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Learning about Politics – What lessons from the European cooperation projectby Pekka Kämäräinen, Institut Technik & Bildung (ITB), University of Bremen1. IntroductionThe EU-project “Learning about politics” (POLITICS) was launched to support participation ofyoung people in politics and to stimulate participative learning about politics. In this contextpiloting with digital storytelling and with the use of Web 2.0 technologies was seen as centralactivities. The trans-national partnership was composed to bring together partners that workwith school pupils, apprentices and adult learners (including teachers and trainers). The pilotactivities with prepared learning contents, common interactive platform and user-generatedcontents the partners sought to promote participation and active citizenship.The project proposal gave a central role for the E-book “Straight into Politics”. It waspresented as seed-corn material for the project partners. The seed-corn story described aprocess in which a school boy (with the support of family members and friends) decides toset up a new party and to go straight to the next elections (for European parliament). For thepartners who were working in obligatory schools and whose target groups were school pupilsbelow 16 years, this story seemed appropriate as common core content. However, for thepartners who were working with adult learners and vocational learners (just reaching thevoting age) and with political youth organisations (that were actively involved in electioncampaigns), there was a need to find alternative ways to stimulate participative learning inthe real life contexts in which their target groups were working and to respond to the issuesarising from those contexts.2. Preconditions for piloting and implications of different approachesThe project was funded from the Transversal programme of the Lifelong LearningProgramme. Therefore, the partnership was expected to cover different educational setors(general education, vocational education and training (VET), non-formal youth education andadult education. The heterogeneity of the partnership ha implications for developing learningcontents as well as committing the target groups to work with web tools and to contributewith new user-generated contents.2.1. Working as school projects or in alternative project contextsAs has been indicated above, some partners of the POLITICS project were schools and hadplanned to implement the pilot activities as a school project involving certain school classesin the context of the curriculum. This was the case with Estonian, Italian and Slovenianproject activities. Other partners were organisations that had to find voluntary counterpartswho agree to work with proposed contents, platform and user-scenarios. This was the casewith German, Greek and UK (Welsh) project activities. The different implications for the pilotactivities can be characterised in the following way:A. The school projectsThe school projects can be based on the following boundary conditions:1) The school management has committed the school to the implementation of the project:2) The teachers and learners perceive working with the content as part of the curriculum.3) The use of pre-given contents, familiarisation with web tools and the task to provide user- generated contents are seen as parts of ordinary school work.4) There is no fundamental risk that the counterparts and ‘users’ of the project partners could opt out from the project work during the pilot activities.B. The alternative project contextsThe project activities implemented with external counterparts are based on the followingboundary conditions: 1
1) The project partners have to convince their counterparts of the benefits of the project and of the voluntary participation. Yet, there was no authority to give a binding commitment.2) The target groups themselves need to get convinced of the relevance of the proposed contents and tasks. Yet, this does not guarantee a binding commitment.3) The users have to see the benefits of working actively with the proposed tools and they need to have an interest of their own to produce new content. Otherwise, they will opt out of the active user-role.4) There are manifold risks of loosing the users in spite of initial expressions of interests and working agreements. Also, several intervening factors can play a major role.2.2. Working with pre-given contents or with new contentsAs has been indicated above, the project proposal had put a pre-given seed-corn story intothe centre and to develop new contents by responding to questions set by the original story.And, as has been indicated, there was a divide between the partners who agreed to workwith the original story and the partners who felt it necessary to work with alternative contents.In the next phase of the project work this was reflected by the discussion on ‘learningpathways’ and their role in the pilot activities. The conclusion was that the partners have tooutline their own sets of pathways and structure their pilot activities accordingly. Concerningthe implementation of the pilot activities the divide had the following implications:A. The school projectsThe school projects structures their work on the basis of the original story. The ‘pathway’structure was used either to follow the original story or to extend the contents withillustrations on the national context. The user-generated content came into picture byresponding to the questions raised by the original story and by following the threads outlinedby the original story. Trans-national storytelling came into picture by bilateral contactsbetween schools (including a group visit from Estonia to Slovenia and a related workshop).B. Alternative projectsThe other partners used their sets of ‘learning pathways’ as means to identify counterpartsand interest areas to work with. It was depending on the national context, whether the pilotactivities could be linked with other partner organisations (the role of forthcoming electioncampaigns in Wales and in Germany) or whether individual users were to be approached(the situation in Greece). Depending on the working agreements with external counterparts,the partners