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Introduction

Original Bid

Web-based Political Science Teaching and Learning Resources

Teaching and Learning Resource (TLR) Version 2.0

Web-based Political Science Teaching and Learning Resources

The internet is bursting with political science teaching and learning resources. A Google search for 'political science resources' returns over 1.8 million sites. And the number grows daily. For the purposes of this review, the sites have been divided into three broad categories: official government sites and portals; university-sponsored or hosted sites; and sites dedicated to promoting web-based teaching and learning. This review does not focus solely on the latter category because all government and politics sites can play a role in teaching and learning, whatever their pedagogic intentions. In each case, the review focuses on the efficacy of each site for the promotion and use of data in the classroom.

Government Sites

Many sites are of very high quality. Some of the best are government sites. The United States government portal (firstgov.org) is the most impressive. It provides a comprehensive gateway through which citizens, employees and businesses can interact with the federal government and its agencies. Teachers and students can use the portal to access government data, and many government agencies have made great efforts to ensure that access to data is as simple and straightforward as possible. Indeed, the range and quality of the data available is staggering. Interested parties can use the FedWorld Information Network (fedworld.gov) or FedStats (fedstats.gov) to access government information and databases (on US supreme court decisions or automobile emissions, for example). The US Census Bureau maintains a particularly comprehensive and impressive website. Users can search for aggregate pre-packaged census results, and use interactive internet tools (such as DataFerrett) to retrieve and analyse individual-level data on-line. Alternatively, users can download census data direct to their PCs. However, in spite of concerted government efforts to facilitate easy access to and use of such data, its intrinsic complexity and size makes it problematic.

While other governments, especially in western democracies, have begun to follow America's lead in using the internet to (re-)connect with their citizens, their efforts hitherto are neither as comprehensive nor sophisticated. However, the smaller size of non-American government sites makes them more navigable and intuitively attractive, especially for novice users. The United Kingdom's new portal, UK Online (ukonline.gov.uk), is a good example. It facilitates access to over 1,000 government and public service websites, including the National Statistics Online, which publishes summaries of national statistics and allows users to download individual-level data. However, as is the case with the US Census pages, there are few on-line teaching and learning resources. Other government websites suffer similar problems.

University and Associated Sites

In addition to the many official government websites, both domestic and foreign, most universities and educational associations host sites that promote teaching and learning or direct users to relevant pages. Most universities in the US and UK have a dedicated 'political science resource site', usually hosted and managed by either the university library or the political science department. In the main, these sites contain little other than a long list of links to other government and politics websites: for example, to the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, state governments, pressure groups and so on. The resource sites usually also include links to a multitude of data sources, such as the US Census Bureau, ICPSR, Eurostat and the UK Data Archive. Increasingly, academics are providing on-line access to specially constructed datasets (usually re-coded and ready to use) on their own webpages, and many university resource pages provide the necessary links.

A number of 'gateway' sites perform a similar function. For example, the Social Science Information Gateway (sosig.ac.uk) provides a long list of political resources, but does not differ in any substantive way from most university sites. It is my sense that most resource sites do not provide a particularly efficacious service. Many are ill organised, and users can spend too long searching recommended sites without finding the appropriate information or data. Most resource sites hosted by professional associations such as the American Political Science Association (apsanet.org) and the (British) Political Studies Association (psa.ac.uk) offer a similar type and level of service. Google or other such proprietary search engines offer a more simple and efficient way to locate one's object, so long as users know what data they want and were it is hosted. For inexperienced users, however, university and educational association sites are a good first port of call, as they introduce users to a wide range of sites and data that they may not otherwise have thought existed.

In addition to problems of structure and organisation, most university and educational association resource sites suffer one major problem: replication. The resource links are almost identical across sites. While replication is not a major concern for the end user, it represents an extremely inefficient use of funds and time. Thousands (or perhaps tens of thousands) of people are writing and managing almost identical sites. Centralisation could in this case result in significant savings.

Another problem is that few university and educational association websites provide access to easily usable data resources. There are, however, some exceptions. For example, the University of Michigan hosts the National Election Studies homepage (umich.edu/~nes). Here, users can download NES individual-level data and codebooks. Users can also access the NES Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior, which contains time-series trends (either in tables or graphs) across a range of issues (ideological dispositions, partisanship, political participation, vote choices and public opinion on crime, the economy and so on). This is a fast, efficient, well-organised and maintained site that delivers an impressive amount of information in a user-friendly way. However, users are not able to construct their own tables and graphs from NES individual-level data. Nor are they able to cross-tabulate different variables. Nevertheless, it an excellent site. While the British Election Study (essex.ac.uk/bes) does not yet offer users an NES-style time-series facility, NESSTAR (nesstar.com) allows users to run basic statistical tests on cross-sectional data on-line and to download subsets of individual-level data to analyse on their own PC. As the number of datasets available via NESSTAR increases, so will its utility to the academic community. However, it is as yet unclear whether NESSTAR is user-friendly enough to attract inexperienced data and student users.

