Earlier this month, more than 1,000 educators and students at City University of New York institutions petitioned their board of trustees to not renew its contract with the anti-plagiarism software company Turnitin.
The board ultimately voted unanimously, with the student senate representative abstaining, to renew Turnitin’s five-year contract for nearly $2 million. Five months earlier, CUNY had laid off nearly 3,000 adjunct faculty and part-time employees as a result of budget shortfalls. (The college system’s chancellor has pushed back against that characterization).
The protest against Turnitin is the latest high-profile effort in what has become a nationwide backlash in higher education against educational technology vendors. As schools moved online during the pandemic and confronted slimming budgets, they increasingly turned to a wide array of software companies for solutions. The ed tech industry has boomed, and the school experience has been transformed in ways that are sure to outlive the pandemic—not necessarily for the better, many experts say.
Algorithmic exam proctoring software has drawn fierce criticism from students, educators, and privacy advocates. Meanwhile, tools like Zoom, which were lifelines to schools in the early days of lockdowns, were quickly weaponized and found to be sucking up data. As the opposition at CUNY to Turnitin shows, the pandemic-induced turn to ed tech is prompting students and faculty to examine more than just the privacy implications of those tools—they’re questioning whether the software they’re forced to use exploits their work for profit and reinforces systemic racism.
One of the petitioners’ primary concerns with Turnitin is the “extraction of value from uncompensated student labor,” Luke Waltzer, director of the teaching and learning center at the CUNY Graduate Center, and one of three co-authors of the petition, told Motherboard. “Students, many times, are forced by the university to consent to having their work absorbed into the database.”
Turnitin prominently advertises that it has the “world’s largest” database of student papers, against which it uses machine learning algorithms to compare newly submitted essays for duplicated or similar sections. That distinction helped its former owner, an investment group, sell Turnitin last year for what The Wall Street Journal reported was a $1.75 billion fee, one of the most expensive ever acquisitions in ed tech. That’s more than double what the previous owners purchased the company for in 2014.
The CUNY petition argued that Turnitin’s business model is “entirely dependent on absorbing the intellectual property of students into its proprietary database of content without seeking meaningful consent or providing compensation.”
It’s a criticism that has dogged Turnitin for more than a decade. Parents of students at high schools in Arizona and Virginia sued the company for intellectual property infringement in 2007, but a federal court ruled against them.
“Turnitin uses coursework—usually essays and other written materials assigned by an instructor—to provide and enhance our similarity checking services. Institutions and instructors can choose if a student submission is indexed in our database and remove a submission from our database at any time,” company spokeswoman Amanda Zeligs Hand wrote in response to questions from Motherboard. She added that Turnitin does not share any student data with the other companies owned by Advance Publications, its parent company.
Last year, a group of faculty at Lewis University, a private institution in Romeoville, Illinois, convinced their administrators not to renew a contract with Turnitin. In addition to the company’s profit model, they also argued that Turnitin perpetuates an outdated method for teaching writing—the five-paragraph essay with AP or Chicago Manual style citations—that doesn’t reflect the way people write or attribute ideas in most professions and discriminates against non-Western writing styles, Jordan Canzonetta, a Lewis University English professor who researches Turnitin, told Motherboard.
“Plagiarism is a uniquely Western idea. Writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in collaboration with others across time and space,” she added.
“Turnitin’s tools can facilitate conversations between educators and students around original and authentic work,” Zeligs Hand said. “We recognize, and in fact encourage via features that enable personalized feedback, that these conversations adjust to different subject areas, educational levels, and cultures. Institutions determine their own standards for sourcing and citation, and instructors use Turnitin’s services―as well as other technology products―as tools in their teaching kit to help uphold these standards.”
Writing pedagogy that depends on anti-plagiarism software can be particularly harmful at institutions like the 25 campuses in the CUNY system, which have extremely diverse student bodies coming from all over the world, Norbert Elliot, a professor emeritus at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and former editor-in-chief of the Journal of Writing Analytics, told Motherboard.
“Depending on the cultural background you come from there are many other problems [with software like Turnitin],” Elliot said. “Back at NJIT, we often had cases with students from India, where extended references to someone else’s work was a mark of honor, of distinguishing and giving honor to a scholar
"Language diversity is a big thing. This is a very bad time for people who are different and these things further disenfranchise individuals,” he added.
Instead, writing instructors advocate “scaffolded” writing assignments, where students produce their essays in stages, focusing first on higher-order concepts like audience, voice, and purpose before moving on to organization and details like attribution and grammar. The method makes it virtually impossible for students to cheat because their instructor has viewed the work through the entire process from concept to completion, Vani Kannan, a professor of writing across the curriculum at CUNY’s Lehman College, told Motherboard.
Educators concerned about the privacy and equity issues raised by exam surveillance tools have advocated for similar shifts in focus when it comes to cheating on tests during remote learning.
But changes to writing paradigms require buy-in from instructors in other disciplines whose primary focus isn’t teaching students to write—and administrators who spend more time looking at balance sheets than working with students. There were many faculty who supported and relied on Turnitin at Lewis University and within the CUNY system, Waltzer and Canzonetta said. And at CUNY in particular, the tool seemed even more valuable to some because the layoffs led to larger class sizes and more work.
“This algorithmic support is very lucrative and it’s very tempting to these teachers because they need help, but it’s just a band-aid fix,” Canzonetta said. “We have to move away from educational technology that focuses just on product, the end result, and assessment, and instead to a model that focuses on the process and getting students to that product.”