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Firm sees chance in election


(Photo by Kimberly Simpson)

 

Pittsford-based education technology firm Second Avenue Learning has partnered with BrainPOP, an educational gaming company, to help students and teachers nationwide during the election season.

The partnership supports the second installment of Second Avenue Learning’s Voters Ed program, which launched in 2012. The program is a web application that provides information on primaries and polls, prediction maps based on delegate counts, historical data and lesson plans—all accessible on interactive whiteboards, computers and tablets, the firm says.

“We did Voters Ed for the 2012 election and it had a really phenomenal response,” said Victoria Van Voorhis, founder and CEO of Second Avenue Learning. “We had tens of thousands of users on the platform. We decided that we would relaunch it for 2016 for the primary election. We knew it was going to be a crazy and chaotic primary, so we added a whole bunch of features so that people could track the primary in real time.”

Second Avenue Learning has 20 employees and is based at 130 Office Park Way in Pittsford. Clients include W.W. Norton, Pearson, Junior Achievement and McGraw Hill.

The program enables teachers to use tools similar to those employed by the media today.

“There is a lack of civics education materials in this country and one of the constant pieces of feedback that was heard from teachers is that they need tools that make data accessible to students so that they can contextualize it, so they can better teach lessons,” Van Voorhis said. “We thought this presidential election was going to be a phenomenal opportunity for teachers to do that.”

The team at Second Avenue Learning used Rochester Institute of Technology political science professors Sean Sutton and Paul Ferber as consultants for the program.

“The Voters Ed program is the most versatile educational tool that illustrates not only the presidential electoral process but also the complexity of the primary system,” Sutton said. “There is no other program that allows teachers and their students to explore the primary campaign as well as the Electoral College map in the way that the Voters Ed program permits. As a tool in the classroom, Voters Ed will stimulate classroom discussions that reflect the day-to-day battle for the White House.

“There is a real need for the Voters Ed program,” he added, “because it is clear that most students and many voters for that matter just do not understand how the country chooses its president.”

Sutton will be using Voters Ed in his classroom this fall, he said.

“My students will find the Primary Pursuit feature of the program useful to relive the drama and the struggle of the 2016 presidential selection contest,” he said. “They will find the interactive Electoral College map useful in tracking the changing landscape of the presidential contest, the polling shifts in the battleground states, and even trace out ‘a path to the White House’ through the Electoral College for each candidate.”

BrainPOP, a dba of FWD Media Inc. of New York City, will offer its users a free feature-limited trial of the Voters Ed program through the partnership, officials said. BrainPOP’s offerings are used in 25 percent of elementary and middle schools across the country.

“We’ve been big fans of Second Avenue Learning for many years,” said Allisyn Levy, vice president of GameUp, BrainPOP’s online learning games portal. “When their team shared their newest interactive, Voters Ed, we saw an immediate overlap in our goals to bring top-quality election resources to as many students, teachers, and families as possible.”

Voters Ed has several upgrades from its 2012 version including enhancements to the real-time updates to poll numbers and functionality on systems like tablets, and inclusion of primary content. Other changes include the addition of third-party candidates in the national poll data, new content on the primaries, an interactive primary map with a timeline, and the ability for students to share maps.

“We wanted teachers to have the power of CNN’s magic wall right in their classroom with their interactive whiteboard,” Van Voorhis said. “So they could be engaging students in a thoughtful dialogue about the process, about the outcomes and about the issues; so they had tools that were contemporary with what students see in the rest of their lives.

“Teachers were still teaching about the elections with colored popsicle sticks and crayons and printed maps,” she added. “It doesn’t work anymore and it actually undermines their ability to teach authentically when you contrast that with the way politics is being covered by the modern media.”

The program has information on elections dating back to 1789.

“When I was a classroom teacher, current events were always something students had questions about and were eager to discuss,” Levy said. “Having interactive tools to help address issues like these can be far more powerful and impactful than textbooks or discussions alone, as they invite students to seek out answers themselves.

“We have high expectations that Voters Ed will invite students to dig deep into the history of elections, make predictions about these upcoming elections and foster meaningful discussions in the classroom and at home.”

Second Avenue Learning also is doing a co-promotion with iCivics, a web-based project started by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to enhance civics education. Thirty percent of the proceeds from Voters Ed sales will be donated to the program.

Generating sales is the biggest challenge now for Second Avenue Learning at this point, Van Voorhis said, even though there is not a lot of competition.

“There are a couple of things in the app store, but they don’t have the depth of educational content,” Van Voorhis said.

The electoral process is complex; Second Avenue Learning is hoping to help students and teachers understand the material and have access to it.

“One of the things that Bush vs. Gore taught us is you can win the popular election and lose the Electoral College and not become president,” Van Voorhis said. “So it’s important for kids to understand how important it is to participate and be an informed voter. We have the lowest percentage of people that actually vote in elections of any Western democracy.

“We really wanted to make this as low cost and available to as many districts as possible so that kids in rural and urban communities who might not have access to the political dialogue would have it and be able to follow this election in a safe way,” she added.

8/26/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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