Are Robots Teaching our Students? Universities Grapple with the Implementation and Ethical Use of Software that Helps Detect Plagiarism

AUTHORSHIP NOTE: This piece was co-authored by Dr. James Orr and Dr. Jessica Beckett. Dr. Beckett is the Director of the Harvey Knowledge Center at Radford University

A twenty-first century education is mediated by technology in countless ways. Students engage with user interfaces to complete and submit assignments, universities use predictive analytics to support students and increase retention, and software provides students with tutorials, adaptive testing, and machine-enhanced learning. On the other hand, software also exists to facilitate and detect cheating and the use of such software has grown exponentially. For example, there are over 15,000 institutions that have adopted just one of the available products to help faculty detect plagiarism (herein referred to as “plagiarism software”). Yet, concerns over the use of such software have been simmering for over a decade.

Among such complaints is a concern over the rights such software companies maintain over student work that is stored in their databases. In a 2017 blog post for the journal Hybrid Pedagogy, the authors claim that “While students . . . are discouraged from copying other work, the company [Turnitin] itself can strip, mine, and sell student work for profit. Similar concerns that students are being exploited by such software have been echoed by others.

Despite these concerns, the US Court of Appeals has ruled that such contributions to a database fall under fair use, because they are only being referenced for comparison. Further, despite some earlier concerns, none of these software companies maintain copyright to student work.

In addition, when a researcher or faculty member prepares writing for circulation, they submit it to a journal that will often engage reviewers to check the veracity and contribution of the work to their discipline. Using such software can mimic this process for students, by having students submit work to be reviewed first by software that checks for matches to other text, and then by their course instructor, who must review the report that software generates and check the student’s use of sources based on the assignment for their course.

Another common complaint among writing educators is that such software replaces the highly skilled human who is credentialed and experienced in the teaching of writing and use of sources.

The former chair of the national organization Conference on College Composition and Communication was quoted by Inside Higher Ed, claiming that universities are using such software to take the place of writing education: “The job [of faculty] is to pay attention to assignments,” Anson told Inside Higher Ed, “They shouldn’t be finding ways to get around that responsibility, which is an important one.

As adoption of such software increases, what are universities doing about these ethical and pedagogical complaints that companies are using technology to replace quality education? The answer is simple: they are teaching. A few forward-facing universities, such as UC Berkeley and Virginia Tech are taking an educational approach by training faculty and framing plagiarism within conversations of pedagogy.

UC Berkeley claims that “The use of web-based detection does not mean that plagiarism is now merely an enforcement or technical issue.” And instead they remind the campus that plagiarism is “still a pedagogical matter.”  One of the authors of this piece, Dr. James Orr, has  stated: “I encourage faculty to use these tools to assist students in the writing process,” which is the very area to which Anson and others wanted faculty to place their attention.

So, how can such software programs be utilized in pedagogy rather than punishment? Some of the approaches used by institutions adopting this approach include the following:

  • requiring faculty to undergo training before using plagiarism detection software
  • offering teaching tips for helping students understand source material
  • guiding faculty to use common plagiarism prevention strategies such as breaking assignments into multiple drafts and making unique and meaningful assignments
  • offering educational support services to students in the areas of time management and test taking skills
  • bundling feedback and grading features into the plagiarism detection software

As concerns over digital surveillance and reliance on software grow, so are responses to ensuring that such software remains a tool to enrich the work of educators—rather than a solution that replaces that work.

 

About the Author
Dr. James Orr is Assistant Provost for Academic Strategy and Policy at Virginia Tech (Virginia, USA)
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