Today Google unveiled a new feature, “originality reports,” which, ironically, is not all that original. But it could make for a practical addition to its growing suite of online educational tools, now used by tens of millions of teachers and students.
Students and instructors can run originality reports to check any written assignments done in Google Doc against the hundreds of billions of web pages, and tens of millions of books, that Google has indexed over the years. It will flag any text that appears to be improperly lifted or referenced without citation.
The new tool will be publicly available later this year through Google Classroom, the company’s coursework management system that claims 40 million users. It will also be accessible via Assignments (formerly called CourseKit), which lets users create, manage and grade work using Google tools within a school’s or district’s learning management system. Those interested in testing it out early can sign up here.
Upon creating an assignment, a teacher can turn on the originality reports feature, which lets students check their assignments up to three times. The check currently takes about 20 seconds, and highlights passages that match others on existing web pages or books. Students can then revise their work before submitting it to their teacher, who can also run a similar scan.
Screenshot of Google’s originality report.
Google’s originality reports essentially functions as a plagiarism checker, and that idea is hardly new. Just last month, Proctorio, a remote-proctoring company, launched new plagiarism detection tools and made them available in Canvas, a popular learning management system. Turnitin, the biggest name in this business, claims it is used in 15,000 educational institutions around the world.
Yet such a feature has been high on the wishlist of many educators, according to Zach Yeskel, a product manager for Google’s G Suite for Education and Classroom. For one, many instructors often turn to Google as a first resort to search questionable text passages in homework assignments and see whether any matches turn up, he says.
And shortly after the company launched Course Kit last July, “one of the things we heard from our users was that they wanted it to work with plagiarism detection tools,” he recalls. An engineer who built Course Kit (now called Assignments) previously worked on Google’s search team, and within four months whipped up a prototype that would be the first iteration of originality reports.
The company is hesitant to use the p-word when describing this feature. “We are not calling it a plagiarism detection tool,” says Yeskel. “There are a lot of human nuances involved in deciding whether something is plagiarism, cited improperly or paraphrased improperly.” In other words, he adds, it’s one thing for a tool to catch passages that appear the same in an assignment and on a web page. But that should lead to a conversation between a teacher and the student to ascertain whether the incident was intentional or an honest mistake.
“We want to flip plagiarism detection on its head and turn it into an instructional tool,” he tells EdSurge. “These days students can find everything on the internet, and they’re put into a position of balancing outside inspiration with authenticity in their own work. It’s a tricky line to walk and learn.”
Instructors can enable originality reports for free for up to three assignments in each course they teach using Google’s tools. If they want to use it more frequently, they will need to upgrade to a G Suite Enterprise for Education account, which currently starts at $4 per month per instructor, according to Yeskel. (There’s a discount for bulk purchases, and the enterprise version also offers other additional features.)
Google also plans to allow schools to create a private repository of students’ assignments so that teachers can compare work with past submissions from their school. Yeskel says “only instructors will be able to see matches from that repository,” adding that Google “does not have a plan to create a global database of student papers.”
That would mark a departure from the approach taken by Turnitin, which boasts a global database of one billion student papers collected over time that it can check submissions against. (The company also allows schools to limit the checks to papers submitted by students within their own institution.)
Amassing that repository of student work, however, has been a point of contention for Turnitin’s critics, who say the company unfairly profits from student submissions that could be referenced indefinitely. Turnitin was acquired by Advance Publications for $1.75 billion in April.
According to Val Schreiner, the chief product officer at Turnitin, the company had been aware of Google’s plans to build a competing product. But she argues that it will largely impact the smaller players in the space. Google currently lists two companies—PlagiarismCheck.org and Unicheck—as partners whose tools are integrated and work in Google Classroom.
In addition to its collection of past student submissions, Turnitin also says it has some exclusive licenses that allow it to check student work against a database of academic journals, textbooks and other scholarly content that are paywalled and not accessible to web crawlers.