Diversity and Democracy

Bringing Online and Residential Students Together for Engaged Civic Learning

On Tuesday, November 6, 2012, the Spencer Center for Global and Civic Engagement at Mary Baldwin College (MBC) was transformed into a broadcast studio. In a computer lab operating as a newsroom, student researchers culled election results from internet sources and tracked trends on a SMART Board, while students acting as producers, anchors, and members of the film and sound crew produced a live video feed. Nearby, in a crowded room decorated like a political convention hall, students, faculty, staff, and community members gathered to watch the broadcast. Reaching students across disciplines and programs, the 2012 Election Live Broadcast generated energy and enthusiasm that permeated the campus throughout the election season and beyond.

Engagement and Collaboration

The inspiration for the broadcast came from a workshop presented by John W. Williams of Principia College at the 2012 American Political Science Association Teaching and Learning Conference. At MBC, we applied the concept to accomplish two goals: (1) increasing electoral engagement of students across all disciplines, and (2) increasing collaboration between MBC’s on-campus and online students while providing equal opportunity to experience “high-impact educational practices” like undergraduate research and collaborative assignments (Kuh 2008, 10). The Association of American Colleges and Universities has promoted these and other high-impact practices as a means of achieving Essential Learning Outcomes like civic knowledge and engagement (Schneider 2008, 4).

Civic engagement is a central theme and mission at MBC, but not all students participate in it equally. While political science students enrolled in MBC’s Residential College for Women (RCW) routinely engage in role-playing simulations of government processes, students not taking political science classes and students enrolled in the Adult Degree Program (ADP)—MBC’s coeducational distance-learning program—have fewer opportunities for such engagement. The Election Live Broadcast was intended to reach a broader segment of MBC’s diverse student population than typically participates in such activities.

Planning for the Election Live event started in spring 2012 with an executive committee composed of faculty from political science, communications, and film; the director of the Spencer Center for Global and Civic Engagement; an instructional technology specialist; and two faculty-selected students who served as political director and communications director. These two student leaders held organizational meetings to recruit volunteers for a variety of assigned positions, including producer, technical director, hosts, anchors, editors, news readers, newsroom managers, and researchers. Throughout the semester, the executive committee used a variety of modes of outreach—including e-mail, Blackboard, Facebook, posters, booths in the dining hall, and word of mouth—to organize volunteers and advertise events. A grant from the Virginia Campus Electoral Engagement Project provided funding for the project.

Course-Based and Volunteer Participation

I required students enrolled in two of my political science courses—American Government (POLS 100) and the US Presidency (POLS 213)—to participate in the Election Live Broadcast. Both courses had a hybrid format that increased interaction among the forty-five RCW and twenty-nine ADP students enrolled. These students shared a single Blackboard page and the same course assignments, due dates, and resources. I taught my on-campus classes using SMART Boards, capturing the lectures and posting them on Blackboard with embedded links to additional readings, data, and multimedia resources (for example, campaign commercials) for both RCW and ADP students to access. A course blog with mandatory weekly posts fostered interaction between the on-campus and online students, engaging both groups in dialogue about the election. I required my students to conduct research and write transcripts for the election broadcast based on assigned research topics, including key races, candidates’ biographical information, economic data, issue analysis, party politics, and historical voting data.

About one-third of the students in my classes joined an additional forty-three students in volunteering to help organize and stage the broadcast. These student volunteers attended a variety of workshops on topics like using library resources, writing a transcript, preparing and taping a prerecorded segment, and public speaking for a live segment. Students who were unable to attend these events could access handouts, transcripts, and notes online. As the election approached, students conducted and prerecorded interviews for inclusion in the broadcast, gathering additional footage and backdrop photos during a bus trip to Washington, DC. Students wrote the script for the anchors, created commercials, scheduled live interviews, and planned food and decorations for the event. They also participated in voter registration drives and “get out the vote” phone banking, attended debate watching parties and guest lectures on policy issues, and watched films related to campaigns and elections.

