Teaching Negotiation @ Online: Spring NP@PON Faculty Dinner Explores Online Learning

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Negotiation Pedagogy Faculty Dinner Seminar on Teaching Negotiation Online, April 17th, 2012

Online learning is going through a renaissance. The Khan Academy is reaching millions with its decidedly low-tech approach while MIT and Harvard announced a very ambitious platform called edX just this month.[1] Proponents think we can learn from the less successful efforts of the 1990s and get it right this time. On April 17th, a group of PON faculty and educators gathered to share their experiences and perspectives on what works well online, where we are falling short and what the future of online learning might look like when it comes to teaching negotiation. The panelists for the event were Lori Abrams, developer of an online-based Negotiation Strategies course at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, Peter McAteer, CEO of Corporate University Xchange (CorpU) and David Fairman, Managing Director of the Consensus Building Institute (CBI). The session was facilitated by Professor Lawrence Susskind from MIT.

Abrams, who characterizes herself as a one-time skeptic, volunteered
to develop her online negotiation course after feeling pressure
from business school students year after year. Her students, some of whom were involved with field placements and were not on campus all the time, asked for more flexibility and universal access. She was not willing to provide this at the cost of the quality of the experience which she thought depended on face-to-face interaction in class. She is now a convert. For Fairman’s clients in large international organizations, the goal is to provide relatively inexpensive yet context-rich negotiation training to networks of staff spread around the world. McAteer’s corporate clients are also looking for effective ways to train geographically disbursed staff, and for on-demand negotiation course delivery in an easily digestible and organizationally tailored format.

Interestingly, all of the panelists emphasized the need for student-faculty and student-student interactivity. For better or worse, we are not yet at the point where artificial intelligence avatars can supplant humans in negotiation exercises (although such a thing is indeed possible in Second Life). So, participants must be brought together virtually if face-to-face interactions are impossible. This emphasis on interaction adds additional technological and pedagogical challenges.

Students in Abrams’ class can watch video lectures and complete readings on their own time, while engaging with each other via Skype or Adobe Connect meeting rooms in small groups to negotiate. They then meet again as an entire class in a Connect environment to debrief each exercise.[2] This increases flexibility but still requires students to be online at the same hour from time-to-time. Similarly, students in McAteer’s CorpU courses do most things on their own time, but come together (online) as a cohort to debrief each exercise with an instructor. Abrams reports that her debriefs are just as rich and interactive as they have always been in the classroom. In fact, some participants, particularly the more introverted, find it easier to be candid online. The success of her debriefing efforts hinges on software features that allow students to virtually raise their hand if they want to speak.

The technical limitations facing geographically distributed public agency participants in Fairman’s classes, make real-time engagement online impossible. Students do interact extensively with instructors by submitting assignments via e-mail and receiving written feedback every week during a six to eight week course. Interaction also takes place in web-based forums. Some iterations of the course offered by the Consensus Building Institute also require participants to conduct practice negotiations with their peers – most of whom are not taking the course. Those who are enrolled then report-back and reflect on the results.

Substantial interaction requires more coordination and time on the part of both participants and instructors. This is quite different from traditional “e-learning” which more closely resembles an individual reading a static book online. Traditional e-learning is good for some things, like quick concept refreshers or presentation of basic information, but is not well-suited to teaching negotiation. To McAteer, the most important feature of this new wave of online learning is the successful melding of the “technical” and the “relational,” using technology as an enabler, but not eliminating more traditional classroom or cohort interaction. Of course, this requires substantial resources to develop an online learning platform and to provide individual feedback from an instructor. McAteer cautions that anyone thinking about developing online instruction in negotiation should think hard about the costs and the fact that they scale up the more interactivity is provided.

The panelists noted that, in an ideal world, they would prefer mixed modes of instruction in which online learning is complemented by – or complementary to – face-to-face interaction. Abrams lamented that it takes longer to build relationships online, with the first couple of exercises always proving difficult. Ideally, she would bring all the students together first, and then let them disperse and continue virtually. Conversely, Fairman believes that an introductory online course can serve as a primer for participants who might later come together for more advanced instruction; the online course giving them a foundation while face-to-face interaction allows them to respond to particular organizational challenges.

