Image courtesy of Team Tumult
In the context of COVID-19-related discussions about moving mediation training online, this blog reflects on key strategic and operational questions one should ask to make this decision. Takeaways include: 1) online training is not better or worse than in-person training, but they each have their own strengths and weaknesses; 2) developing quality online training requires intentional design rather than just the “shoveling” of existing resources onto the web; and 3) any decision to develop online training courses should be part of a long-term strategic decision rather than a short-term improvisation.
We organize peace mediation training courses that build the capacity of our course participants to support the resolution of violent political conflicts. Like many of our peers, we recently faced the COVID-19-related challenge of having to choose between two options: delaying our mediation training programs until international travel is possible and safe again (and who knows when that will be…), and transferring them online. To help us think this choice through we wrote a short reflection paper, on which this post is based.
Peace mediation training is particularly challenging to shift online. In our courses we use not only traditional teaching structures such as frontal lectures geared towards information transfer, but also interactive experiential learning, which focuses on skill building and attitude formation. Such teaching formats are best practiced synchronously, i.e. with participants and trainers engaged in “live” simultaneous interactions. While recent advances in the availability of video-conferencing technology have made online simulations of negotiation and mediation processes possible in a way that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, the online experience cannot yet replace the comprehensiveness, depth and impact of the in-person learning experience. What the future holds in terms of developments in virtual reality technologies, which may get us close, remains to be seen. The quality of online learning is also constrained by variation in the quality of internet connections and challenges created by students and teachers being spread across different countries and time zones. All these issues can make engagement in live simulations and exercises a frustrating experience.
Furthermore, as a field in the process of professionalization, peace mediation training like ours tends to target mid-career professionals who study in between other family and professional obligations, and for whom networking and relationship building are key goals when participating in the training program. As many of you who have spent the last month logging into webinars and Zoom conferences may have noticed, the online space is not particularly conducive to the kind of informal interactions which can take place over coffee or drinks and help build relationships. This is especially the case when participants remain embedded in the distractions of their daily lives.
So Should We Just Hit Pause?
Given these drawbacks and limitations, we considered just putting everything on hold. However, regardless of how the COVID-19 pandemic develops, violent conflicts are not going away and the need for peace mediation training remains. We realized that the challenge posed by restrictions on travel was an opportunity to think more deeply about online training, one which would lead us to explore some of our assumptions and experiment. In considering investing resources in trying out online training formats, our institution had two key questions to think about: one strategic and one operational.
Strategically, would we be making a long-term investment for environmental, pedagogical, or financial reasons, or simply a short-term investment to make it through the COVID-19 pandemic? Either way, it quickly became clear that any exploration of an investment had to take into account how online learning could complement rather than replace our existing in-person courses. This helped us clarify the kinds and extent of resources to invest when experimenting with online learning and how to make the most out of any efforts.
This led us to consider the operational question: How do you design online peace mediation training modules? Fortunately, we were far from the first to ask this question. Online learning has been around since at least the 1980s and builds on the much older tradition of distance education. Awareness of online learning received a boost in the early 2010s with the hype around Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), heralded by some as having the potential to massively expand the reach of further and higher education. There is therefore a large field of research on online learning and, thanks to current developments, a vast amount of new experiences are being gathered and shared.
How to Design Quality Online Training Courses?
From existing research and exchanges with peers, we learned two important things about the design of online training. First, if those designing an online course want to ensure its quality, they must intentionally design their course for the online environment. This is not just a matter of shifting all your existing material online.
Second, online learning can take many different forms, from one-way passive learning experiences to highly interactive formats. In thinking about the spectrum of possibilities, we identified ten key points to consider when designing online training courses:
- Communication: Will communication be linear (learner is passive receiver) or interactive (learner is active)?
- Time synchronicity: Will learning be synchronous (teacher and student in simultaneous interaction) or asynchronous (teacher and student in interaction at different times)?
- Group dynamics: Will learning be done individually or collaboratively in a group?
- Content flexibility: Will the content be fixed in advance or adaptable to individual or group needs?
- Content type: Will learning be based on live or prerecorded multimedia materials, or partially/entirely text-based (e.g., readings and written lectures)?
- Location: Will the course be fully online or consist of “blended learning” (in-person and online)? What infrastructure is available (e.g., rooms, internet access and quality)?
- Participation: Will participation be selective based on pre-established criteria (and targeting a particular audience, e.g. peace practitioners, state representatives, or conflict parties) or open to all? How many participants will be involved?
- Feedback and assessment: Will participants receive feedback on their learning continuously, at the end of the training, or not at all?
- Format: Will the training be a one-off event of a couple of hours or a further education program with multiple sessions and a modular structure?
- Focus: Will the pedagogical focus be on advancing learners’ knowledge, skills, attitudes, or networking? Is the goal to learn together as a social group (peer learning), or is it one-sided learning (teacher-student learning)?
Jumping into E-waters
Although the field is evolving, mediation remains predominantly an in-person activity. As human beings communicate differently in face-to-face situations an online course cannot offer all the relevant learning opportunities and experiences that an in-person course could. However, in looking more deeply into the topic we learned that more is possible than we had realized and a number of our learning goals are achievable through online learning. Furthermore, as more mediation and negotiation processes are shifting online, it seems worthwhile to help practitioners develop both their online, and in-person negotiation and mediation skills. Finally, adding an online component to our training courses will improve our overall training. For example, this would make it possible to have engagement both before and after in-person courses, enabling student-paced learning, thereby deepening the learning experience. We are therefore embarking on our experimentation journey confident that what we learn about the potential and delivery of online learning will ultimately strengthen the training we offer in the field of peace mediation.
Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. To keep up to date with the Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here.
This blog also belongs to the CSS’ coronavirus blog series, which forms a part of the center’s analysis of the security policy implications of the coronavirus crisis. The Center for Security Studies (CSS) is investigating the medium and long-term consequences of the corona crisis through two research projects. One project focuses on national and international crisis management. The other addresses the effects of the crisis on international relations and national and international security policy. To find out more, see the CSS special theme page on the coronavirus pandemic.
For a practical-tips sheet for teaching mediation online, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We gratefully acknowledge the support of the MAS ETH Mediation in Peace Processes and its strategic partners, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), the German Federal Foreign Office, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden and the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs); the program on Culture and Religion in Mediation, a joint initiative of Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich and the Swiss FDFA; and the Mediation Support Project (a joint venture between the CSS and swisspeace, which is funded by the Swiss FDFA).
Owen Frazer is a Senior Program Officer in the Mediation Support Team of the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the ETH Zurich.
Inbal Ben-Ezer is Programme Advisor for the Master of Advanced Studies ETH Mediation in Peace Processes.
For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.