Turnitin User Agreement: I disagree

For the past one and a half year or so I’ve been studying Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. Today I wanted to hand in my very first and very tentative ideas about my Master’s thesis. Using the archaic, mindnumbing, and Repetitive Strain Injury-inducing Blackboard digital learning environment I was confronted with the following screen:

Turnitin User Agreement popup

I have better things to do than read the whole text (~ 5.100 words) but I did read enough to know that I couldn’t agree with this User Agreement. Instead I decided to write this blog post explaining what I find so disagreeable.

But first, what is Turnitin? It is the market leader (although monopolist is probably the better term) in plagiarism detection services. They have a few hundred million student submissions in their database. So when a new submission comes in they check it against the web (Wikipedia is plagiarism source number one) and against the submissions they already have and presumably give out a plagiarism score or percentage (I am not privy to that part of the interface).

The User Agreement

The terms of service of many companies can often be best summarised as: “We can do whatever we want, you can’t expect anything from us and, even though this agreement already gives you zero rights into perpetuity, we still reserve the right to change this agreement at our will without telling you.”

Turnitin’s terms closely follow that general pattern. Let me quote you some relevant passages. All emphasis is mine.

Let’s start with the good: They acknowledge that you keep ownership over your work:

You or the person who has authorized You to submit a paper for review as part of the Services will, subject to the license granted hereunder to Turnitin and its affiliates, vendors, service providers and licensors, retain Your ownership of the submitted paper. This User Agreement grants Turnitin and its affiliates, vendors, service providers and licensors only a non-exclusive right to Your paper solely for the purposes of plagiarism prevention and the other Services provided as part of Turnitin.

What does retaining ownership actually mean? Not much, because by agreeing with Agreement you completely lose control of your work. This is because you give Turnitin a license:

If You submit a paper or other content in connection with the Services, You hereby grant to Turnitin, its affiliates, vendors, service providers, and licensors a non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide, irrevocable license to use such papers, as well as feedback and results, for the limited purposes of a) providing the Services, and b) for improving the quality of the Services generally.

And the license is very broad: it will last forever, counts everywhere and is not just for Turnitin but also for anybody they have dealings with. The text does say that the license is limited for the purposes of providing the services. The problem is that these services are in themselves not limited. The services are defined as follows:

The Site offers certain services, together with other content, data, images, information and other materials which allow authorized educational institutions (“Educational Institutions”), and teachers, instructors, professors or other faculty members who are currently teaching a registered class (together, “Instructors”) to use software tools hosted by Turnitin to check enrolled students’ work for possible textual matches against Internet-available resources and Turnitin’s own proprietary database.

But it then also says:

You acknowledge and agree that the form and nature of the Services and the Site which Turnitin provides may change from time to time without prior notice to You.

So there we have it: If you agree to the User Agreement you have just given Turnitin (and its partners) permission to use your paper for any service and at any point in the time in the future.

And even though you have not limited them in any way, they still want to make sure that you agree with them changing the rules whenever they want:

Turnitin, LLC reserves the right to change the terms, conditions, and notices under which the Site is offered.

What needs to change before I will agree

Whether or not it make sense for a university to use a plagiarism detection service is outside of the scope of this blog post. And so is a discussion about what constitutes plagiarism. So assuming the University of Amsterdam will continue to want to check whether I have plagiarized, I will list my conditions before I can agree to the User Agreement. These are as follows:

  • My work can only be used by Turnitin to check for plagiarism.
  • As I see no reason for it being my responsibility to help Turnitin get better at doing their job (by giving them the ability to recognise when somebody plagiarizes my work), I want Turnitin to delete my work as soon as the check has been done.
  • If Turnitin relies on third parties to do the plagiarism check, then I would need a limitative list of these parties and the assurance that the above two conditions will also count for them.

