New Semester: Have You Empowered Your Student Today?

Unbelievably, the summer has ended, and fall 2012 is upon us. The timing is perfect for faculty, aspiring faculty, and students to take a look at the Summer 2012 issue of Journal of Public Affairs Education. The issue contains a symposium on Social and Technological Innovations in Teaching Public Affairs, edited by me and Dr. Angie Eikenberry from University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The issue contains five articles:                                                  

          • Theoretical and Instrumental Rationales of Student Empowerment through Social and Web-Based Technologies by Thomas Bryer and Daniel Seigler
          • Social Networking, Learning, and Civic Engagement: New Relationships between Professors and Students, Public Administrators and Citizens by Angela Eikenberry
          • The Public Manager 2.0: Preparing the Social Media Generation for a Networked Workplace by Ines Mergel
          • Using a Wiki-Based Course Design to Create a Student-Centered Learning Environment: Strategies and Lessons by Qian Hu and Erik                      Johnston
        • Exploring the Role of Interactive Computer Simulations in Public Administration Education by Qian Hu, Erik Johnston, Libby Hemphill, Rashmi Krishnamurthy, and Ajay Vinze

Each article explores the opportunities, and potential pitfalls of empowering students using emergent technologies. An excerpt from my article is below:

Why Empower?
Rationales for student empowerment can be addressed from two perspectives: that of the student and that of the teacher. Three rationales are suggested on each side, for a combined six rationales for student empowerment. On the student side, they are (1) develop ethical reasoning and judgment in complex contexts; (2) develop leadership and management skills in complex contexts; and (3) develop ownership in the learning process. On the instructor side, they are (1) provide space to allow the teacher to show passion and engage that passion with students; (2) ensure buy-in to course objectives; and (3) ensure buy-in to course content delivery methods. These six rationales are grounded in both normative and instrumental theories related to public affairs education
and are discussed later. Together, these rationales reflect Dewey’s (1916) vision of higher education, in which institutions—through their teaching and service—promote democracy, encourage citizenship, and serve community.

Research on Dewey’s (1916) vision within the context of the contemporary link between teaching with emergent technologies and future behavior as a citizen and/or public servant is limited. However, there is evidence to suggest that using social media, social networks, and other emergent technologies to empower students can have a potentially significant impact on future performance. Three streams of literature allow us to fairly confidently offer this conclusion: (a) research showing the link between pedagogical techniques and learning outcomes (e.g., Brown, 2005; Oldfield, 2010; Ross, 2009), (b) research showing the association between individual and group online activity/interaction and subsequent or parallel off-line activity/interaction (e.g., Brainard, 2003; Brunsting & Postmes, 2002; Williams, 2006), and (c) research showing the association between practicing democracy across spheres of life, including workplace, school, home, faith, and society (e.g., Pateman, 1970; Rawlings & Catlaw, 2011; Smidt, den Dulk, Penning, Monsma, & Koopman, 2008).

Together, these literatures suggest the relevance and need to more directly study the link between learning with technology and future behavior in the public affairs workplace to fulfill the potential that Dewey described. Though the literatures do not assure us of the efficacy of empowering students through technologies, they are strongly suggestive of the possibility.

Student-Based Rationales

In public affairs and administration, there is a rich history of asking our students, and our fellow citizens, to be virtuous, ethical, and engaged citizens. Always a noble goal but never without challenge, efforts to restore (or instill) citizenship values in public administration have been appearing at least, with most emphasis, since the late 1960s through the New Public Administration philosophies (Marini, 1971). Frederickson (1982) called for a restoration of “civism” in public administration and in our larger society; Gawthrop (1984)
perceived public administration as the best place to revive citizenship (civitas) and integrate citizens into the art of government (civilitas). To do so effectively requires administrators themselves to act first and foremost as citizens (Cooper, 1991) and for the administrators and citizens to act virtuously and honorably (Hart, 1984). These values have more recently emerged in the New Public Service literature (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2000).

Given the importance of these values to public administration and public administration education, it is imperative that students be empowered, first, to develop the attributes of a virtuous citizen (Hart, 1984). Simple indoctrination through repetition and cognitive manipulation are not sufficient to inculcate these values and develop reflective behaviors; students need to come to own these values as if they were developed on their own. Hart identified four attributes of the virtuous citizen: (a) doing moral philosophy, (b) belief, (c) individual moral responsibility, and (d) civility.

Hart (1984) described doing moral philosophy as follows:

In a most practical manner, the Founders believed that government must be guided by a moral purpose: the realization of the American regime values in the lives of all citizens. But that requires all individuals to know what those values are, why they should believe in them, and what the implications of action might be. That requires people to do
philosophy, and particularly moral philosophy. (p. 114)

Finding moral purpose, though possibly accomplished in isolation through contemplation, is achievable through self- and group-identity formation. Individuals identify their purpose and identity, and thus reaffirm values, through the lens of their relationship with others (Tajfel & Turner, 1985).

Beyond the self-reflective capacity captured through doing moral philosophy, virtuous citizens must believe “that the American regime values are true; not just that the majority accepts them or that they are psychologically gratifying, but that they are true” (Hart, 1984, p. 114). Belief is established through buy-in; buy-in is achieved through opportunities to create or co-create scenarios through which the values are tested and affirmed, as through an empowering learning process.

Virtuous citizens must also exercise and develop a sense of individual moral
responsibility. According to Hart (1984):

The obligation of the virtuous citizen to the American regime values transcends all other obligations, whether to obey the law or to honor promises. Since, by nature, those rights belong to each individual, so each individual assumes the obligation of honoring them. Whenever anything violates or even compromises the regime values, the virtuous
citizen is obligated to oppose it. (p. 115)

Empowering students through choice, voice, control, and creativity tests commitment to values through the introduction of moral dilemmas in praxis, dialogue, and action.

Last, virtuous citizens must practice civility and understand the reason for it (Hart, 1984). By releasing some structure and rigidness from the learning and teaching process, students are permitted to develop norms regarding appropriate behavior, rhetoric, and performance. This focus on civility, along with the other three attributes of the virtuous citizen, are perhaps best developed through the empowered student and an empowering learning process.

The second student-based rationale for empowering students is to develop leadership and management skills. Just as the moral reasoning rationale is focused on values, attitudes, and related behaviors, the more instrumental rationale of skill development is focused on ability to effectively communicate and facilitate the behavior of others in alignment with internalized values. “To lead and manage in governance” is one of the universal competencies for accreditation of MPA programs required by the National Association of
Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (Commission on Peer Review and Accreditation, 2009). Through empowerment in the learning process, students are given the tools and self-awareness to achieve this objective.

Third, empowering students and creating an empowered learning environment will potentially develop ownership in the learning process. It might generally be said that students who “own” their learning experience might be more committed to the enterprise and thus potentially more successful in both internalization of course content and application in non-course environments. These instrumental rationales may be consistent
with the philosophies expressed in some New Public Management literature (e.g., Osborne & Gaebler, 1992), which encourage public administrators to be entrepreneurial and willing risk takers. By giving ownership of the learning process and focusing on skill development, entrepreneurship and risk taking might be encouraged as long as risks are taken in alignment with the normative rationales previously expressed, or what Bellone and Goerl (1992; 1993) define as civic-regarding entrepreneurship.

Published by Prof. dr. Thomas Bryer

Dr. Thomas Bryer is professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida, Fulbright Scholar and Specialist, Professor at Kaunas University of Technology (Lithuania) and Visiting Professor Edge Hill University (United Kingdom).

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