“Teachnology” and Civic Engagement in the Year of COVID-19 Instruction

By Alison Rios Millett McCartney

As we start the Fall 2020 semester, many of us are left wondering – what can we actually do? With an unexpected transition to virtual instruction this fall, protests spurring an evaluation of the deep impacts of persistent systemic racism in many countries, serious institutional budget cuts, more students with unstable living and economic situations, teachers Zooming while simultaneously engaging in substantial caretaking, and uncertain health situations for our students, their families, our families, and ourselves, we are teaching in entirely new circumstances in every respect amidst a global pandemic. To use the language that we are in “a new educational context” seems a woefully inadequate way to summarize Fall 2020. Yet, as they say, the show must go on. Indeed, the path thus far of the 2020 elections in the United States is yet another contested “new” world. Given these many complexities, how do we pursue a primary disciplinary goal of educating students about democracy? What happens to civic engagement education in this vitally important election year? Though the road ahead of us may seem daunting, political science instruction is more important now than ever before; moreover, the “new educational context” we find ourselves in presents unique opportunities to reformulate our approach to teaching civic engagement.

First, we cannot give up. We cannot yield to circumstance. While each of the main political party conventions portrayed different conceptions of the ways in which our democracy is at stake, they do agree on that one point – this election will be one of the most consequential events in American political development. Who participates and how they participate are central to what the outcomes will be and thus what kind of America our students will have as soon as 2021 and for many, many years thereafter.

Simply put, online learning can give us more freedom to try different ways to engage students in learning about democracy.

Second, let’s look at the opportunities that these online teaching circumstances can open for how we are teaching civic engagement, the election, and democracy (including institutions, processes, and issues). I think of this fall as the time for “teachnology.” Simply put, online learning can give us more freedom to try different ways to engage students in learning about democracy. For example, it is easier now to bring in outside speakers. When we no longer have to navigate travel, which adds time even when done locally, and when speakers themselves have become much more accustomed to online presentations due to COVID-19, we can invite a greater variety of political actors into our classrooms. Even the perils of on-campus parking are gone. Yes, we do have the ever-present concern about technology failures, but we have all also developed a new patience for this possibility and can re-schedule when problems arise.

Another prospect is to use online learning as a way to get our students to work with K-12 students. Our students can take their knowledge and develop their skills by holding mock elections for K-12 classes, writing issue briefs or creative PowerPoints for K-12 teachers, conducting election debates whether by role-playing various actors or helping to prepare K-12 students to role play or engage in deliberative democracy, and so forth via online formats. Our students can learn democracy better by doing democracy with others.

Students and alumni from Dr. McCartney’s 2019 Civic Engagement and International Affairs course at Towson University

Other new opportunities for innovation include cancelling class on November 3rd to encourage students to work different parts of the election. From serving as election judges to driving voters to polls to traditional campaign work at polling sites to delivering ballots (where legal) to running online media “get out the vote” efforts, we are freed from the need to be physically present in our classrooms on November 3rd.  We can learn from our colleagues’ research in the scholarship of teaching and learning about how to make this work a meaningful learning experience about political science (see examples in JPSE, PS, and Teaching Civic Engagement). Reflection – written and oral – is a valuable learning tool to hash out the lessons learned and whether or not democratic values are impacted by this work, and it can be complimented by traditional research on election outcomes.  Further, these activities are available to all students, regardless of their partisan views.

This innovation does not need to be isolated to American government or state and local government classes. I am following this path of “teachnology” for a fully online course on “Civic Engagement and International Affairs.” Formal class is cancelled on November 3rd, and as I write, my students are exploring which civic engagement action they will choose. We are in a section of the course on deliberative democracy. They are first learning about and evaluating what it means to practice democracy from political science literature and then practicing deliberative democracy with each other via online formats. As we proceed to debates on vital international issues, a secondary education teacher will visit our class virtually to help my students learn how they can take their class-required research, knowledge about political literature on democracy, and experience from in-class deliberation to connect global-local issues which are impacted by elections of public officials. They are also choosing from amongst the Election Day civic engagement activities listed above, which include both online and in-person options.

If we aren’t teaching about how the current situation determines our democracy’s future, we are not only missing a unique opportunity to educate our students about political institutions, processes, actors, and issues – we are missing the whole point of 2020. Anyone can still adapt part of their class to bring civic engagement education and learning about democracy to their teaching repertoire. Every political scientist has a choice here, but we should not yield this life-changing democracy learning moment and chance to teach the best practices of democracy to the epidemic. Instead, let us innovate to help our students improve and sustain this democracy, and let us show our students how the study of political science is the very fabric of this country.

Alison Rios Millett McCartney is a guest contributor for the RAISE the Vote Campaign. The views expressed in the posts and articles featured in the RAISE the Vote campaign are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA. 

Dr. Alison Rios Millett McCartney is professor of political science and Faculty Director of the Honors College at Towson University in Maryland. She is the co-editor of two APSA books, Teaching Civic Engagement: From Student to Active Citizen (2013), and Teaching Civic Engagement Across the Disciplines (2017) and past president of the Political Science Education section.

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