Energy and Interest

The event itself was a great success, with an online survey conducted after the election suggesting positive results. For example, survey respondents voted in the election at relatively high rates, with 66 percent of RCW students and 88 percent of ADP students reporting that they had voted.

On campus, the event increased engagement among many who previously considered themselves “apolitical.” The art major who designed the logo for event t-shirts and the English major who styled hair and makeup for the anchors agreed that they had not followed the election until they began participating in the broadcast event. Another student commented, “I’m not old enough to vote yet, so I was expecting to have no interest in the elections whatsoever, until the election broadcast…. I am excited for the next election in which I’ll be able to vote.”

Online students also reported high levels of interest and engagement in the election and in the event, thanks in part to the strategic use of internet technologies and face-to-face learning opportunities. One online student, Marie Greer, made her first visit to the campus to work in the newsroom on election night. She worked side by side with students, faculty, and staff, and also met MBC’s president, Pamela Fox. (Editor’s note: Marie Greer describes her experience with the project here.)

Influence on Future Attitudes

Exposure to electoral politics through events like the Election Live Broadcast can have a positive influence on future attitudes about civic engagement. At MBC, the nonpartisan nature of the event helped dispel negative feelings toward polarized partisan politics by bringing Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Independents together in a collegial and professional atmosphere where all viewpoints were welcomed and respected. Similarly, the broadcast involved a diverse group of participants from the campus and the community and provided a stark contrast to the horserace and hoopla of most network election coverage. Finally, the event increased students’ exposure to politics, interest in the election, participation in political discussions, and leadership experience.

While important for all students, positive civic experiences like the broadcast event may be particularly critical for young women, who compose MBC’s residential student population. Indeed, research on civic engagement and political leadership shows a persistent gender gap in political interest and participation. While young women (ages eighteen to twenty-nine) vote at higher rates than young men (54.9 percent compared to 47.2 percent in 2008), they are less likely than young men to talk about politics, to pay attention to political news, or to consider a political career. Women college students also report lower levels of confidence in their skills and personal qualities related to leadership, including public speaking, competitiveness, social skills, and popularity (Kawashima-Ginsburg and Thomas 2013). Lawless and Fox (2013) note that an ambition gap is apparent among women and men with the same levels of educational attainment: women are less likely than men to decide to run for political office, which helps explain their continued underrepresentation at all levels of government. In addition to its other benefits, MBC’s Election Live Broadcast fosters a culture of political engagement that prepares women students to address these gaps.

Ongoing Involvement

Student responses to the project were overwhelmingly positive. Reflecting on the event the following morning, one student called it “by far one of the best hands-on experiences I have had at Mary Baldwin College.” She elaborated: “The interaction across academic disciplines, with RCW and ADP students, and the support of faculty and administration was overwhelming and an amazing opportunity to witness how people from all different backgrounds, political affiliations, and generations can come together to accomplish a common goal. It is definitely something that I want to see done on campus long after I’ve graduated.”

MBC is working to make this student’s recommendation a reality. In the aftermath of the 2012 election, students immediately began planning another broadcast event for the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial election. By the end of the second week of fall classes, 105 students had signed up to participate. MBC is also planning broadcast events for the 2014 congressional elections and the 2016 party nominating conventions and presidential election—potentially extending the benefits of the Election Live Broadcast to hundreds of students over the coming years.


Kawashima-Ginsberg, Kei, and Nancy Thomas. 2013. “Civic Engagement and Political Leadership Among Women—A Call for Solutions.” Medford, MA: The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. http://www.civicyouth.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Gender-and-Political-Leadership-Fact-Sheet-3.pdf.

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Lawless, Jennifer, and Richard Fox. 2013. “Girls Just Wanna Not Run: The Gender Gap in Young Americans’ Political Ambition.” Washington, DC: Women and Politics Institute. http://www.american.edu/spa/wpi/upload/Girls-Just-Wanna-Not-Run_Policy-Report.pdf.

Schneider, Carol Geary. 2008. “Introduction.” In Kuh 2008, 1–8.

Laura van Assendelft is professor of political science at Mary Baldwin College.

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