Until my conditions are satisfied I will not be using Turnitin to hand in any of my work at the university. And I am pretty confident that in this case my principles will be stronger than my pragmatism. Let’s see what happens next…

Update on January 16th, 2018: Folia, the university’s magazine, published an article about this issue. In it, the university says they will look into it and Turnitin has given a ludicrous reaction. My teachers for this course have said that I can hand in all my assignments via email. I’ve asked the university to keep me posted.

Liberia Outsources Primary Education

Wait. What?

Admittedly I know little to nothing about education in Liberia and it really isn’t up to me to judge the decision of their Minister of Education (how would you solve his problems?). However, I am still terribly saddened that this is apparently what we have now come to: outsourcing the education of the youth to an American for-profit company that has ‘teachers’ use scripts on their hand-held tablets. Dehumanisation backed by the capital of the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Pierre Omidyar…

This is starting to beg the question: What parts of our society don’t we consider to be ripe for public-private partnerships yet? Why not work towards a true educational commons which, next to curriculum, also includes process and methodology?

Liberian education Minister George Werner announced that the entire pre-primary and primary education system would be outsourced to Bridge International Academies to manage. The deal will see the government of Liberia direct public funding for education to support services subcontracted to the private, for-profit, US-based company.Under the public-private arrangement, the company will pilot the programme in 50 public schools in 2016, as well as design curriculum materials, while phase two could have the company rollout mass implementation over five years, “with government exit possible each year dependent on provided performance from September 2017 onwards,” the report from Liberia’s FrontPage Newspaper said.“Eventually the Ministry of Education is aiming to contract out all primary and early childhood education schools to private providers who meet the required standards over five year period,” the article states.

Source: An Africa first! Liberia outsources entire education system to a private American firm. Why all should pay attention | MG Africa

 Pupils at a Bridge International Academy in East Africa.


Pupils at a Bridge International Academy in East Africa.

Is group chat making you sweat? — Signal v. Noise

Jason Fried has writen an incredible post about the benefits and the pitfalls (mostly the latter) of group chat after ten years of experience at 37signals and Basecamp.

I think he is fundamentally right in giving ‘attention’ so much importance as a precious resource. I’ve come to realise that the ability to singletask is the one skill that most people are lacking in their working lives. It is certainly the thing that I would like to get better at.

At my place of work we have been experimenting with Mattermost over the last few weeks and are on the cusp of implementing it for the whole team. I look forward to implementing Fried’s recommendations on how to make that a success.

I believe attention is one of your most precious resources. If something else controls my attention, that something else controls what I’m capable of. I also believe your full attention is required to do great work. So when something like a pile of group chats, and the expectations that come along with them, systematically steals that resource from me, I consider it a potential enemy. “Right now” is a resource worth conserving, not wasting.

Group chatSource: Is group chat making you sweat? — Signal v. Noise — Medium

The Books I Read in 2013

Bookshelves

Just like last year I decided to publish an overview of the books that I’ve read during the year.

Covers of the books I read

Covers of the books I read

This year I managed to read 48 books (I am really missing my daily commute, don’t believe the 47 in the picture above) which I’ve put in the following categories:

Philosophy

Mcluhan’s Understanding Media is the single most important book on technology that I’ve ever read. His probes are all-encompassing and still very relevant 50 years after their first publication. Taleb gave me a new way of looking at the world and a set of tools for thinking that is richer than Dennett’s attempt at doing the same. Carse’s classic is well worth reading and I would love to read more Žižek in 2014.

  • Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man — Marshall McLuhan (link)
  • Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder — Nassim Nicholas Taleb (link)
  • Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking — Daniel C. Dennett (link)
  • Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility — James P. Carse (link)
  • Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium — Paul Levinson (link)
  • First as Tragedy, Then as Farce — Slavoj Žižek (link)
  • Het socratisch gesprek — Jos Delnoij (link)
  • McLuhan: A Guide for the Perplexed — W. Terrence Gordon (link)
  • The Open-Source Everything Manifesto: Transparency, Truth, and Trust — Robert David Steele (link)

Digital Rights

I expect this category to grow in 2014 with more books about privacy, freedom of expression and the Internet. Solove delivers good arguments on why privacy is important and Edwards (inadvertently) showed me how scary it is to work for Google.

  • Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff between Privacy and Security — Daniel J. Solove (link)
  • I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59 — Douglas Edwards (link)

Learning

My focus will move away from learning, but I still managed to read some fascinating books on the topic in 2013. Harrison left me itching to try his method for running meetings with large and diverse groups. Illich clearly showed the institutionalizing effects of schooling (confusing being taught with learning and confusing certification with competence). Gatto made me loathe to put children in schools (read Dumbing Us Down, the Underground History is less cogent).

  • Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide — Harrison Owen (link)
  • Deschooling Society — Ivan Illich (link)
  • Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling — John Taylor Gatto (link)
  • De canon van het onderwijs — Emma Los (link)
  • The Underground History of American Education: An Intimate Investigation Into the Prison of Modern Schooling — John Taylor Gatto (link)

B00kc7ub 4 N3rd5

The book club read nine books in 2013. By far the most thought- and discussion-provoking was Morozov battling “internet-centrism”, “epochalism” and “solutionism”. Eggers enlarged current Google and Facebook practices to show us the grotesque direction we are moving in. Zamyatin wrote a Russian version of “1984” (way before Orwell) subverting the concept of freedom. Silver was a great read and Lanier gave me the useful concept of “Siren Servers”.

  • To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism — Evgeny Morozov (link)
  • Makers: The New Industrial Revolution — Chris Anderson (link)
  • The Circle — Dave Eggers (link)
  • Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet — Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn, Jérémie Zimmermann (link)
  • The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t — Nate Silver (link)
  • Bleeding Edge — Thomas Pynchon (link)
  • We — Yevgeny Zamyatin (link)
  • Who Owns the Future? — Jaron Lanier (link)
  • The New Industrial Revolution: Consumers, Globalization and the End of Mass Production — Peter Marsh (link)

Fiction

For some reason I had yet to read Kafka’s The Trial. It didn’t disappoint. Shteyngart made me laugh the hardest (with Thomése coming in a close second) with his near-future dystopian novel on our hypercommercialized digital future.

  • The Trial — Franz Kafka (link)
  • Super Sad True Love Story — Gary Shteyngart (link)
  • Cat’s Cradle — Kurt Vonnegut (link)
  • De laatkomer — Dimitri Verhulst (link)
  • 2BR02B — Kurt Vonnegut (link)
  • How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia — Mohsin Hamid (link)
  • Homeland (Little Brother, #2) — Cory Doctorow (link)
  • Het bamischandaal — P.F. Thomése (link)
  • Gelukkige Slaven — Tom Lanoye (link)

Other

There were some real gems in this miscellaneous category. Feddes has set the standard for books on cities. Because of Hillis I finally understand how computers work. My friend Dorien Zandbergen‘s PhD thesis gave some wonderful insights into hacker culture in the bay area. Van Casteren’s book made me think of my early teenage years living in a young neighbourhood in a forensic town just above Amsterdam.

  • 1000 jaar Amsterdam — Fred Feddes (link)
  • Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips: 153 Amazing & Inexpensive Tips for Extremely Lightweight Camping — Mike Clelland (link)
  • The Pattern on the Stone (Science Masters) — W. Daniel Hillis (link)
  • Japan’s Cultural Code Words: 233 Key Terms That Explain the Attitudes and Behavior of the Japanese — Boyé Lafayette de Mente (link)
  • The Incredible Secret Money Machine — Don Lancaster (link)
  • New Edge, Technology and Spirituality in the San Francisco Bay Area — Dorien Zandbergen (link)
  • Thoughtless Acts?: Observations on Intuitive Design — Jane Fulton Suri (link)
  • The Big Lebowski: An Illustrated, Annotated History of the Greatest Cult Film of All Time — Jenny M. Jones (link)
  • Lelystad — Joris van Casteren (link)
  • Treat Your Own Neck 5th Ed (803-5) — Robin McKenzie (link)
  • The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm — Tom Kelley (link)
  • Een halve hond heel denken: Een boek over kijken — Joke van Leeuwen (link)
  • How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum — Keri Smith (link)
  • What Color Is Your Parachute? 2012: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers — Richard Nelson Bolles (link)

My Top 10 Tools for Learning 2013

Jane Hart has been compiling a list of top 100 tools for learning for over six years now. This is one of the many reasons why she received an award for her contribution to Learning.

