Turnitin software legitimate teaching tool for students

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Like sketchy Tinder dates and Ramen Noodles, there’s another aspect of college life students will inevitably experience: using the Turnitin system in their courses.

Turnitin is third-party product that compares writing assignments to those of other students, Internet databases and journals and periodicals. The program allows instructors to spot similarities between papers students submit and information online that could assist them in determining if academic dishonesty has occurred.

With Turnitin now a prominent influence at Dixie State University, common criticisms, like its inability to differentiate accidental and intentional plagiarism, and rumors that students can “game” the Turnitin system don’t hold enough merit to invalidate its effectiveness, said Chris Harrick, Turnitin vice president of marketing.

Jared Johnson, director of IT instructional support services, said 2014-15 marks the second academic year Turnitin has been integrated into Dixie State University’s Canvas system for faculty use. In fall semester alone, 379 instructors used the service for their courses, 4,630 students submitted assignments into Turnitin, and 23,122 total submissions from DSU entered the system.

Johnson said one misconception people might have about Turnitin is that it alerts instructors about cases of academic dishonesty. However, it only provides instructors with information — like the percentage of an assignment similar to online content — that could help them find questionable student practices.

“It is decided by the faculty member what and how they judge plagiarism,” Johnson said. “ … [Turnitin] doesn’t say plagiarism has occurred … Instructors would probably wait until a certain threshold to decide to check for plagiarism.”

Psychology assistant professor Kristine Olson said she uses Turnitin for her courses, but rather than relying on the system to spot every case of possible academic dishonesty, she utilizes it as a learning tool to teach students about ways to avoid plagiarism. 

And that’s the best use for Turnitin, Harrick said.

“Using Turnitin as a ‘gotcha’ tool is not a best practice as the hope is students can learn and grow from small mistakes rather than be punished for one big mistake,” Harrick said. “Instructors should be talking to their students about the importance of originality and citations; creating assignments that are difficult to plagiarize; and exposing students to tools like Turnitin in a risk-free manner so they understand that if they plagiarize, they will most likely face consequences.”

Harrick said classifying Turnitin as a learning tool rather than a manic, accusatory cheating detector helps both instructors and students learn from it.

However, Turnitin’s success across the 10,000 learning institutions it serves indicates it also reduces plagiarism, he said.

“We’ve measured the levels of unoriginal content submitted to our service over time and have found that, on average, institutions reduce levels of unoriginal content by 40 percent over five years of use,” Harrick said.

Johnson said the fact that at DSU only eight Canvas support tickets (alerts about issues with online services) in regards to Turnitin have been submitted since its implementation — mostly technical — highlights its benefits.

Canvas also helps instructors combat cheating, he said. 

“Canvas is powerful for suspected cheating because instructors can go into Canvas and can pull up students’ usage … ,” Johnson said. “They can look at analytics on students, their access reports for Canvas, and can see when students logged in last, and how much time they’ve spent in one tool.”

Both Johnson and Harrick said Turnitin is unique in its ability to keep up with both technology and the rumored methods of students beating it.

Turnitin’s ever-growing database continually improves its effectiveness, Harrick said.

“In terms of newer methods of academic dishonesty, one of the most powerful aspects of our service is our content database, which consists of 50 billion web pages, over 500 million student papers and millions of text books, newspapers and magazines,” he said. “This growing corpus of information is continually broadening our ability to detect unoriginal content.”

New technologies’ impact on DSU’s campus make the service crucial, Johnson said; students enroll in online classes, research online and, now, Turnitin’s system both teaches them how to avoid academic dishonesty and underscores the consequences of plagiarism.

“We’re in the digital age, and so to keep up with that we have to be able to combat that, and that’s where Turnitin’s role comes into play,” he said.