HEWN, No. 317

A pedagogy controlled by algorithms can never be a pedagogy of care, integrity, or trust

Google announced this week that it was adding a plagiarism detection feature to Classrooms, its pseudo learning management system. The company is calling this “originality reporting,” not plagiarism detection — an attempt to reframe this from being a punitive “gotcha” to a tool designed to help students understand citation practices. But let’s call “bullshit” on that. I don’t think the rebranding really means much, to be honest. It’s more a rhetorical sleight of hand, an attempt to sound “collaborative” while furthering some of the worst practices of surveillance and distrust.

Google insists that, contrary to TurnItIn (the best known plagiarism detection software), it will not amass a database of all student work. Instead it will offer schools the ability to amass a “repository” of their students’ work. This should still prompt us to ask, of course, who really owns students' work. As creators and scholars and artists, students should. But their intellectual property rights are rarely respected — by schools or by publishers or by testing companies or by software companies. Indeed, plagiarism detection software, along with the pedagogical culture that this software emerged from decades ago, views students as cheaters and fakers and frauds.

The business of cheating — cheating and cheating prevention — is big business. Ownership of TurnItIn’s parent company, iParadigms, has changed hands a number of times over the years. The most recent transaction came in March of this year when, for $1.75 billion, the company was sold to the media conglomerate Advance Communications (which also owns Conde Nast) — one of the largest sales in ed-tech history. In addition to selling plagiarism detection software to schools, iParadigms has expanded its offerings recently, peddling automated essay grading and writing assistance tools. It’s all in the service of classroom efficiency.

These products — plagiarism detection, automated essay grading, and writing assistance software — are built using algorithms that are in turn built on students’ work (and often too the writing we all stick up somewhere on the Internet). It is taken without our consent. Scholarship — both the content and the structure — is reduced to data, to a raw material used to produce a product sold back to the very institutions where scholars teach and learn.

In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff calls this “rendition,” the dispossession of human thoughts, emotions, and experiences by software companies, the reduction of the complexities and richness of human life to data, and the use of this data to build algorithms that shape and predict human behavior.

Knowledge production has a new police force: digital technology.

I finally finished Zuboff’s book this past week, and I’m planning on writing a longer review on Hack Education. One of the things I kept thinking as I worked my way through its 500+ pages — other than “this book is too damn long” — was how folks can still insist that digital technology (particularly education technology) is good and necessary, how folks can still insist that the future demands that students submit to these forces of data extraction and behavior modification. What the hell kind of future is that?! (I think we already know…)

In the case of plagiarism detection and automated essay grading software, it’s not a future that values students’ thinking and students’ voices. It’s not one that, even as Google tries to rebrand its new product, encourages “original thinking.” Rather it’s a future where students will be compelled to conform to the rules of the machine — rules we know are deeply biased, based on extraction and profiteering and information imbalances that have put democracy at risk.

In other Google news this week:

Teachers: stop uncritically adopting and promoting Google products, for crying out loud. It doesn’t make you innovative or progressive. It makes you a shill for surveillance capitalism. You’re not preparing your students for a better future simply by using the latest shiny tech. You’re aiding a company — indeed a system — that’s stealing their future.

Elsewhere in tech and ed-tech:

Also from The NYT, the 1619 Project — a look at the 400th anniversary of American slavery. And from The Guardian, Susie Cagle on “‘Bees, not refugees’: the environmentalist roots of anti-immigrant bigotry.” History matters.

This week’s pigeon is a Szegedin Highflyer (also known as a Crested Tippler). (Image credits)

Yours in struggle,
~Audrey