A learning tool from the perspective of this list is:

Any tool that you could use to create or deliver learning content solutions for others, or a tool you use for your own personal learning.

You can view the 2012 top 100 results below (or here if SlideShare isn’t embedded for you):

I have participated in her list in the past. My previous top 10 lists are available here for 2008, 2009 and 2010. Voting for 2013 has recently openened. Below my votes (in alphabetical order):

  1. Books
    I read a lot of books, and (will) look back every year on what I’ve read. See my overview of 2012 books for example. If I would have to pick one technology only, it would be books.
  2. DoggCatcher
    This is probably the best podcasting app for Android. It will automatically pull in the shows that I like, sort them in the order of my preference and play them (remembering where I was) in that order. I use podcasts mainly to catch up on technology and am currently subscribed to the following shows: This American Life, 99% Invisible, Radiolab, This Week in Tech, Security Now!, Guardian Tech Weekly, Guardian Science Weekly, Triangulation, EconTalk and FLOSS Weekly.
  3. DuckDuckGo
    I’ve recently moved away from Google and now use DuckDuckGo for all my searches (and thus much of my learning). My initial reason was to get back some of my privacy and break out of the filter bubble a little. I’ve now found out it actually delivers a far superior user experience which can be ad-free if you’d like. The bang syntax allows me to directly search at the source rather than use Google as the middle man and DuckDuckGo has endless nice tricks up its sleeve. Instructions on how to make the switch are available for your browser here.
  4. Evernote
    Evernote is the single place where I put all my notes and do all my bookmarking. I like how ever-present it is and the way it syncs to my phone. I dislike the fact that there is no official Linux client (and that there won’t be one any time soon). Evernote also has some severe limitations as a tool for Personal Knowledge Management (PKM), so (inspired by Stephen Downes) I’ve decided I will program my own alternative.
  5. Firefox
    After a long stint with Chrome I’ve recently returned to Firefox. The performance of the latest version actually beats Chrome, they’ve seemed to have fixed most of the memory leaks and Mozilla has no sly commercial interests and truly cares for the open Internet.
  6. GoogleDocs
    I like writing collaboratively and in real time. It is a great way to build concensus and a shared vision. I will likely host my own etherpad installation very soon, but know that I will miss GoogleDocs’ ability to have people comment on particular aspects of the text.
  7. Libreoffice
    Occasionally I learn by giving presentations. Even though I like using Pinpoint, I keep coming back to a simple Impress template that I’ve created in LibreOffice. I export the presentation as a PDF as bring that along to the presentation on a USB stick. This means I can use any PC or Mac to present and never have to worry about my fonts or layout changing.
  8. Twitter
    There are a few use cases for Twitter for me. When I visit a conference I use it to find out what is happening around me and which people I should try and meet. I use it as a way to publicize my own writings and it has completely taken over the role that Google Reader used to fulfill previously: my source of news. The daily digest that I get for my account gives me two or three interesting reads every single day. I’ve documented how you can use Twitter to find expertise on any topic here.
  9. WordPress
    A lot of my learning comes through writing. The prime tool for this is my blog and WordPress has been my host of choice since the beginning. Automattic, the company behind WordPress, is very interesting.
  10. Yammer
    Inside my company we use Yammer. There are over 30,000 people in the network making it the go-to place whenever I need to know something about our internal workings and don’t even know where to start.