An important question is how the content of negotiation, and the teaching of it, differ when done online versus face-to-face. Professor Deborah Kolb, an attendee, asked Abrams if the outcome of negotiations online tend to be more distributive than integrative than when done in face-to-face settings, as published research suggests might be the case. Abrams responded that the results do not seem to her to be more distributive, but fewer people reach agreement, and she has seen people defect with less remorse. Of course, one might consider her course to be a hybrid of online and face-to-face teaching. Abrams shared her initial fear that valuable relationships among students built over the course of a semester would not form online, but found, surprisingly, that people did become friends. One of her groups even had an “online happy hour” with everyone dialed-in holding a cocktail and interacting one Friday. Susskind pointed out that the weaker relationships online may actually be useful for overcoming the challenge of making exercises realistic towards the end of a semester when students know each other too well.

One important difference among the panelists is the relative level of technical sophistication of the systems they use. Abrams and McAtter’s courses employ advanced technologies to deliver rich environments featuring video and online interacely resembles an online correspondence course than an interactive web-based experience.tion. In contrast, the tools Fairman and his colleagues use are much less sophisticated. “The theme of my show-and-tell,” Fairman said, “is that less is more. Our online efforts are provided by a small non-profit working with a big global public health organization whose budget for training in general and for online learning in particular is quite limited, and for an audience of very, very busy professionals working in developing country contexts – generally understaffed and overworked with low and intermittent bandwidth.” His platform more closely resembles an online correspondence course than an interactive web-based experience.

Participants must overcome technology deficits and be more flexible to use higher-tech platforms. Abrams related how two students from India had to go to a friend’s house at three in the morning to access the Internet so they could participate in a class debriefing. Despite the relatively simple low-tech nature of his platform, Fairman noted that the Consensus Building Institute gets very positive feedback from users. He believes that there are three reasons for this: They keep it simple in terms of what participants need to do to proceed through the course; the materials are heavily contextualized, presenting a little bit of theory and a lot of application relevant to their day-to-day work; and because the instructors are good, providing timely feedback through e-mail for people to get something substantial out of the experience. As the Khan Academy approach has shown, simple online learning systems can work. In fact, it is probably a mistake to make things overly technical. Higher tech and higher quality are not always better even when they are feasible. “A lot of people like lower production values. It creates a level of intimacy with the audience that the highly polished stuff does not,” suggested McAteer. Embracing less polished content also makes spontaneity possible and allows for more user-generated content. Susskind noted the power of extremely low-cost video capture on iPads or similar devices, allowing groups to share key moments with the rest of the class. In general, McAteer argues that videos should be short (i.e., two to four minutes) and focus on only one question or concept each.

While providing a robust platform, CorpU is intentionally flexible so it can fit within the style and online environment already established in each organizations they work with. CorpU is “learning management system agnostic” and will tailor what it offers to the technology its clients have rather than demanding that they invest in another system. According to McAteer, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is making sure that the IT and HR departments do not get in the way. This is very different from the situation Abrams faces in the academic world, in which a platform is chosen and broadly implemented by the school leaving the users little or no choice in the matter.

Ultimately, effective online learning must be viewed as adding value rather than simply supplanting whatever is currently offered on a face-to-face basis. It must also be highly relevant to users, and responsive to changing situations. The technology must be robust with significant redundancy to overcome all kinds of organizational and technological hurdles. It should be the enabler, not the focus, according to McAteer. The presentations demonstrated how far we have come with online learning, but hinted at various directions we can still go. Filling the time as she waited for her system to load and sort out security complications, Abrams quipped: “That’s one thing with technology – you gotta go with the flow.”

[1] See www.khanacademy.org and www.edxonline.org respectively.
[2] Adobe Connect and Skype are two software options for collaborating in groups over the web.

Written for NP@PON by Todd Schenk.

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