Turnitin: An ed tech original

Staff members in Turnitin's downtown Oakland office. (Photo courtesy Turnitin)

Staff members in Turnitin's downtown Oakland office. (Photo courtesy Turnitin)

Education software company Turnitin is arguably one of Oakland’s biggest technology companies that few people know about.

Turnitin, which makes anti-plagiarism software, was founded in 1998 by John Barrie and Christian Storm. Both were doctoral candidates in neuroscience at UC Berkeley when they came up with the idea after seeing a high level of plagiarism in the undergraduate papers they were grading.

Using their expertise in brain wiring, Barrie and Storm wrote pattern matching recognition algorithms that can scan text to create a plagiarism-checking program.

“We believe that education can change lives, and we want to be a part of that,” said Chris Harrick, Turnitin’s vice president of marketing.

Without initial outside funding, they set up its headquarters in Oakland because it was more financially affordable than the tech hub of San Francisco.

Since then, the Turnitin has grown by adding features to its software so it doesn’t just point out plagiarism, but it helps students understand how to construct better arguments and write stronger essays before their work reaches their instructors.

Using technology that incorporates both artificial intelligence and a database of professionally scored student essays, Turnitin analyzes papers that are submitted to its database. Then the software highlights sections of the paper that are written well and points out problem areas that need more support or better citation.

The new feedback feature enables instructors to leave a voice comment, use a rubric to grade a student’s paper, and write general comments.

Harrick said he believes Turnitin’s success lies in its efficiency. “There’s a lot that can be done around introducing technology into the classroom, but the problem is that the stakes are too high to do it in a shoddy way,” said Harrick.

Since its inception, Turnitin has expanded beyond its Bay Area roots to employ 400 people in offices around the world.

Private equity firm Warburg Pincus acquired a majority stake in Turnitin and its parent company iParadigms LLC in 2008 for $51 million. In 2014, Turnitin was sold to Insight Venture Partners for $752 million.

The company recently moved its local employees into two floors of a high-rise building downtown that it shares with music streaming service Pandora.

 

Correction: Insight Venture Partners is the current majority owner of Turnitin after they were acquired from Warburg Pincus in 2014. The previous version of the article stated Warburg Pincus still had a stake in the company. 

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