Time for Turnitin to get rid of originality percentage scores?

For some time now, I’ve felt that the originality score in Turnitin is at best unhelpful, and at worst quite a dangerous statistic in the hands of people who don’t understand how to interpret it.

It’s a very blunt instrument, and there are plenty of tales of teachers setting an arbitrary cut off point beyond which they will reject work as being plagiarised, and below which they will consider it acceptable. This fails to take into account the difference between one large chunk of unoriginal work that has been copied and pasted verbatim and a collection of short attributed quotations which between them take the work over the arbitrary cut off point. Of course the latter may not be considered good academic practice, but that is an academic skills issue that can be addressed in the grade given and the feedback and feed forward rather than treating it as plagiarism, which it isn’t.

I have a search stream for turnitin on Twitter set up (in Hootsuite) and some of the comments from staff and students alike are eye opening, not to say eye watering.

  • “It makes grading so easy. 56 percent on Turnitin. Big F. Moving on to next paper.”
  • “On our course, we’re only allowed to submit coursework that has a Turnitin score less than 15% so try rewording some stuff.”
  • “No #turnitin.com .. I’m pretty sure I didn’t plagiarize my own name”
  • “Turnitin.com <<<<< I had 27% plagiarism"
  • “Turnitin saying that 3% of my essay was plagiarized”
  • “turnitin.com said that paper was 39% plagarized and i still got a high B? Looks like i’m changing my last name to Shakespeare”

These comments (which I have deliberately not attributed in fairness to the originators) demonstrate both teaching staff who are apparently using arbitrary cut off points rather than considering each originality report in depth and students who have been given access to the originality report apparently without them understanding the difference between originality and plagiarism and the limitations of Turnitin.

In an ideal world, the solution would be that staff and students receive appropriate training and instruction in how to interpret the originality report, but it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t have a natural home in the curriculum – particularly where Turnitin is introduced for continuing students who may not have the formal Study Skills modules that are common in the first year.

In my view, the percentage (and associated colour coding) serves no useful purpose – particularly with the advent of GradeMark and the ability to see text flagged as unoriginal highlighted in the background whilst marking – and tempts people to infer more from the headline percentage than is appropriate. Turnitin would be greatly improved by removing the percentage and colour coding.

I should say for clarity that I have no objection to showing the percentage match for specific sources within the main report view.

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The throwaway screencast

My attitude to screencasts has always been that they need to be done properly.  They need to be slick and have some decent production values, and that needs some time to be invested in setting up the right equipment such as a decent microphone, in a quiet place (not an office with ringing phones and interruptions).  I think it might be my dodgy past as a media student (with career aspirations to be a VT Editor – that didn’t quite work out!) that means that I like to do some post-production with screencasts to make them as slick as possible.

Last week I had the pleasure of co-facilitating a workshop about screencasting with my colleagues Andy Raistrick and Cath Ellis.  One of the points that Andy and Cath made has really changed my perspective, that as well as being a medium for 1:many communications (ie to a group of students) they can also be used to good effect on a 1:1 basis for answering “how do I…?” type questions, perhaps using a free online tool like screencast-o-matic or Jing rather than the more complex commercial tools like Captivate or Camtasia.  The free tools are quite basic and don’t allow you to edit your work (although you can download the movie and edit it in a desktop video editing program if you need to).  This isn’t necessarily an issue because of the “throwaway” nature of the screencast – it’s expected to only be viewed once or twice by one person, so it doesn’t need to be particularly slick.

I received an email from a colleague who wanted to know how to set up a Turnitin assignment in Unilearn (the branding we use for Blackboard) and I couldn’t find anything pre-prepared that answered it, so I thought it was a good time to give screencast-o-matic a go, just using my desktop PC and a cheap headset mic.  This was the result:

The main measure of how successful this was is that the user it was intended for described it as “amazing” and said she had managed to set up three assignments following the process I demonstrated.  She also liked the detailed description of each of the advanced options.  I certainly couldn’t have written instructions that were that comprehensive in the space of time it took to record this. I was able to turn this around – including looking for existing material and setting up screencast-o-matic for the first time – in 26 minutes.

The screencast is not the most polished performance you’ll ever hear but it serves the purpose.  The subject matter is something that I’ve explained to colleagues in person and on the phone time and time again so I’m very familiar with the content and I was able to do this in one take without rehearsal.  Whether I’ll be as lucky next time is something that remains to be seen.

What is not in doubt is that there definitely will be a next time.

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The difficult first post

I’ve been working in learning technology for over 10 years, although it’s only in the last few years that I’ve started to feel like I know what I’m talking about. 

I’m going to use this blog to reflect on aspects of e-learning.  Partly to document technical solutions, but also as a space to explore some ideas and maybe get some feedback.

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