…]Turnitin is being introduced in UK universities by the Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc), which takes a less Orwellian view of the software. “Turnitin merely indicates the level of correspondence between a student’s work (or researcher’s for that matter) and work already available. It leaves it up to the lecturer to make the judgment about what the nature of the correspondence is,” says a spokesman.

“What we’re discovering more and more is that using Turnitin is often the first step in a discussion between the lecturer and students about what plagiarism actually is and how other information sources can legitimately be incorporated into students’ work. These are important questions, which are central to the student’s learning after all.”

For me, the largest objection to Turnitin remains the totalitarian regime that it points towards. It presumes a university world based on ever more efficient machinery, rather than personal relationships.

Writing an essay for a tutor used to be like a letter to one’s lover. In the world to come, it’ll be more like filing a tax return. Like it, loathe it, or fear it: it’s going to happen.

Link to full article: http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/columnist/story/0,,2075828,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=8

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