The Word on Texas
By Kelley Shannon
Posted: January 7
It launched with a modest mission: Providing students at The University of Texas at Austin a free online textbook for a state-required government class.
It didn’t take long for the Texas Politics project to make its mark far beyond the university.
“We started this with a hope that it would spread externally, but students at UT were our core audience,” says James Henson, director of the Texas Politics project in the College of Liberal Arts. Yet, largely through word of mouth and Web searches, the popularity of the online textbook grew, and so did the scope of the Texas Politics project.
Today the project provides free materials for other Texas colleges and universities; hosts a speaker series and videotaped interviews with political leaders; arranges government and campaign internships for students; and conducts some of the highest-profile political polling in Texas.
“You can never have too much public information about how government works or how politics operate,” Henson says. “To get people informed, you have to get them interested.”
And, interest keeps growing. This academic year, the project is getting a $120,000 grant within the university to improve and expand uses of the online textbook.
It has also been a marquee year for Texas Politics polling, conducted in partnership with the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization, and focusing on such subjects as the U.S. Senate race and the presidential contest.
What’s most intriguing for Daron Shaw, who holds a distinguished teaching professorship in the Department of Government and oversees the polling arm of Texas Politics, is the innovative research aspect of the polling.
Shaw, also director of the Texas Lyceum poll and codirector of the Fox News poll, employs a polling method in the Texas Politics project relying on Internet surveys and “matched random sampling.” Key demographics within a random sample of consumers are matched to characteristics of people within a huge pool who have agreed to take online surveys given by the research firm YouGov Polimetrix. Those subjects answer the poll questions.
The method takes polling beyond the traditional telephone landline surveys and transcends the debate over how to accurately measure the opinions of people who only use cell phones, Shaw says.
“Why get involved in … cell versus land line when it’s pretty clear where we’re headed? Let’s get in on the cutting edge,” he says. “Once you start doing this kind of polling, you really fall in love with it.”
The Texas Politics project began polling in 2008 to feed the public appetite for polls and to create data sets for faculty and student use.
When the Texas Tribune jumped in the following year, the Tribune began paying for about 70 percent of the $16,800 data collection cost per poll, providing a consistent source of funding. In return, the Tribune gets the right of first release and the clout of the university.
Shaw and Henson say they’ve achieved one of their main aims in the partnership — ensuring the integrity of the polling process. The partnership conducts three to four polls per year.
“It’s certainly helpful to say we’re polling in conjunction with the University of Texas,” says Ross Ramsey, executive editor of the Tribune. “We wanted a credible, professional poll.”
While the polls examine hot election races, the questions on issues — immigration, abortion, evolution, to name a few — are perhaps most interesting, Ramsey says. “You poll because you want to know where the public is,” he says.
Polling also ensures an ongoing stream of fresh information for the “mothership” of Texas Politics, the online textbook, Henson says.
The textbook rolled out in 2003 with one initial chapter on the state’s executive branch written by Henson, who also is a lecturer in the Department of Government and serves as associate director of Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services.
Over a three-year period, post-doctoral faculty helped create more chapters on all branches of government, the Texas Constitution, political interest groups and more, bringing the online textbook to 11 chapters and some 120,000 words.
It was done on a budget of less than $10,000 per chapter, with a slightly bigger expense for rebuilding the site’s content management system, Henson says.
“We’ve been assiduously adding new material all the time,” says Gary Freeman, chairman of the Department of Government, noting that numerous video and audio clips complement the written words. “The new technology has made it possible to make, I think, quite a big impact.” The new $120,000 grant through LIFT, the Longhorn Innovation Fund for Technology, will help overhaul the website and create a model to enable instructors to create customized online teaching materials and print-on-demand textbooks. Another goal is to add test questions and more interactive features.
The idea is to push the Texas Politics project further into “hybrid learning” beyond the traditional classroom and provide more flexibility for students, Henson says, while also finding ways to create revenue streams. However, he says, a version of the existing free textbook will remain available.
Those who use the textbook praise its multimedia format. Videos include interviews with such political figures as former Gov. Ann Richards, news events involving Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and other politicians, and the speaker series with legislators and lobbyists.
“It tells you a lot about what’s happening,” says Mike Campenni, an instructor at McLennan Community College in Waco who uses the online textbook in his government classes. He calls it “probably the No. 1 resource for Texas government in the state.”
Another appealing point: It’s free. “Our students actually have a pretty hard time getting enough money to buy textbooks,” Campenni says.
Some 50 other higher education institutions including the University of North Texas and Austin Community College also use the online material.
Henson, who spends much of his time cultivating connections at the Capitol, says face-to-face interaction with political leaders and that immediacy of information appeal to students and the public. Legislators say the Texas Politics project has high visibility at the Capitol.
“I think it’s a valuable asset to both the Capitol and the university. It acts as a bridge,” says Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee.
Branch says when he takes part in a Texas Politics speaker series event, he’s impressed with how engaged students are in state government and with their tough questions. “I always do my homework and make sure I’m ready,” Branch says.
The speaker series helps students realize the role state government plays in everyday lives and exposes them to the ideas of legislators from both political parties, says Freeman.
“They get to see them as real people,” he says. “I think it humanizes the Legislature.”
Like Branch, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has hired interns through the Texas Politics project, which he says channels talented young people into government.
“I’m a big fan,” Watson says. “There’s a lot of energy, a lot of creativity and a lot of resources that they put into their work here at the Capitol.”
In January, as the next Legislature convenes, Henson plans another new initiative — an orientation for interns to learn the basic do’s and don’ts of working at the Capitol.
“We’ve tried a lot of things and we’ll continue to try a lot more things,” Henson says. “We’ve got a real role to play.”
PHOTO OF JIM HENSON. PHOTO BY MATT WRIGHT-STEEL