had to conclude, to what extent they had to produce new content themselvesand to what extent they could facilitate the users’ involvement in creating new content. Therole of trans-national storytelling came into picture via finding common interest areas thatcould be taken up by several partners (notably the stories of migrants).2.3. Committing the target groups and getting them use web toolsIn the light of the above the school projects had no fundamental difficulty in committing theirtarget groups (the pupils of the schools). Yet, there were some issues about using web toolsand new media to be clarified (e.g. access to real-time internet communication orpermissions to use open platforms and social media in school context).The alternative projects had to face a completely open situation regarding the involvement oftheir target groups as counterparts and as active users of web tools. Firstly, even if commoninterest areas have been identified, it is not possible to agree time frames for joint activities ofthe POLITICS project and the potential counterparts. Secondly, even if the activities and thetime frames could be adjusted, the use of common web tools may not be in the interest of thetarget groups. Thirdly, even if the common interests had been agreed, there may beintervening factors that prevent the counterparts from joining in the project activities. 2
3. The ITB approach to piloting3.1. The effort to link up with election campaigns and school projectsThe initial plan for the German pilot activities sought to link the POLITICS project toforthcoming campaigns and ongoing school projects with similar aims:1. The campaign Juniorvoting (Juniorwahl) before regional parliament elections 2011. This campaign was to be supported by the regional government.2. The annual school competition “Democratic action” (Demokratisch Handeln) in which Bremen school projects performed well in 2010 at the national level.3. The ‘local’ school project of BBS Papenburg on fair trade between Germany and Uganda (and its cross-border cooperation with Hanzehogeschool Groningen).Although the initial plans seemed feasible, there were several practical obstacles that made itimpossible to start an active cooperation. The decisions on the Juniorvoting measures weredelayed. The coordination of the ‘Democratic action’ competition was being reorganised. ThePapenburg project started cooperation with another research team. Finally, the POLITICSplatform was not yet shaped and it was not clear, how the POLITICS project could supportthe potential counterparts.3.2. The effort to link up with ordinary teaching-learning activitiesIn the next phase an attempt was made to find vocational teachers who were prepared touse Web 2.0 tools and to make use of common contents in their teaching. This led to thecreation of a support team for the German project activities.However, once the support team started working, it became clear that the teachers inquestion had very limited teaching hours for the subject ‘Politics’ and they were tied up by therequirements of curricula. This ruled out closer involvement with the competition “Democraticaction” and co-operation with advanced VET school programmes Thus, the work of theBremen project team started to take shape by writing blog entries that covered the followingcontent areas: a) Providing information on the regional elections in Germany and on measures to promote young people’s participation (including the “Democratic action” projects and the campaign “Juniorvoting”); b) Providing information on current protest movements (e.g. on nuclear power) that were heavily influencing the German politics; c) Providing information on the WikiLeaks platform and on the new role of internet communities in policy monitoring and citizens’ participation; d) Providing information and learning materials on the theme “Climate change” as an interface between (vocational) subject areas and policy-related learning.3.3. The effort to link up with specific events in teaching-learning processIn the beginning of the year 2011 it became clear that the project activities could not belinked that closely to the ongoing teaching-learning activities at vocational schools. However,there were some limited possibilities to link up with specific actions in which some of theteachers were involved (e.g. the development of a learning module “Climate change” andlocal participation in “Juniorvoting”). However, these could at best be used as opportunities toget new content for the German site.Therefore, the main thrust of the project work as to rework the existing German blog into aGerman resource base that was structured on several learning pathways. This resource baswas shaped by the research partner from ITB and most of the pathways were reporting oncurrent developments and debates in German politics. The resource base provided a generalframework into which the interest areas of the active teachers could be accommodated. 3
4. The development of the German site4.1. The development of the Learning pathwaysThe main thrust in the German project activities was the creation of a resource base consistsof ca. 100 original blog postings (in English) that have all been translated into German. Theresource base covers key developments in German politics from autumn 2010 to summer2011. It is structured into seven learning pathways:• Pathway One: Superwahljahr 2011 - The year of regional parliaments with super-elections• Pathway Two: Protest movements – The discovery of new forms for citizens’ participation• Pathway Three: Revolutions in Arab countries - When foreign affairs become domestic issues• Pathway Four: Internet communities - The new power of social media• Pathway Five: Integration of migrants – Hard talk and new insights into German developments• Pathway Six: Climate change – From big issues to observations and choices in everyday life• Pathway Seven: Young people’s participation: What options for young people in Bremen?Each learning pathway has a specific introduction that leads to the thematic Learning units.The learning units consist of topic stories, material boxes and workspaces. The materialboxes provide links to external websites (e.g. TV channels and Online magazines) and toother resources. The