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Fifteen faculty and staff members attended an Office of Academic Innovation demo of a simulation website called Policymaker on Wednesday, which allows professors to create government- and policy-driven role-player situations for students to participate in.  

Elisabeth Gerber, associate dean for research and policy engagement and professor of public policy, led Wednesday’s activity.

“Policymaker is intended to be a place where one can author, facilitate and participate in simulations,” she said. “It has all three of those functionalities.”

In the system, students are often acting as their assigned individual in regards to a proposed bill, allowing them to understand advocacy and strategy making. After using the website, students then would engage in a discussion.

“You have decision makers who need to deal with that disagreement, you have many stakeholders who care passionately about the outcomes and they’re all inputs into that decision-making process,” Gerber said in a press release. 

The website assigns students to certain roles in a situation, whether it is a senator or a director of a nutrition board. If a player clicks on a name, the website reveals a profile of the individual’s description, their public positions and private beliefs. 

For example, a Daily reporter was assigned to Carl Bednarski, President of the Michigan Farm Bureau Board of Directors. Policymaker’s public information included that “(Bednarski) is a member of Sacred Heart Catholic Church and the Knights of Columbus.” Private information said “Bednarski favors policies that support farmers’ incomes and allow farms to remain viable businesses.”

The website allows students to create private messages, send Twitter-like messages in the Newsfeed and create groups according to their positions — such as a Democrat private group and a Republican private group. There also surveys within the scenario to gauge participants’ positions on a bill as part of the situation and allow students to think strategically. Gerber also said instructors can create and edit the simulation for different sections of their course.

It is compatible with Smartphones and tablets.

Gerber has used the roleplaying platform in her classrooms, explaining that students were usually paying attention instead of drifting to social media since it was an engaging activity — some often over-participate or have a hard time playing a part that goes against their beliefs.

“Students enjoy this,” she said, explaining how one of her student’s actions in the simulation were more outgoing than what their assigned individual would have done in real life. “Anyone who has done a simulation — that’s why we do it. It engages them. I don’t worry a lot about students not participating. Sometimes we have to kind of reign them in.”

She gave another example of when her classroom acted out one simulation in which a bill proposed that water be diverted from the Great Lakes. Gerber explained that all of the individuals should have voted yes on the bill, as per their individual’s political stances. However, one environmentalist student had a hard time passing the bill and, therefore, negated the proper outcome of the simulation.

“Anytime an instructor tries to pull something like this, there are risks,” she said. “But there are huge benefits. I love doing (simulations) and students really like it.”

When asked if Policymaker was only to be used for administrative or public policy scenarios, Gerber admits its title is restrictive and even open to suggestions for a change. She added that the website was well-suited for any type of roleplaying situation that an instructor wants to create.  

One of the participants was BetsAnn Smith, an associate professor at Michigan State University, who works with educational leaders that engage in organizations and stakeholders. She explained when training for her job, simulations were used much more often.

“(Simulation-based learning has) kind of fallen away,” she said. “And now so much learning for professionals happen in hybrid formats. So, a way to use technology to bring back some of that simulation-based learning is really interesting to me.”

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