Students and Local Decision-Making
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Can young people be influenced so that they begin to take an interest in local affairs, at the same time strengthening local democracy through the use of ITC technology? This was the question underlying the project "Students and Local Decision-Making", initiated by the education authority of the City of Hämeenlinna and the Hämeenlinna Media Centre in 2001.
The reasons for starting a project of this kind were many. The most important impulse was provided by the local election in 2000, in which voter turnout was only 55.3%. The young people in particular were conspicuously absent, for only one third of the under-25's used their vote. In fact, representational democracy appears to have little to offer to the young people of today. Voting for political parties, let alone activity within the parties, does not interest them.
On the other hand, the City of Hämeenlinna has a tradition of providing its residents with more opportunities to influence city affairs. The basic elements of the so-called Hämeenlinna model include citizens' influence, service charters and feedback systems. Thus, the administrative climate of the city provided a suitable ground for a project to increase the opportunities of young people to influence decision-making.
The challenges linked to the use of ITC provided an important set of constraints for the start-up of the "Students and Local Decision-Making" project. As far as equipment and networks are concerned, the situation in local schools is fairly satisfactory, but the teachers' capabilities of making use of ITC in their teaching leave a lot to be desired. Another problem is the scant availability of web materials which genuinely support learning.
Active citizenship and exerting an influence includes several aspects in addition to the means of influence provided by democratic processes. An influence can also be exerted through the media and through lobbying. Therefore, the "Students and Local Decision-Making" project contains sub-entities on democracy skills, on utilising media, and on how to run meetings and how to lobby. With this more comprehensive approach the project can more easily be linked with school curriculum work and thus the daily life in schools.
Starting out from challenges associated with the problems of representational democracy, the Hämeenlinna model and the use of ICT, the following goals were set for the project:
· helping the young residents of Hämeenlinna to become citizens who want to exert an influence and to develop their environment, and are familiar with the means of doing so
· strengthening local e-democracy and creating a virtual operating culture to bring together the decision-makers and young residents
· developing ICT-based contents and modes of work which promote learning at school
The implementation of the "Students and Local Decision-Making" project was carried out by four lower secondary schools and two upper secondary schools operated by the city, together with the Hämeenlinna Media Centre, which strives to promote the ICT skills of individuals and communities in the Hämeenlinna sub-region with the help of project funding from the EU. From the start, the project planning and implementation also involved city officials to ensure sufficient links between the actors. The project's technology partner is the new media company Ambientia Oy.
In practice, most of the planning and development input so far has concerned the construction of the project website, Vaikuttamo ("Forum for Influence"), and the design and implementation of the activities linked to the website. These are an important part of the project.
Vaikuttamo was launched on 27 March 2001 with a chat session between the city directors and lower secondary students. The website is designed to disseminate and transfer information, to provide a channel for exerting an influence, and to act as an interactive learning environment. Vaikuttamo consists of two basic elements:
1) The "My City" element, which aims to familiarise the young with the rules and mechanisms of democratic decision-making, the means of influencing open to citizens, the media, etc.
· Introduction to the city's administrative sectors
· How are matters decided in Hämeenlinna? Introduction to the City Council, City Board and the different administrative boards, interviews with councillors and a database of the interviews
· How can I exert an influence? Political parties, NGOs, rights of individual city residents, the Hämeenlinna model
· Election results and follow-up: what really happens after an election and what are the consequences of the young people's low participation
2) An interactive discussion and current topics section, where the students actively engage in content production
· Actor of the Week: each week, a young person is selected to present their views
· Agenda: what issues interesting to the young are currently being decided in the city administration, and what stages they are in
· "What's Up" – presentation of topical issues
· Actor of the Month: an interview with an active city resident, city official or elected official
· flash poll: changed weekly
· ”Speaker's Corner”: discussion and comments forum
· Project work: projects on local decision-making, carried out by students as part of their school work
How can Vaikuttamo be used in teaching?
Schools and teachers can use Vaikuttamo at several levels and in several ways. At the basic level, teachers may use the website materials in teaching their own subject. An example would be Civic Studies, which could draw on the local material and the activities presented on the website. In addition to Civic Studies the website offers links to Finnish, Biology, Geography, Visual Arts and student union activity. The goal at the basic level is that each student in the lower and upper secondary schools learns about the various elements in Vaikuttamo and is able to use them as needed.
At the advanced level the students make use of the website for their own projects. They choose an area in which they would like to exert an influence, begin to look for information, contact the decision makers, and eventually complete a project paper which will be presented to all users of the Vaikuttamo website.
In addition to this, Vaikuttamo provides an opportunity to practise journalism. Each school is in charge of the website according to a rota, which means that the students of that school produce the flash polls and the Actor of the Week interview, and also host the discussions in the Speaker's Corner, which is the interactive forum of Vaikuttamo.
Achievements and Further Plans
During its less than two years of operation, the "Students and Local Decision-Making" project and its key element, the website, have proved functional: the young people have worked very actively within the project and have succeeded in making their voice heard better than before. The city is also committed to the project and is serious about improving the opportunities of young people. The project has also been recognised internationally: the "Students and Local Decision-Making" project was selected as the best eLearning project of 2002 in the Eschola competition arranged by the European Schoolnet.
Despite the good beginnings, plenty of work remains to be done. The content of Vaikuttamo will be further developed to provide optimal support to teaching; particular emphasis is placed on modes of work in which the students themselves are active agents. In practical terms, it would be extremely important to create a web environment linked to the website, within which the students would have their personal work portfolios, also called virtual book packs.
From the beginning of 2003 the project also spreads to Hämeenlinna's neighbouring municipalities Hattula and Renko. Efforts are also made to include all actors involved with young people: city youth administration, local parishes, third-sector actors, etc. This makes it necessary to re-name the project as "Young People and Local Decision-Making".
From the viewpoint of local democracy, international co-operation would also be interesting. We live in a global world, but local issues continue to be local all over the world.