SourceWatch:Student Editor Program
From OpenCongress Wiki
In the Student Editor Program, Congresspedia staff work with university professors and high school teachers to integrate the publishing of student writing on the Congresspedia wiki as part of their U.S. history, government, journalism or related courses. In a reverse of the common wiki-to-student paper dynamic, students actually research and then upload information to the Congresspedia wiki for its tens of thousands of daily visitors to read. This broadens class assignments from mere learning exercises to concrete contributions to society's understanding of our government, making students active participants in democracy, even if they're not yet able to vote!
Thus far classes at both the university and high school level have participated in this program. The Congresspedia staff provide extensive support and customize the program to fit each class' needs and fit seamlessly into the curriculum - there is no set structure. (See below for examples of previous participating classes and details on support.)
Congresspedia is a not-for-profit, collaborative "citizen's encyclopedia on Congress" based on the wiki platform (think Wikipedia) and part of the SourceWatch wiki. It is widely used by the public, with more than 60,000 average readers a day, meaning students' work would be widely viewed by citizens researching Congress and politics. The site is overseen by professional editors who fact-check the content and provide other support. (More information about Congresspedia.)
Taking students beyond the classroom
Every year, hundreds of thousands of university students expend millions of hours of labor to research and write papers on Congress, national politics and the federal government. Usually this research is turned in, graded and then put in a file drawer somewhere to gather dust. The Student Editor Program allows students to submit their writing to a collaborative effort to document how Congress works.
The program enables undergraduate (and graduate) students to get involved in actual scholarship – and for journalism students, actual reporting – by putting their work into a resource that is widely used by members of the public to further their understanding of their government. There is no need to wait for entrance into a doctoral program or academic position for students to get engaged in the world as producers of knowledge.
How the program works
Congresspedia staff work with each professor to design a program to fit their particular needs. The involvement of any particular professor can range from merely suggesting their students post sections of their papers on the site to the heavy integration of Congresspedia into a course's curriculum.
Congresspedia runs on the MediaWiki software platform (the same one that runs Wikipedia), which means it is an unstructured, infinitely expandable collection of articles that are editable by anyone who registers with the site. It also means that Congresspedia can take advantage of ease of editing that is the specific raison d’être of the MediaWiki platform. In any implementation of the program, professors assign their students to log into the site and add their own writing to an existing article or one created by them. It is up to individual professors to decide how extensive they want those assignments to be. Some options include:
- Pasting existing writing assignments directly into Congresspedia: Students can take writing assignments they have already completed for a class and find a related article or articles on Congresspedia. They then paste the text of their assignment (or relevant sections of the assignment) into the existing article(s) or, if there is no existing relevant article, they create a new article and paste their text into that.
- Adding summaries of writing assignments they have already completed for a class into Congresspedia: If a professors feels it is more appropriate, students can sum up factual statements in their writing assignments and then paste those summaries into existing or new Congresspedia articles. Because Congresspedia requires an external source for every factual assertion, the student would enter a link back to their main paper as the source. While some universities already post student papers online, Congresspedia can host student papers on their servers if no solution exists within the university.
- Adding writing specifically meant for Congresspedia: Professors could also assign students to make an addition to Congresspedia as the assignment itself rather than having them post parts of other writing assignments to the site. The assignment could be on virtually any topic related to Congress or national politics, but the writing would be done specifically with the goal of adding to an existing Congresspedia article or creating an article on a new topic.
Topics appropriate for Congresspedia
As a comprehensive encyclopedia on Congress, virtually any issue related to Congress, the federal government or national politics is an acceptable article topic. For example, a paper on an environmental regulation would be relevant because federal regulations are rooted in legislation. Similarly, an article on voter demographics is relevant to a particular Congress, voting rights and election legislation. Assignments could be general (how does lobbying work), historical (the details of the passage of the Medicare Modernization Act), specific to a students' hometown (add to the profile of your senator or representative) or analytic (the importance assigned of the federal deficit in different Congresses). The only material clearly not appropriate is persuasive pieces that make an argument. Congresspedia articles should be aimed at presenting the facts of a topic in a fair, non-partisan and accurate way.
Past examples of participating classes
For an example of how the program can work, see our ongoing collaboration with University of Maryland professor Phil Tajitsu Nash and his Asian Pacific Americans and American Public Policy class project.
How to evaluate student work
The edit histories of articles and users on Congresspedia are stored forever on the server. All a professor needs to do is collect the students' login names and the server will display all the changes made by that user.
What can professors expect from Congresspedia
Congresspedia staff will work with professors to design a program based on whatever level of involvement works best for them. They are also available for personal assistance, including technical assistance and in-classroom demonstrations for classes in the Washington, D.C. or Madison, Wisconsin areas.
Wikis are an increasingly popular mode of collaborative research, reporting and scholarship. Wikipedia, the most widely used wiki, has about 27,000 daily contributors, 1.4 million pages and is the 13th most visited website in the world. Using wikis is a valuable skill set for students in the 21st century and the Student Contributor Program is a perfect avenue learning the ropes.
Wikis were intentionally designed to be easier to create and change than regular html webpages. The basics of contributing to Congresspedia and other wikis can be picked up in about 15 minutes, with more complex (but optional) skills also coming fairly quickly. Congresspedia/SourceWatch have various help pages, but the two best places to start are:
What about intellectual property issues?
Congresspedia uses the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL), which is similar to the Creative Commons license in that it is designed to allow the free sharing of information. Writing that is uploaded to Congresspedia is authorized for redistribution, creation of derivative works and commercial use, provided that its authors are attributed. Students, as with all other Congresspedia editor, own their work and retain the copyright to their contributions, but once they is posted others are free to use the information. The original submission is retained and viewable in the edit history of the site, but one of the interesting things about wikis is seeing how others edit your work once it is uploaded to the wiki. The software also makes it easy to compare your original submission to the version created after other editors add to it.
While it is rare for an author who wishes to sell or otherwise profit from material that she releases under the Creative Commons or GFDL license, it is not without precedent. However work by students that is unlikely to be released on a for-profit basis, making it available to others enables society to benefit from and add to material that might otherwise never see the light of day.
How to prevent plagiarism
Plagiarism of Internet-published works is a growing problem in colleges and universities. The submission of student works to Congresspedia, like any other information posted the Internet, does make it available for other students to potentially abuse. However, Congresspedia is compatible with several of the plagiarism detection tools that now search the Internet, so writing posted to Congresspedia is actually less likely to be plagiarized than material traded through other, non-public avenues.
Resources available to faculty include: