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electionlineWeekly — May 9, 2013

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I. In Focus This Week

Elections training goes online in Michigan
New program allows clerks to keep up from afar

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From Harvard to Brown University to the University of Michigan, MOOCs — massive open online courses — have become all the rage with people from all backgrounds in every part of the world getting their learn on.

While their offerings may not be massive, or open (to those outside the elections field), the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office is jumping on the distance learning bandwagon with the creation of the new Michigan Election eLearning Center.

The training and resource center provides election administrators across Michigan with access to training courses, video tutorials and webinars that are all self-paced.

Michigan’s elections structure — where elections are administered at the city/township level, means the Bureau of Elections supports close to 1,600 individual offices with more than 30,000 workers statewide.

“These resources will assist those from the smallest jurisdictions, with minimal resources and time to attend in-person training; to the largest jurisdictions, many of whom are facing diminish staff and resources,” explained Christopher Thomas, director of elections for the State of Michigan.

While the eLearning Center will shift some in-person training to the web, it will not completely eliminate the need for elections officials to participate in some face-to-face training. And elections officials will be able to use the eLearning Center to sign-up for the in-person training, which Thomas said should be more efficient than previous sign-up procedures.

“The extensive capabilities of the new system will allow us to supplement existing training by providing specialized online courses on specific topics; record, store and re-use in-person courses for continual review and use by those that cannot attend in person; track individual learning plans and create customized plans for certain groups of clerks, such as those newly-elected or appointed; and automatically generate pre- and post-coursework and exercises to promote continuous learning,” Thomas said.

Topics for study range from election day management, operation of the state’s major technical programs — including the statewide voter registration database — and e-pollbook applications. Current manuals and other informational resources are accessible via a more powerful searching tool and organizational structure.

The state has also developed its own dedicated YouTube channel to house several video training segments that election officials can access at any time and use to supplement their own individual training programs for election day workers.

There are also extensive collaboration functions in the system that will enable information sharing through specialized user groups and discussion boards on specific topics.

According to Thomas, the state partnered with Michigan Virtual University to bring the program online. The partnership — initially a three-year contract — will cost about $25,000 annually and the state was able to cover those costs through Help America Vote Act funds. The state also had to purchase specialized software for two staff members that cost $2,500 per license.

Beyond establishing technology requirements for the desired functions and establishing a state-level contract for the learning management system, Thomas said many hours are involved in planning and developing the various materials and preparing them for final use.  

“Fortunately, we have the tools and talent in-house to handle these needs,” Thomas said.

Thomas said that other states should be able establish similar online training programs. He noted that many learning management systems and content development software packages are available commercially that offer a variety of functions with a range of price options.

While not necessarily a requirement, partnering with a hosting organization that specializes in online learning (as we have done with Michigan Virtual University) would seem to provide the most powerful, extensive and flexible package of tools available when dealing with a large and diverse statewide group of election officials,” Thomas said.

Although the system just launched, so far the feedback has been positive. The site includes a Feedback tool and some of the responses have included comments about ease of use, relevant topics, ease of learning from the office and, “This site is AMAZING! WOW! I’m still in the exploration stage, and am very impressed with what I have seen so far.”

The system is set up in such a way that it can be continually expanded by based on requests from users and the internal knowledge staff will gain as they assist local elections officials.

Michigan has a new legal requirement to develop an ongoing education program for clerks and a continual re-accreditation program every two years. The new eLearning center will be the cornerstone of this program, which will include several distinct modules.

But the elections division doesn’t just have its sites set on local elections officials.

“While plans for this system are limited to educating election officials (not voters directly), we may develop content to assist election officials in our shared and ongoing quest to better educate the general public on elections, voting and voter registration requirements, and issues specific to each election,” Thomas said.