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Online Country Teaches Real-World Politics

Using the fictitious nation of Ruritania, two University of Dayton professors are teaching political science students about the realities of government.

by / September 30, 1998
As the use of technology in education evolves, teachers are challenging themselves to come up with more provocative ways to use high-tech tools in the classroom. But for two political science professors at Ohio's University of Dayton, the search for new ideas ended in an unlikely place -- a country that's not in any atlas.

"Ruritania" is a medium-size Scandi- navian country of 12 million people. Located between Sweden and Norway, the country deposed its monarchy in a nonviolent coup last year. Today, 10 parties are vying for seats in the parliament and, ultimately, for control of the country. Thus is the stage set for the high-tech political-science simulation.

"The Ruritania simulation is being used to provide students with a basis for comparison and critical thinking," said David Ahern, who teaches the introductory course on U.S. government in which Ruritania is used. "We think that students are better able to understand and critique processes, institutions and players when they have some basis for comparison. Thus, we created the mythical country and gave it a history, an evolving political system and modern-day problems."

The evolving interactive simulation takes place on the political science department's intranet site. Ahern and another professor, Brian Young, teach the class and manage the intranet. Over the course of the semester, students participate in the simulation with the goal of developing a new political system for Ruritania. Students form 10 political parties comprised of three students each. They then use the intranet , a chat room and e-mail to communicate with other members of their political party, read the country's leading newspaper, check the latest opinion polls, negotiate the formation of coalition governments and debate topics ranging from the selection of a prime minister to how to resolve environmental issues.

"This helps evaluate what students know about our electoral system versus the parliamentary style of government, which they must use in the simulation," Young said. "These students have come out of high school with the idea that we have a presidential system, that there are three branches, and that everything flows very nicely. Then there's reality. The notion here is to give political science students an understanding of a different style of government other than the presidential model that we see every day and compare everything to."

Travel to Ruritania

During regular class time, Young and Ahern discuss the intricacies of the American political process with students. But outside class, students commute to Ruritania by accessing the Web page at least every other day for information, messages and reading assignments. According to Ahern, as students get more involved in the online nation, many of them tap into the Web site several times a day.

The online Ruritanian newspaper is one of the most popular areas of the intranet. The articles are written by Ahern, who takes modern-day events, changes names and places, and transforms them into Ruritanian news.

"We take current events and actually mirror them. Those events have a big affect on what policies are put into place in Ruritania. At the end of the semester, whether the students think so or not, their policies end up very closely reflecting the policies of the U.S.," said Ahern. "It's an eye-opener for students to see that they are pretty close in line with what the U.S. policies currently are."

Young said the simulation not only helps students develop an understanding of the pros and cons of different types of government, but to actually experience developing and running a country. The ultimate goal of the simulation is to leave students with a solid understanding of how difficult those processes can be.

"We want them to think about how difficult it can be to try to implement policies, to deal with economic policies,
and to understand how things change from the birth of a nation through the developmental phases," said Young. "And finally, to understand that the best policy -- even for a small class of 20 to 25 -- doesn't satisfy everybody."

"More often than not, students concede at the end of the semester that the U.S. has monotonous and slow procedures, but they appreciate the freedoms and liberties that the presidential system affords," said Ahern.

Tech Teachers

Young and Ahern say they've had wonderful success with the Ruritania simulation since first using it two years ago. In fact, they've even had a member of the British Parliament contact a group to help develop its platform. Parents have also participated, and several educational institutions looking to develop similar simulations have praised Ruritania.

Neither Young nor Ahern can imagine doing the project without online technology. "There are a lot of things that the electronic format allows. Not only does it allow students to learn outside of the classroom, but it allows others to get involved, like members of Parliament or parents," said Young. "It also gets those students that are less apt to be the extroverts in class to speak up and let their e-mails or chat sessions be heard."

Ahern sees the simulation as an example of how technology is transforming education. "It's helping people understand that, within the curriculum, we can develop a learning tool that can be used outside of the classroom, and that's both productive and beneficial to the student," he said. "Then students can come back into the classroom, use it as the basis of a lively discussion, and build on those online experiences."

But perhaps the biggest reward for Young and Ahern is the students' enthusiasm. "They really get interested in this country. It takes on a life of its own, and many of them want to keep participating even after the class and the semester are over," Ahern said. "No matter what the outcome of the simulated political struggle is, this is something that the students can really learn from and call their own."

Justine Kavanaugh-Brown is a Sacramento, Calif.- based writer.

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