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Political Science and Technology Build Real-World Skills

Two political-science professors at the University of California, Davis, push their students to learn valuable computer skills.

by / April 30, 1998
Running an Internet connection to a school does not ensure students will benefit from technology. It's up to the school and the teachers to discover how to use technology to educate students, but not all schools and educators are up to the challenge.

For teachers, technology means a whole new set of rules and an overwhelming amount of data. Many educators lack training, feel intimidated or can't devote the time to restructure their curricula to include technology. However, there are some teachers out there who not only embrace the new ideas and ways of teaching that technology offers, but they also realize how important technical skills are to students about to seek work in the Information Age. Larry Berman and Geoffrey Wandesforde-Smith are examples of that type of teacher.

As political-science professors at the University of California, Davis, Berman and Wandesforde-Smith believe that a familiarity with technology and technical skills are aspects of education that students simply can't live without. As a result, they require their students to begin learning HTML the very first day of class.

"It's a mandatory requirement that the students develop a political-science Web page in which they will post all of their work and their term papers," said Berman, who teaches Introduction to American Government -- a general education class that generates an enrollment of about 360 students per quarter. "They're also required to build links to political sites."

Berman and Wandesforde-Smith believe that teaching their students to use this tool will help them learn about political events around the country. "There are some wonderful politically related sites out there, from the League of Women Voters to online voting guides in various states. I can teach about politics all day in class, but the students won't get even a third of what they can discover surfing the Net," explained Berman.

Wandesforde-Smith, who teaches a variety of political-science courses at the university, believes it's also liberating for students to learn HTML and surf the Internet. "It opens up all sorts of aspects of learning that students would never encounter in a lecture room, listening to somebody talk and taking notes. Most faculty members would take the view that teaching students how to do this is not part of their job. Consequently, unless there are crazy people like us to take the initiative, this new pattern would never be established."

LEARNING LABS

Not only are Berman's and Wandesforde-Smith's students required to learn HTML, they're also required to learn it on their own time. Students visit the on-campus computer labs for HTML classes in the late afternoons and evenings. The classes are usually taught by students who have already completed Berman's course. There, students are each given a space on the university's political-science Web site ingdemocracy/>, where they begin creating their own Web pages.

Students in Berman's class are required to begin posting journal articles on the Web by the fifth week of the course. Teaching in the university's "smart classroom" -- where he can be online while teaching -- Berman discusses some of the best student Web pages in class. He even runs occasional contests to encourage students to design creative pages.

"I always wanted to learn HTML, but it is very difficult to get into the computer classes offered here," said Kim Owyoung, a design major at the university who took Berman's course. "I know that some of my classmates who suffered from computer phobia felt that it was intimidating and not what they expected to learn in a political-science class. However, technology is a fact of life. It is everywhere. Learning HTML made them even more acutely aware of this fact."

"This is where the jobs of the future are going to be," said Berman. "When I first started this, I really had to convince people it was worthwhile. Now, most of them realize its important and are excited they can learn it in political science."

TEACHING FOR THE FUTURE

Using technology in their classrooms has created other advantages as well. "It allows me to go into my office late at night and read 40 to 50 students' journals and respond to them. I wouldn't be able to do that with the old way of doing things -- I'd need assistants," Berman said. He also uses technology to conduct virtual office hours. Students can Telenet in to discuss things with him and other students online.

But perhaps the biggest benefit Berman has seen from this program involves his students' work. "Students are nervous at first about the fact that everyone is going to see their work," he explained, "but I've discovered a remarkable thing. The work gets a lot better as they read each other's journals. Anyone can go in and read these journals online and see the students starting to get involved as they read other students' work and challenge themselves to do better."

At the end of the quarter, Berman requires his students to post a final, complete Web page for grading. To get a good grade, students must have mastered enough HTML to post a fully functional, creative and informative site. "Basically, I'm turning out 360 political-science students who, by the end of the quarter, are conducting research online, have learned how to interact online, and have developed this very important skill to create their own Web pages," Berman said.

STUDENT FOCUS

Berman and Wandesforde-Smith have witnessed impressive results from their innovative Web-based teaching methods. Berman said he often gets letters from students making $15 to $20 an hour as Web developers.

In addition, Berman and Wandesforde-Smith headed an effort last year to place a special technology lab at the university. The lab, known as the Sun Technology Research and Excellence Center, was developed as a place to foster discussion and collaboration among faculty, students and policymakers involved in political science. Sun Microsystems donated workstations and infrastructure to create the lab. Berman said many of his best students have gravitated to the lab and are now working on advanced research projects, gaining more technology skills along the way.

Overall, Wandesforde-Smith said the use of technology in his courses has brought about results never envisioned before. He attributes that to the fact that he and Berman use technology primarily to benefit their students. "The reason we do this is very much student-oriented. They're the ones that need to learn to do this, so that when they leave here and go out into the real world, they'll be ready," Wandesforde-Smith said.

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