International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life

Online Innovation: Computer Science Meets Civic Education With New ENACT Collaboration Platform

homepage of the new enact platform

Homepage of ENACT's new online platform.

This article initially appeared in the Summer/Fall 2020 issue of Ethics Central, the Ethics Center's biannual newsletter.

By the time the pandemic began shifting classes around the United States online in March, ENACT students and faculty had been using online tools including Zoom, Slack and Google Drive for years. The nationwide ENACT online community, launched in 2016, includes more than 440 students, alumni and faculty who share materials, collaborate in dedicated channels, and come together for online events.

Yet connecting students and alumni who have worked on various sides of the same issue by sharing resources and fostering conversation has been both an ENACT goal and an ENACT challenge.

When the New York-based Teagle Foundation awarded a multiyear grant to enable ENACT to complete a national expansion, it recognized that strengthening the ENACT online network as a forum for conversation, collaboration, research dissemination and comparative study would be a critical component of the success of this expansion, and dedicated a portion of the grant to this effort.

It was time to design and build a custom solution that would meet the needs of a one-of-a-kind program.

ENACT reached out to the chair of the Brandeis' Michtom School of Computer Science, Tim Hickey, who recommended the program work with two of his top undergraduate students to build the from scratch. Hangyu Du ’21 and Nicole (Huiyan) Zhang ’21 jumped at the chance.

Using the latest software development techniques, Hangyu and Nicole iterated multiple versions of the platform. They met weekly throughout the summer with ENACT staff, Faculty Fellows and ENACT alumni, built new features, tested, revised, built more features, tested again, revised again.

“In the past three months, Hangyu and Nicole have gone from the idea of a platform to modernize the way ENACT community members share data resources to a fully functional and well-designed app, custom-built for the needs of ENACT faculty and students, being piloted in courses this spring,” says Hickey, who has continued to consult on the project.

Using the new online platform, ENACT students can search student-created materials reaching back to the first ENACT course at Brandeis in 2010 by topic, state, year and type of resource — and they can send a message through the platform to the resource creators. They can also access videos of ENACT speakers and student presentations.

Faculty can share teaching resources, original research, syllabi, readings and more in a faculty-only section of the platform, and will soon be able to access a calendar of events in ENACT classes across the U.S. and join events (via Zoom) with their students. The public can access selected resources as well, and can search by topic for resources on bills across the country.

“This is what can happen when universities recruit top-notch computer science students to work with creative and innovative faculty, staff, and alumni in other disciplines,” says Hickey. “The nation will reap the benefits as students from around the U.S. use these ENACT resources to connect across political divides and more effectively lobby state legislatures on the most important issues of the day, and legislators respond appropriately with more thoughtful and effective laws.”

“It’s a good feeling to work on a really meaningful project,” says Nicole. “And it has been a valuable experience to have a programmer/client relationship where I need to understand what the client wants, find technical solutions, and explain the technology to a general audience. I also have learned more about the U.S. and what Americans are concerned about in society. As an international student majoring in computer science and economics, I hadn’t explored these areas as much before.”

“The most exciting part of this journey is that it is more than just programming,” adds Hangyu. “I need to think from multiple types of users’ perspectives to make design choices. As I worked with the team, I realized that ENACT has already impacted civic education across the United States and is still growing. My goal is to make the platform easy to use, and bring our users a little bit of happiness while using it.”