Shortly after I joined the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI), a colleague, Cecilia Sneed, took me to meet with our counterpart from the Social Studies section, Doug Robertson. At that time we were in the business of promoting effective and authentic instructional models by developing and piloting innovative educational programs. Cecilia and Doug wanted to devise a project that integrated technology with Social Studies, focusing on the upcoming 1992 election. VoteLine ’92 was born.
After refining our ideas and writing the VoteLine User’s Manual, we met with Social Studies teachers and central office technology directors from 12 schools, selected by the Social Studies section. We presented our vision, the objectives of the project, and described how their students would use computer spreadsheets, databases, and telecomputing (We didn’t know about the Internet yet) to conduct research, and discuss and apply concepts of government and the American election process.
The tech folks were mostly skeptical and their teachers were terrified, desperately trying to figure out why they had been selected for this weird crazy program. But that all changed when teachers started using the spreadsheets, and sorting and searching the databases. Their tech-directors’ barely controlled tension also eased as they realized that they may not be spending the next month-and-a-half at their high schools holding the hands of irate History teachers.
At the end of September, students started their research, identifying the prevailing issues of the upcoming election, the candidates, their published positions, and North Carolina’s county demographics. The classes shared the issues they had selected using a computer bulletin board system called FrEdMail. Some of the libraries already had access to online reference services like Dialog and CompuServe. The national campaigns were also using FTP to issue speech transcripts and press releases, which I shared out via FrEdMail.
During the first week of October the students, using a preloaded demographics database of the state’s 100 counties, considered and discussed the issues and candidates’ positions against their supposed impact on various counties. They were asked to take on the role of campaign manager and describe how they would approach the electorate of specific counties, knowing their demographic makeup.
After these discussions and resulting additional research, students worked in teams to apply a value to each candidate’s position on issues, a weighting of -5 to +5. Minus values represented a supposed negative impact on counties and plus values represented a positive impact. The spreadsheet formulas factored the weightings, with county demographics and their population of voting age residents to project election results. It probably seemed magical at first, but the students soon started to use their spreadsheets as logic testing tools. They altered their weightings to test alternative conclusions and responded to “what-if” scenarios presented by their teachers.
Working together through FrEdMail the classes selected a number of common issues, created a political pole, and published it to Social Studies classes across the state using FrEdMail and another BBS called LearningLink. Students went out in mass, poling their local residents on the issues. Again, they adjusted their weightings of the issues based on the results of their shared surveys to project new outcomes.
On election day, November 3, the classes held mock elections in their schools, asking students to vote using computer software developed by DPI. The next day, participating classes shared the results of their mock elections and the general election results for their counties, comparing their projected outcome with that of the mock and general elections.
VoteLine was a unique classroom experience for most of the students, because it did not focus on right or wrong answers. Students collected information, synthesized it, thought about it, talked about it, and then tested their conclusions against real world data and the recorded political behavior of their communities. Students were empowered to work together toward something that was bigger than any one of them.
For me, the greatest demonstration of the project’s success came during a debriefing meeting we held with teachers a few weeks later. A teacher of many years reported that after class periods, when students had been discussing the project, she would see them continuing the conversation at their lockers in the hall. She said that she had never seen students continuing to discuss Social Studies—after the bell had rung.
These students were engaged learners because they were empowered with technology and liberated by the permission — to get it wrong.