The Integrating Technology in the Classroom track provided valuable insights into both the benefits of incorporating technology into undergraduate political science classrooms and the concerns these interventions can generate. The benefits discussed by the track's 24 participants were numerous and varied, ranging from enhancing participation in very large lecture classes to increasing students' “political Internet literacy” and public trust in government and to making learning more participatory and active through technological simulations. Concerns fell into three main categories: (1) legal concerns regarding student information posted publicly online and the necessity (and challenges) of obtaining institutional review board (IRB) clearance for classroom research; (2) the time required to adopt new technological techniques; and (3) the need for stronger research designs and evaluative measures to effectively assess learning outcomes of different technology interventions. Despite these concerns, there was broad consensus among track participants that technological interventions have the potential to enhance and ultimately transform undergraduate political science education. Here we highlight the central benefits, challenges, and concerns addressed by the track's five papers, and the discussions they generated.
The first paper presented in the track was Ben Epstein's “Why We Must Weave the Web: The Growing Need for Internet-Focused Political Education.” Epstein's central concern was declining levels of public trust in government in the United States and the fact that this trend coincides with low levels of political knowledge and participation across the country, especially among younger Americans. To address this concern, he argued for the value of teaching students to effectively navigate Internet resources for political purposes and, in so doing, enhance what he refers to as their “political Internet literacy.” This paper provided an important foundation for our track's discussions on the recognized potential and value of incorporating diverse Internet sources into our classrooms, the time and resources required to do this, and the challenges involved in effectively assessing learning outcomes.
The second paper, Sarah Spengeman's “Blog-Ed: Using Blogs in the Community College Classroom,” also focused on the pedagogical benefits of teaching students to become more “Internet savvy.” Spengeman argued for the pedagogical benefits of blogs because of the access to search tools, polling features, weblinks, video, and diverse news media that they afford. She found that by conducting tutorials, setting clear expectations, creating model posts, and integrating posts into classroom discussions, blogging can enhance student learning. Echoing the concerns of other track participants, Spengeman found the greatest challenges of using this technology to be the time required to effectively monitor posts and the lack of high-quality assessment tools to effectively measure how blogging impacts student learning.
The next two papers focused specifically on the challenges of providing opportunities for student participation in very large undergraduate courses. The first paper, “Assessing the Impact of I-Clickers in Large Classes” by Gamze Cavdar Yasar and Marcela Velasco, examined the impact of clickers on student learning in large (120–150 students) introductory comparative politics courses at Colorado State University. To assess the impact of clickers, Yasar and Velasco compared lectures that actively integrated clickers with those that did not. At the end of both lectures, student learning was evaluated using a series of multiple-choice questions. In addition, students were also surveyed regarding their perceptions of clickers. Yasar and Velasco found that students do indeed “learn better with clicker lectures and the results were not affected by gender, year in college and ethnicity/race.” In addition, they found that students surveyed believed that clicker use “improved their learning, encouraged participation/attendance, and provided motivation.”
A second paper, “The Effects of Student Preceptors in Online Discussions: Quantitative Indicators” by Kerstin Hamann, Philip Pollock, and Bruce Wilson, also addressed the problem of how to generate student-student interaction in large undergraduate classes. Building on recent research finding that the positive learning effects of face-to-face interactions can be recreated in online discussions, Hamann, Pollock, and Wilson asked how instructors can best maximize these effects, given scarce resources of both time and teaching assistants. Specifically, they asked whether undergraduate student preceptors can effectively model high-quality postings, which will have a “spillover” effect for other students. To address this question, they divided a large introductory American government course of 250 students into 26 discussion groups, with a preceptor intervening in half of these groups and the remaining groups serving as controls. Using quantitative measures, Hamann, Pollock, and Wilson ultimately found no statistically significant differences between the groups. Contributing to the track's dominant theme, however, they recognized the need for higher quality assessment measures and, specifically, content analysis of postings to better understand the potential qualitative effects of preceptor intervention on student participation.
The final paper of the track, “Born Digital: Using Media Technology in the Political Science Classroom” by Linda K. Mancillas and Peter Brusoe, administered pre- and posttest evaluations in three introductory American government classes at American University to assess the impact of technology on academic performance. The instructor and the lectures were identical for all three classes, but students in one class were required to post weekly responses to videos and articles on an online discussion board; students in the second class were encouraged, but not required, to post; and students in the third class had no online discussion. Ultimately, Mancillas and Brusoe found no statistically significant learning differences between the groups. However, they believed their study was also limited by the lack of evaluation tools that would facilitate longitudinal assessment of the efficacy of specific types of classroom technologies.
The track concluded with two open sessions. In the first, David Martin-McCormick and Christina Barton provided an overview of a terrorism/counterterrorism simulation used in undergraduate courses at American University. This was an insightful example of the ways in which technology can provide new and dynamic learning opportunities within and outside the classroom. In the second open session, Derrick Cogburn, also of American University, discussed the development of the world's first “virtual” graduate public policy program to focus on disabilities, the Institute on Disability and Public Policy (IDPP). This institute provides an intriguing example of the possibilities afforded by technology to bring together geographically dispersed institutions and actors in promoting the educational and policy needs of underserved populations.