Historic Election and New Tech Tools Yield Promising Vistas for Learning

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 07, 2008 8 min read
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Video sharing, social networking, and online games may be the everyday toys of the Internet generation, but Gamal Sherif is putting them to work in more serious pursuits.

Just as the candidates have learned to use novel technology tools to reach young people during this year’s presidential campaign, teachers like Mr. Sherif are turning to electronic resources to capture students’ interest in the election.

At the same time, they want to help students decipher the barrage of related images and information and to engage them in lessons about the democratic process today and throughout American history.

“The technology is fun and helpful, but it’s also a tool you can use to get a better understanding of what the political and historical issues are,” said Mr. Sherif, who teaches history and science at the Science Leadership Academy, a public high school in Philadelphia.

To do so, he is tapping online video archives, values surveys, and discussion groups that help students in his U.S. history class examine the stances of the candidates on various issues, and to articulate the pros and cons of each.

Election Blog: Campaign K-12

For more information and analysis on education and the 2008 presidential campaign, read the Campaign K-12 blog.

“We are looking at the presidential elections not as passionate individuals, but as historians,” Mr. Sherif said. “The aim is to get a better understanding of the political process they are witnessing ... and to employ scholarly strategies to present information in a clear and organized manner.”

Both major parties’ historic tickets—a black man for president, a woman for vice president—as well as compelling economic and foreign-policy issues are converging with the campaigns’ use of text-messaging, online networking, and nontraditional media venues to draw young people into the contest.

Teachers have also seized on the opportunity to use the favored devices of today’s students in teaching traditional civics lessons along with the 21st-century skills experts say people will need to thrive in the information age.

“The idea is to teach kids as young as possible to be able to navigate this increasingly complicated media world by giving them some basic tools for analysis, ... whether they are using Facebook, Wikipedia, or a textbook,” said Cyndy Scheibe, an associate professor of psychology at Ithaca College in New York state and the executive director of Project Look Sharp, which provides resources on presidential campaigns over the past 200 years.

New technologies, she added, help students synthesize information from a variety of sources, analyze issues, and compare current events with the historical record.

Taking It Outside Class

During the first few weeks of the school year, 9th graders in Mr. Sherif’s class in Philadelphia have been doing just that. Armed with laptop computers, the students monitor and analyze video footage of the candidates on the campaign trail and in debates. Using text-mapping tools, they can scrutinize the rhetoric in candidates’ speeches and interviews, and document their positions on various issues.

Resources for 21st-Century Lessons on the Election

The Living Room Candidate: Web site sponsored by the Museum for the Moving Image that provides clips of presidential-campaign commercials from 1952 through today, as well as background and historical information about campaign advertising.

National Association for Media Literacy Education: The national membership organization promotes media-literacy efforts. It offers suggestions for teaching about the election.

Glassbooth: An online quiz that analyzes a user’s position on social, political, and economic issues to see which candidate’s views he or she is most aligned with.

Mouse: A New York City-based nonprofit organization that supports research, policy initiatives, classroom resources, and training programs for teachers and students that promote the use of technology to enhance instruction.

Presidential Election Wiki: A wikispace, or collaborative Web site, that includes resources and Web links for teaching about the election process. The site is administered by Joyce Valenza, a library information specialist at Springfield Township High School in Pennsylvania.

YouTube: The video-sharing Web site has a channel dedicated to the election hosted by YouTube that includes clips of the candidates on the campaign trail and in debate, as well as video commentary by both prominent and unknown pundits.

Media Construction of Presidential Campaigns: Curriculum materials from Project Look Sharp, the media-literacy program at Ithaca College. It includes a detailed teacher’s guide and downloads for units covering media issues in presidential campaigns since 1800.

Access, Analyze, Act—A Blueprint for 21st Century Civic Engagement: The Public Broadcasting Service’s resources include a teacher’s guide for developing lessons that tap social media to teach media-literacy, critical-thinking, communication, and technology skills. The site, created by the Media Education Lab at Temple University in Philadelphia, also includes podcasts and interactive simulations on campaign issues.

Factcheck.org: The searchable Web site from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania monitors the factual accuracy of statements, advertisements, interviews, and debates related to the presidential campaign.

Get My Vote: A Web site sponsored by National Public Radio that allows citizens to write, record, or videotape their views about issues they deem important to the election.

The Internet Archive: The site contains historical collections in digital format. It includes video, audio, and print documents, as well as software and Web page archives.

eLECTIONS: An online, multimedia game offered by Cable in the Classroom in which players are candidates and choose their party affiliation and positions on key issues, then analyze polling maps and choose campaign strategies.

Source: Education Week

When discussions about the election have gotten heated, or taken too much class time, students have continued to debate the issues or share information in an online discussion group the teacher set up or in their own blogs.

As the Nov. 4 election approaches, Mr. Sherif’s students will continue blogging about the issues, and start creating their own campaign ads that promote the candidates’ platforms.

