Friends don’t let friends Studiosity (without reading the fine print)

A surveillance on the ledge of a building with a cloudy sky in the background.

Vol. 4 No. 1 (Fall 2022)

Brian Hotson, CWCR/RCCR Editor
Stevie Bell, CWCR/RCCR Associate editor

Like many teachers on a late-August vacation, education companies can see September on the horizon. The difference is that these companies aren’t relaxing. They’re sending e-mails and booking video conferences with offers of freshly printed textbooks, handy workbooks, new online tools, and easy-to-use mobile apps that promise to make student life easier and save universities and colleges money.

The business of education is very large, with total global spending estimated at $4.7 trillion (USD) (UNESCO). By comparison, the total GDP of all African nations in 2021 was $2.7 trillion (USD) (StatisticsTimes, 2021). In 2018-2019, “public and private expenditure on [postsecondary] education” in Canada was $41.5 billion. Education companies would like a share of the money. In this context, a new-to-Canada online writing and tutoring tool, Studiosity, has appeared.

In the context of Canada’s $41.5 billion post-secondary education market (2018-2019), a new-to-Canada online writing and tutoring tool, Studiosity, has appeared. Why now?

Studiosity (formerly YourTutor), an Australian company founded in 2003, uses a moralistic approach to its sales pitch as “the ethical way to get fast feedback on your draft,” and, according to Studiosity’s website, is partnered with a significant number of Australian universities. Their official pitch is “Anytime, anywhere student support…Helping educators meet the demands of modern learners, and Accountability for student/customer support” (LinkedIn, 2022).

Their services and digital writing tools (DWTs) (Bell & Hotson, 2020, p. 19-20) include, “Get writing and referencing feedback in just hours,” “Get one-to-one, online study help,” “Chat with a student at your uni,” and “Academic Writing Evaluation” (Services). Studiosity’s services and DWTs are not new and are similar to other such support services offered by, for example, publishing companies; e.g., Pearson’s Smarthinking and McGraw-Hill’s partnership with TutorMe. What is new is the way that they are pitching their services.

Selling academic integrity

Australia is one of the first countries to federally ban commercial cheating and to make it a criminal offense with fines of up to $100,000 (AUD) for operators (TEQSA, 2022). Australia’s  the legislation, Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Prohibiting Academic Cheating Services), is quite broad in its scope: prosecution need only “to prove that the person intended to provide, offer to provide or arrange an academic cheating service, and that they were reckless as to whether it was provided for a commercial purpose.”

This legislation has had a positive effect, especially in the exploitation of students. Most essay mills in Australia have closed up shop (Forbes, 2020; Times Higher Ed, 2020). In contrast, companies like Studiosity that partner with the education institutions have benefitted from this legislation.

An aspect that seems to set Studiosity apart in Canada is their experience in the Australian education market. Smartly, they conducted studies about academic integrity and partnered in the development of their tool in Australia with reputable and independent research institutions and universities (Wilson, McAuley, Ashton-Hay, & van Eyk, 2020), publishing studies about their findings.

They have followed the same model here in Canada with the publication of their study 2022 Canadian Student Wellbeing Survey (in partnership with Angus Reid), part of their planned expansion into Canada. On the report’s webpage, Studiosity leads with this study’s findings: “One-in-two (53%) of students say they have personally witnessed cheating within the past year, 15% say it happens all the time.” Such Studiosity stats have been picked up by many news sources and republished—in Britain’s Independent (40 percent of students ‘seriously considered’ dropping out of university during pandemic, poll suggests), for example. With similar reports in popular media, Studiosity may have found a niche (here, here, and here, for example).

The question is, is Studiosity really driven by a desire to promote academic integrity in the student support it offers? What motives might be behind their ethics-washing of writing services and support of students?

The non-human tutor/teaching assistant

The writing instruction and assessment that are at the heart of higher education are time-sensitive and time-intensive. This is a problem that Studiosity is targeting. The ease of automated writing assessment and support through Studiosity’s non-human DWTs feed into institutions’ neo-liberal mindset. The ever-increasing, part-time faculty is likely to become increasingly dependent on this sort of automation to manage the teaching load necessary to earn a living wage.

Inviting digital writing tools into the classroom is also to bring in Studiosity’s design, algorithms, and politics. In our piece, Three foundational concepts for tutoring digital writing (Hotson & Bell, 2020), we explain that DWTs are not value neutral. They are co-authors in a process that Wargo (2018) characterizes as writing-with, as they have “the power to influence not just how users think and interact but also what they think about” (Hotson & Bell, 2020, p. 22).

From a post-human perspective, writing moves from a “way of being” to a “way of becoming”…Writing is always already a becoming of future relations with. In such an instance, technology as co-author affects structures, and formats inform content, syntax, grammar, and spelling, which then inform style, pedagogy, and instruction, ultimately affecting knowledge production and acquisition. (Hotson & Bell, 2020, p. 22)

In university classrooms, digital writing tools have the power to shape graduates—their skills, identities, and dependencies. In the case of Grammarly, another popular DWT, students are trained to use proper English across all of their online communications, from the essays they’re writing to their social media messaging. The Grammarly browser plug-in “surveils and intervenes in their languaging practices across all contexts of online communication—from personal email to Facebook to comment forums—regardless of whether they’re writing for the purposes of the course or for personal or professional reasons” (Bell & Hotson, 2021, p. 120). What this does for students’ understanding of English as a superior colonial language has not yet been studied. How instructors are to help students contextualize and counter the value-laden nature of tools has not been considered.

In fact, while these tools promise efficiency and cost-savings, they require an investment in training and work to ensure that instructors both know how to use them and know how to help students use them. For instance, Turnitin’s similarity report identifies all similar content, whether it be a keyword required of students by an assignment or an accurately if not effectively attributed quotation. Instructors must invest time learning how to decode and assess these similarity reports. Not doing so results in assumptions about student cheating based on ignorance about the nature of “originality” in academic discourse.

Human writing feedback

Like many online tutoring tools, Studiosity has live-help—humans (v. bots) available to provide feedback on academic writing, where writing tutors are assigned posted papers. It’s here that the student content is converted into Studiosity’s “unique annotator tool” (Evelyn Levisohn for Studiosity). Studiosity’s user agreement indicates that student content will be used to improve the viability of Studiosity’s algorithm or “performance.” While there is no information available on how the Studiosity algorithm works or is developed, it’s safe to assume that converted student content is a source for the development and performance of their algorithms. Part of surveillance capitalism, as described by Zuboff (2019), Studiosity’s homework help isn’t the only product of their algorithms or tools—students, through these tools, “are the abandoned carcass” of these surveillance capitalists (p. 377). In a $5 trillion industry, student data commodity of exchange.

The real currency of the online economy is user attention and data (Zuboff, 2019), and this is true even for online education companies.

A comparison of Grammarly and Studiosity’s user agreements

While Grammarly’s terms of service (user agreement) and privacy policy tends to be more accessible than Studiosity’s terms of service and privacy policy, there are similarities in what content and personal information each takes from their customers. From a surveillance capitalist perspective, Grammarly and Studiosity’s approaches to collecting user data seems to check all the boxes.

For instance, both keep user content. For Grammarly, user content “consists of all text, documents, or other content or information uploaded, entered, or otherwise transmitted by you in connection with your use of the Services and/or Software” (Emphasis is ours). This is rather expansive if you consider that all content produced within an Internet browser is connected to the browser plugin.

While you’re using Grammarly’s product, Grammarly needs access to your text in order to provide suggestions. We use powerful algorithms based on machine learning to check your writing and identify opportunities for improvement. Without access to your text, there is no way for our product offerings to provide feedback.

In addition, Grammarly also collects “device information” like your operating system, browser type, and “unique device identifiers.” Grammarly offers users the ability to delete their personal data, but retains the right to keep some of it “for as long as reasonably necessary for our legitimate business interests, including fraud detection and prevention and to comply with our legal obligations including tax, legal reporting, and auditing obligations.”  Grammarly is also clear that third parties’ have access to some of this content through plugins in its Software.

It’s interesting to note that use of Studiosity is restricted to users 18 years and older, which negates many Canadian first-year students.

A look at the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy of Studiosity shows similarities to Grammarly. Studiosity collects a significant amount of personal information from users, including “name, email address (including personal email, institution email and parental email), mobile phone number, year of study, date of birth, postcode, student status, entity/institution name, type of entity/institution (e.g. school, library, university), business address, details of sporting and other extracurricular commitments (if required to assist with scheduling). We may also collect additional information from End-Users in order to improve our services and performance.” This is significant personal information to provide to a corporation for any purpose.

Studiosity also tracks users’ online behaviours using Cookies “for additional purposes such as behavioural advertising, analytics, and market research.” Users can expect to be subject to advertising when using Studiosity as it uses Google AdWords, which gives Google access to the personal information Studiosity collects about users in order to show them microtargeted ads.

Imagine a tutor sitting with a student at a table in the writing centre. As the student begins to tell the tutor about their trouble with their lab report, the tutor slowly lifts one 8.5 x 11 poster after another, one for advertisement for Walmart and then another for Mattress Mart and then another for Dell laptops.

So while Studiosity says that it does not sell user data to third parties, Google AdWord is given access to the Studiosity site to target ads to university and college students. Studiosity makes money from Google AdWords. As described by Zuboff (2019), they’re profiting from university and college students.

Imagine a tutor sitting with a student at a table in the writing centre. As the student begins to tell the tutor about their trouble with their lab report, the tutor slowly lifts one 8.5 x 11 poster after another, one for advertisement for Walmart and then another for Mattress Mart and then another for Dell laptops. “Wow,” says the student, “How did you know I went to Walmart to buy a Dell laptop and then to Mattress Mart for a futon?”

Imagine then the tutor shares the student’s lab report with other tutors, professors, and staff members that the tutor feels need to know about this lab report. There is a sign posted by the backdoor of the writing centre, informing them that by using the writing centre’s services, they agreed to their lab report being shared.

Not only would this be ludicrous, it would be laughable. No conscientious administrator or tutor would allow this to happen. It would go against provincial laws and institutional policies.

But yet, neoliberal institutions looking to cut costs ask or require students to use these tools without making students aware of the fine print. And corporations continue to use students for their data. This, it would seem, is unethical.

The privilege of data privacy

When universities turn to corporations for student support, they deepen the inequities between them. Not all students will be able to afford to maintain data privacy by paying for private tutoring supports. Most students, in fact, will have no choice but to use the cheaper (if not free) service provided by the university. For these students, there will be no choice of data privacy. Student control over their personal data can also be compromised when instructors make use of tutoring software a requirement. Institutions have seen lawsuits over the requirement that students feed their written work into Turnitin.com, which banks all submitted work without the users’ explicit permission. Can we expect to see lawsuits about data privacy as universities outsource student academic supports to corporate subcontractors like Studiosity?


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