Dedicated Web-based Learning and Teaching Sites

More recently, funding bodies and organisations have begun to think creatively and constructively about ways in which the internet can be used in training and learning. JISC has already funded a wide range of projects designed to "integrate learning environments with the wider information landscape aimed at increasing the use of online electronic resources" through its 5/99 Learning and Teaching Programme. One example is the Resource Discovery Network's recently published Virtual Training Suite (vts.rdn.ac.uk), a series of free web-based tutorials designed to "develop…internet research and information skills." The site allows users to choose from a wide range of tutorials (Internet Vet, Internet for Government, Internet Politician and Internet Chemist, for example). Each tutorial directs users (whether teachers, students or researchers) to the most relevant and important websites (e.g. government portals, library catalogues, journals, databases etc.). While the tutorials are very well designed and include a host of special features not seen elsewhere (for example, a links basket to collect links to key sites, and quizzes to test users' knowledge), the links are often no different to those found on most university resource pages. Moreover, the aim of each tutorial is to improve people's internet skills, not their grasp of substantive issues.

Biz/ed (bized.ac.uk), another website funded by RDN in partnership with MIMAS, pushes the boundaries of internet learning. Aimed at teachers and students of economics, business and accounting, it allows users to use real data (which can be downloaded in an MS Excel file) to learn about substantive and statistical issues. The main interface through which users access data is TimeWeb-"a unique integrated package of data and teaching and learning materials to support the teaching of data skills." It is a model of its kind, and free to Biz/ed users.

TimeWeb (timeweb.mimas.ac.uk) is itself a JISC-funded project; the central aim is to re-purpose macro-economic time-series datasets as key learning and teaching resources. Although economic, not political science, data are the intended object, it may be possible to use TimeWeb in our own project. Even if this is not the case, we can learn much from the layout and pedagogic approach of Biz/ed-TimeWeb.

Another good 5/99 example is the CHCC project (Collection of Historical and Contemporary Census data at chcc.ac.uk), which aims to integrate census data into learning and teaching programmes in HE by "improving accessibility to the primary data resources; developing an integrated set of learning and teaching materials; improving awareness about the contexts in which Census data can be used in learning and teaching; integrating contextual materials; providing access to web-based data exploration/visualisation tools; [and] developing resource discovery tools via a Census portal." The teaching and learning materials include eight units focusing on various aspects of nineteenth century Britain. Each uses census data to improve users' understanding of urbanisation, migration, household and family structure and so on. The site also contains materials to support the analysis of contemporary samples of anonymised records (SARs), including teaching units on data analysis and substantive issues such as social class, ethnicity, inequality and education. As with the Biz/ed site discussed above, the CHCC project should prove an invaluable guide for writing and piloting our own political science site. (Interested parties can access the Biz/ed and CHCC sites, and other related JISC-funded resource sites, though the JISC 5/99 page at http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=programme_learning_teaching)

Another very good site that aims to bring real data into the classroom is the JISC-funded Stars project (stars.ac.uk), a joint effort of De Montford, Coventry, Kingston, Nottingham Trent and Oxford Brookes universities. Stars, creating statistical resources from real datasets, "aims to make available real datasets, from accessible databases, in a form suitable for a learning and teaching resource in HE across a range of disciplines, construct learning materials to accompany these datasets, and develop materials so they can be used with various statistical packages for a range of student abilities, backgrounds and needs." Users, primarily undergraduates, download data to their PCs in an Excel file, and then use one of five statistical packages (hosted locally) to analyse the data. While our own project focuses on political science data, Stars will, when completed, be multidisciplinary in its appeal. As yet, however, only one 'worksheet' (investigating the relationship between changes in weight loss and triglyceride level) is operational. More are planned, but the timeframe is uncertain.

Three further sites are worthy of mention. Run by the Parliamentary Education Unit, Explore Parliament (explore.parliament.uk) includes information and exercises on parliament and politics. It uses video, archival material, games, quizzes and an online debating chamber to engage students (Key Stages 3 and 4) in the UK's political affairs. It allows students and teachers to learn about the country's laws, political history, parliamentary procedures and so on, and is generally a fast, thoughtful and informative website. The British Library's 21st Century Citizen site (21citizen.ac.uk/live/citizenship) hosts online resources designed to support the new citizenship curriculum. It is structured around a series of 'Enquires'. Five have been published to date, on topics such as Britishness, how society works, and crime and the community. It is an excellent and innovative site, which encourages students to utilise primary sources, including archived material and official crime data. Students can, for example, view data on clear-up rates, crime trends and homicides, although they cannot manipulate the data. Finally, the commercial History Learning Site (historylearningsite.co.uk) provides teachers and students (at Key Stage 3, GSCE and A-level) with curriculum-tailored material on history and politics. However, students are offered few opportunities to use and interact with real data. The material is pre-packaged; students do not learn by investigation. Rather, the material and pedagogic approach are little different to that found in most standard textbooks.

Conclusion

While many of the sites discussed above are of good quality and provide access to a wide range of data and information, their pedagogic function is open to question. Access by itself is often not enough. In order to understand and make good use of data, users and especially inexperienced student users would benefit significantly from hands-on data manipulation in a guided and structured learning environment; data has more meaning and value when it is used to investigate substantive issues and questions. It is our contention that hitherto academics and teachers have largely failed to make good use of data, especially political science data, in the classroom. By linking data and substantive issues in a structured learning environment, we hope our pilot study will address this omission and provide a guide to educators about the efficacy of and prospects for using political science data in the classroom. In turn, we can learn much from the few dedicated teaching and learning sites that place data at the heart of the learning experience.