Those kinds of activities have gone a long way toward getting students’ attention for election-related lessons, said Joshua Block, a humanities teacher at the same school, the Science Leadership Academy. He set up an online discussion group about election issues after his students spent most of one period in a heated debate about the economy and the candidates’ plans to address the nation’s financial ills.

“I want to make sure they can discuss [the issues] in a sustained manner without getting annoyed, without attacking each other,” Mr. Block said.

“Often on these forums you hear from students who don’t necessarily speak up in verbal discussions,” he said, “but they will when they have a chance to think and compose their ideas online.”

They can also continue the discussion far beyond the confines of the classroom, he added. One recent debate, Mr. Block said, continued over the weekend and ended with dozens of online posts from students, some of whom suggested readings and other resources for their classmates.

His students are also studying how candidates frame and package information on their Web sites, and learning to question and verify claims made in ads, using Factcheck.org and other Web sites that gauge the accuracy of campaign materials and news reports.

“It’s a real advantage to be able not just to be a passive consumer of media,” Mr. Block said, “but to take some of the skills and theory from class and apply them to what you’re watching.”

21st-Century Skills

That kind of critical thinking, some experts say, reflects the skills that students will need to compete in a global economy. According to a report released last month by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, there is a growing need for workers who have “the ability to respond flexibly to complex problems, communicate effectively, manage information, work in teams, and produce new knowledge.” (“New Skills Seen Essential For Global Competition,” Sept. 17, 2008.)

Many of the Web resources with classroom applications for election-related lessons have the potential for developing many of those skills, experts say.

Using the Web tools provided by the Living Room Candidate initiative, for example, students “can view individual ads, but it also gives you a chance to work across elections and to see thematically how some of the same issues emerge election after election,” said Shelley Pasnik, the director of the Center for Children and Technology in New York City. “Rather than teachers’ describing what has happened throughout history, seeing the actual ads that ran in different elections can bring that period to life.”

Interactive tools also can help explain the technicalities of the electoral process, said Eric Langhorst, a teacher at South Valley Junior High School in Liberty, Mo. He regularly uses podcasts, online games, and Web sites to provide civics lessons.

Interactive maps, for example, with states coded in red or blue according to which party’s candidate they voted for in previous elections, show in graphic terms how the Electoral College picks the president. Using poll results that are updated regularly leading up to the election, Mr. Langhorst’s 8th grade class can make predictions about the current contest.

His students also play a multimedia game produced by Cable in the Classroom, called eLECTIONS, that allows them to take on a candidate’s persona. Using their “player’s” platform, campaign strategy, and available funds, they must tackle issues that pop up on a virtual game board on a path to the White House.

No matter how relevant or intriguing certain online content might be, teachers and students can find their efforts to use it in the classroom blocked by security features such as filtering devices.

YouTube, a database of millions of video and audio clips from individual users and traditional media sources, didn’t exist during the last presidential campaign. Now, millions of viewers younger than 25 watch videos on the site each day, according to the San Bruno, Calif.-based company. But YouTube is often inaccessible in schools, since clips are largely uncensored and can include content deemed inappropriate for minors.

Surmounting Hurdles

“Sometimes getting through the district firewall to access resources is difficult,” said Kristin Hokanson, a technology-integration coach at Upper Merion Area High School in King of Prussia, Pa. Ms. Hokanson also helps train teachers through Pennsylvania’s Classrooms for the Future Initiative and the Media Education Lab at Temple University.

To get over those hurdles, she said, teachers and media specialists have created their own Web pages where they have collections of resources and provide links to videos and information that would otherwise be locked.

Teachers are finding other challenges as well, including the limited time in the school day and a curriculum packed with requisite lessons. Many teachers are reluctant to introduce technology tools they are not fully comfortable using themselves, Ms. Pasnik of the Center for Children and Technology said.

And unlike at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy, where every student is given a laptop, the essential tools sometimes are simply not available.

“Many teachers are still vying for the In Focus projector [which projects images on a screen], so I don’t want to give short shrift to the challenges teachers face in using new technologies,” said Ms. Pasnik. “But now, with the more portable technology, like if the teacher has an iPhone, you can pull up [Web] resources in class.”

Blocking access to information on the Internet can undermine teachers’ ability to use potentially valuable instructional materials, said Frank Baker, a Columbia, S.C., educator who runs the Media Literacy Clearinghouse, an online resource for teaching about media.

“It doesn’t matter what new technologies are out there unless we have taught children how to be critical thinkers and to question whatever messages they see,” he said. “Creative and innovative teachers are going to use new media and will justify it as the best way to reach the ‘digital native.’?”

Doing so can help ensure that students have the skills to use information effectively and responsibly, said Mr. Sherif, the history teacher. “Students are very adept at finding and recycling media images, whether audio or video,” he said. “They can [access] this stuff at home, so why not have adults, who are expert learners, help them learn how to navigate the Web and not waste time?”

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Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2008 edition of Education Week as Historic Election and New Tech Tools Yield Promising Vistas for Learning


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