resource base was provided completely as two parallel languageversions (EN and DE) to enable trans-national exchanges and to address users in Germany.4.2. The development of Digital storiesSome members of the H*German project team participated in the POLITICS Spring Schoolthat provided support for using Web 2.0 tools and for Digital storytelling. After the SpringSchool the German research partner worked further with “Stories of Migrants” (that wasstarted by a trans-national group at the Spring School ). As an effort to involve externalcontributors, he organised group discussions with German-Turkish couples to explore theirexperiences with migration, intercultural understanding and social integration.In this context the contents of the German resource base (in particular Pathway 5: Integrationof migrants) were used to stimulate the discussions. During the development of this story theGerman research partner was in contact with other partners (from Greece and UK) to sharethe experiences and to engage them to contribute.4.3. The use of (other) web toolsFor shaping the project and the pilot activities it was of importance to develop such web toolsthat were appropriate for the pilot activities and comfortable for the users. For the Germanproject activities the early stage of the platform development (that provided only a nationalblog that was accumulating in a chronological order) turned out to be a hindrance. Thenecessary reshaping of the German site (to accommodate the multiple learning pathways)was achieved by re-launch of the platform and by using moodle (as a support tool tointroduce the architecture of learning units, material boxes and workspaces).Another issue that emerged during the project (also in the context of the German context)was, whether the web tools provided by the project were of the kind that young people wouldlike to use. Although the vocational teachers were sceptical about this (even after the re-launch of the platform), there was no immediate alternative solution that could havesupported better the German pilot activities. During the work with the Digital stories theGerman research partner followed the work of the UK partners with the “Learn politics”Facebook group and reported of the publication of new episodes of ‘Stories of migrants’. 4
5. The involvement of users and outreach for broader cooperationThe plan for German pilot activities was characterised by an outreach to engage externalcounterparts and to get users who would use the POLITICS platform in their action context.Yet, as has been indicated above, these outreach activities were not quite successful. Thesearch for external counterparts led at best to the development of a support group and toengagement of vocational teachers as multipliers, who were involved as co-contributors tothe platform (as content providers and co-authors for the learning pathways six and seven).Concerning the Digital stories, the German research partner made an effort to engageexternal users by the group discussions with the German-Turkish couples. Yet, thesesessions could at best familiarise the counterparts with the POLITICS platform and make useof existing contents. Moreover, the couples agreed to share their experiences and views bythe German site. Yet, it was up to the research partner to summarise the discussions and tosubmit the blog entries.During the work of the Politics project it became clear that development of new web platformand addressing vocational and adult learners with ‘real life issues’ is a major challenge.Moreover, getting vocational and adult learners to produce user-generated content for reallife contexts is a further challenge. In this respect the major hurdle was to get multipliers,facilitators and teamers to support such processes. In order to achieve this, the fundingperiod of the Politics project was too short and the focus on the regional context in Bremenwas too narrow. In this respect the cooperation talks with the sustainability plan havebroadened the scope of follow-up activities by linking up with parallel projects that haveworked with similar projects.Therefore, the follow-up measures of ITB will focus on three working perspectives:1. Cooperation with the project “PB21”: In the year 2010 the National Agency for Political Education (Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung - BPB) and a training centre of the German trade unions launched a project for promoting Web 2.0 in political education (http://pb21.de ). This project focused on training multipliers for using Web 2.0 technologies and digital storytelling in political education. In the next phase the experiences of this project (and parallel projects) will be evaluated.2. Cooperation with the Web 2.0 projects of the Europa-Haus Marienberg: The Europa-Haus Marienberg is one of the leading providers of learning in politics for youth organisations, schools and adult education. In particular its ThinkEurope communities and its forthcoming projects on e-participation provide a prospect for utilising the learning resources of the Politics German site.3. Support for Praktikum of students with focus on the subject politics: In the vocational teacher education programmes of the University of Bremen the students have to go through Praktika in vocational subjects and in their additional subjects (e.g. Politics). For these Praktika ITB will work further with Digital storytelling and with the resources of the Politics platform. In this context the participative learning models of trade unions (e.g. their awareness-raising campaigns for apprentices) will be analysed from the perspective of developing politics teaching in vocational schools.In the light of the above, the German follow-up measures will firstly focus on drawingconclusions from the work of the Politics project and on making further use of the resources.In this context the lessons from the pioneering work of the Politics project (and of the parallelprojects PB21 and ThinkEurope) can support the reshaping of national web resources ofBPB and some successor projects. The further work with the students’ Praktikumarrangements will lead to further use of the Politics platform for sharing user-generatedcontent on learning about politics. 5