In the wake of student protests, officials at Virginia’s McLean High School have said they will begin an electronic program to check students’ papers for plagiarism in phases, as opposed to requiring the entire school to participate this year.

The school, in northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, was going to require all students to submit essays and other assignments to an internet-based plagiarism detector called Turnitin.com, school officials said last month.

Turnitin.com reportedly checks submitted student work against a database of more than 22 million student-written papers, as well as other web sources and electronic journals. Students receive an “originality report” for each document they submit. School leaders said they decided to use the service as a means to deter plagiarism, because the internet gives students easy access to other people’s work.

Now, only ninth- and 10th-grade English and social-studies students will have to turn in their work for review on the web site this year, McLean officials say. Juniors and seniors will be incorporated into the program over the next few years.

The change comes after a group of students, members of the Committee for Students’ Rights, called Turnitin.com’s practice of adding their essays to its database an infringement of their intellectual-property rights. One of the school’s students helped collect more than 1,100 signatures on a petition objecting to mandatory use of the service.

The students say they do not cheat or approve of cheating. But they say the use of Turnitin.com by the school implies they can’t be trusted.

“We object to the mandatory use of our intellectual property by this web site,” Ben Donovan, a senior at the school, posted on the Ed-Tech Insider page at eSchool News Online. “We will turn our assignments in to our teachers and our teachers only, and we have the right to expect that our teachers will not turn around and reproduce those papers electronically, especially not for a for-profit third-party internet service. The administration has threatened us with failing grades if we refuse to use Turnitin.com. Is this legal? I know McGill University, a private university, couldn’t do this, so how can a public high school?”

Donovan’s post continues: “In any case, it looks like we are headed for a showdown at McLean that could go to court. We are currently consulting with lawyers as to where, exactly, we stand legally.”

Donovan could not be reached for comment about the school’s latest decision before press time, but student Nicholas Kaylor, a senior, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying: “Until there is a clear opt-out option for everyone, we’re not going to back down.”

McLean High School isn’t the only school in Fairfax County to use the service; the school division has been using Turnitin.com since 2003, and more than three-quarters of its high schools use the site.

Fairfax County officials, along with Turnitin.com representatives and company lawyers, say they are confident that Turnitin.com’s system of checking student papers does not violate students’ rights.

Overall, more than 6,000 academic institutions in 90 countries, including schools such as the University of Colorado, the University of Iowa, and Georgetown University, reportedly use the service.

Still, some higher-education officials appear to side with McLean’s students. Professors at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University have released a letter saying that “students have intellectual-property rights to their writing that make problematic Turnitin’s compilation of student texts.”

Charlie Lowe, an assistant professor of writing, Ellen Schendel, an associate professor of writing, and Julie White, an affiliate faculty member in the university’s writing department, signed the letter, which urges school faculty to examine and discuss the implications of using Turnitin.com.

Tom Hoffman, an educational software developer and frequent contributor to the Ed-Tech Insider blogs at eSchool News Online, had this to say about the McLean High School flap in a post in late September:

“I don’t know the super-fine points about the legality of all this, but I can’t see how a school can compel students to grant the use of their work to a commercial venture and then turn around and lecture to them about the ethics of file-sharing and the like. This is … an interesting litmus test for everyone who likes to write about ‘information ethics’ and internet safety.’ Who is right here?”

Links:

McLean High School
http://www.fcps.k12.va.us/McLeanHS

Turnitin.com
http://www.turnitin.com

Ed-Tech Insider at eSchool News Online
http://www.eschoolnews.com/eti/index.php