As educators continue to reflect on President-elect Barack Obama’s historic victory in the Nov. 4 election, many are looking at the Obama campaign’s unprecedented use of technology to mobilize support and wondering what lessons their schools and colleges might learn from his success.
Observers have credited Obama’s success in no small part to his campaign’s innovative use of technology–including blogging, text messaging, and online social networks–to connect with younger voters and get them excited about politics and the election.
"We’ve done a huge amount of organizing using the internet, and we’ve used new technology in ways that really captured young voters’ attention," Obama spokeswoman Kirsten Searer told the Associated Press (AP) for a Nov. 3 story.
Obama’s Facebook page had 2.6 million supporters, and he had 850,000 MySpace friends. The campaign also relied on text messages to communicate with voters, finding that short blurbs were an effective way to advertise campaign stops and early voting locations.
Exit polls had the youth turnout, voters between the ages of 18 and 29, at its highest since 1972–and 66 percent of these young voters cast their votes for Obama.
Young voters reportedly accounted for 18 percent of the 133 million votes cast. This occurred in a year when a Pew Research Center poll found that nearly half of Americans between 18 and 29 used the internet as their major source of election news in 2008. Only 17 percent of youth voters said they got their election coverage from newspapers.
Obama even mentioned the impact of young voters in his Nov. 4 victory speech, thanking "the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy."
Many observers believe educators can look to the Obama campaign for inspiration and use similar techniques in mobilizing support within their own school communities.
"There are a lot of lessons [schools] can learn," said Nora Carr, chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, "especially [regarding] social media networks. [These] can be used for teacher recruiting … and there are ways for teachers to communicate with students."
Carr said some school systems use online social networking to communicate with college students and recent graduates as a way to recruit teachers. She also said introducing social networking between teachers and students provides an opportunity to talk about media literacy, such as appropriate ways to use media.
"Right now we’re talking about the youth vote, but a few years from now these voters will be young parents. I think teachers will be able to plug into social media to stay in touch with those young parents and keep folks engaged and involved," she said.
Carr said she recognizes that finding ways to use online social networking either in the classroom or as a way to stay connected to young parents might be a daunting idea for some schools.
"A lot of schools are struggling just to keep their web sites updated," she said. "They might not know where to start with something like [social networking]."
But Carr said the entire Obama campaign will make for a good case study for public-relations specialists in the future.
"No matter your political leanings, you had to admire the sophisticated use of technology and the strategic and smart way they deployed it to get people registered, and then kept them informed until the elections," she said. "The outreach and follow-through was brilliant."
One example of this outreach came when the Obama campaign promised supporters who signed up to receive text messages that they would be the first to learn who Obama had chosen as his running mate. Thousands of supporters flocked to the campaign’s web site to enter their cell-phone numbers.
The idea didn’t work exactly as planned, because the media learned of Obama’s selection of Delaware Sen. Joe Biden as his vice presidential candidate and reported this fact before supporters received a text message. Still, this brainstorm had accomplished its goal: The campaign had thousands of new numbers in its database and was able to send alerts about campaign rallies and reminders about voter registration deadlines and polling places–something that young voters respond to well, according to a Princeton University and University of Michigan study.
The study showed that young voters who were sent text-message reminders to vote, on the eve of Election Day 2006, were more likely to vote than those who didn’t receive a text-message reminder. The study found that sending a text-message reminder to vote provided a 4-percent boost in youth voter turnout rates.
Many schools and colleges have implemented emergency-alert systems that can send out automated phone calls and text messages in the event of a campus emergency. Having already collected the cell-phone numbers and eMail addresses of students and parents in a database, school leaders also can use this information to send other messages as well, such as to diffuse campus rumors or garner community support. (Public schools and universities must be careful not to use their systems to campaign for any candidates or take sides on any ballot initiatives, experts say–but they can use these systems to raise awareness.)
According to his campaign web site, Obama’s election campaign was only the beginning of how he will harness the power of the internet to transform government and politics, by allowing voters to connect to his administration and to each other.
Now that the campaign is over, the president-elect is continuing to use the internet to connect with the public. Within 24 hours of clinching the election, Obama’s transition team unveiled Change.gov, a site that includes a blog, a newsroom, and a countdown to the Jan. 20 inauguration.
People who visit the site can share their stories about what the election meant to them and offer their hopes for what Obama can achieve during his presidency. "Share your vision for what America can be, where President-Elect Obama should lead this country. Where should we start together?" the site asks.
Schools can take similar steps by soliciting feedback from parents and students through their web sites, taking the pulse of the community to find out what stakeholders think is important and make them feel like a part of the school community.
People are invited to submit their names and eMail addresses to the change.gov web site, with the goal of creating a new list for the president-elect to tap when he wants to communicate directly about a program he’s promoting or seek help urging members of Congress to support legislation he’s proposed.
"Just imagine what happens when a congressman comes back to his district and 500 people are lined up for his town hall meeting because they got an eMail from Obama urging them to attend," Thomas Gensemer told AP. He’s managing partner of Blue State Digital, which designed Obama’s campaign web site and change.gov.
If schools acquire parents’ eMail addresses through a feedback section on their web sites, they could use similar tactics to increase parent awareness and involvement. Schools could send out eMail messages to alert parents about things such as changes in school policy or to urge attendance at a school board hearing.
Aides say the Obama team will staff a robust "new media" operation out of the White House and plans a complete overhaul of the White House web site to make it more interactive and user-friendly. On the campaign trail, Obama promised to use the internet to make his administration more open, such as offering a detailed look at what’s going on in the White House on a given day or asking people to post comments on his legislative proposals.
Such freewheeling use of new technology also carries certain risks, as Obama discovered last summer when he signaled he would vote in the Senate for a sweeping intelligence surveillance law reviled by liberal activists. Thousands of angry supporters jammed his campaign web site to express their outrage–a phenomenon that could easily be repeated when he becomes president. Schools, too, could face the same problem of being an easy and direct target for criticism–though experts say the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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