The leading barometers of online learning such as the Online Report Card (available at https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/read/online-report-card-tracking-online-education-united-states-2015/) indicate that over one in four higher education students now take distance courses and the increase in online enrollments is outpacing overall higher education enrollments. Busy life schedules, tight budgets, established career paths, advances in technology and the desire to reach ever wider, more diverse student bodies are some of the factors driving the growth. Students have differing needs and preferences and some disciplines’ training requirements cannot be met through online learning. In our Conflict Resolution Studies Department at Nova Southeastern University, we have been offering the whole range of course delivery modes; online, residential and hybridsdriven by the desire to meet student needs in ever wider locations as well as capitalizing on the advances in class delivery modes. Our guiding philosophy of the scholarship of engagement, makes experiential learning and community engagement critical components of our curriculum. For our practice courses we find that hybrid courses give students online flexibility while providing the hands on, face to face interaction practice requires. In this chapter, we share from what we have learnt in three aspects of learning: online, hybrid and experiential studies.
There are many options for delivering online courses with great flexibility in the tools or functions that can be utilized. The traditional and basic initial online class was asynchronous; a professor would post course materials, notes, assignments etc. through platforms such as Blackboard and students would then access them at their convenience and respond within given timelines. Functions for facilitating this have expanded and include among others; content folders with course materials, calendars, assignments and links to externally stored materials. Collaboration tools that enable interaction include discussion forums, chatboards and group platforms all of which are email based. This has the great advantage of convenience and no one has to be up at 2:30am except by choice. Technology wise, this requires little by today’s standards. The disadvantages are the lack of direct, interpersonal interaction and lack of live discourse. It also means you never can be sure that the contributions are from the registered student. Some accreditation institutions, as well as some countries (Saudi Arabia for example), have serious issues with online courses and insist on a substantial residential component or direct live interaction between faculty and students.
Technology has advanced significantly and now enables greater live interaction. There is a continuum from pre-recorded lectures, through real time discussion to the virtual, live classroom. The advantages are innumerable, and the linchpin is the delivery platform. Several programs are now available that provide virtual classes that replicate the traditional residential classroom. Everyone can log in simultaneously and some platforms can handle both instructor and student live visual. Blackboard’s Collaborate (http://www.blackboard.com/online-collaborative-learning/blackboard-collaborate.aspx) and Citrix’s GoToTraining (https://www.gotomeeting.com/training) are examples. Our students log in from as far afield as China as long as they have reliable internet connection. It does require a high bandwidth, especially for proper functioning of visuals. Low bandwidth will result in ghosting, delayed transmission and even intermittent connections.
Shop around and try out the offerings as each has its strengths and weaknesses. Most of them will offer free trials so you can test out the features. Some programs, such as Collaborate, enable break out group sessions seamlessly in such a way that they virtually replicate the live classroom experience. GoToTraining enables streaming of other media such as videos from either the instructor’s computer or any student that the instructor gives moderator privileges. Other advantages of the virtual classroom include the ability to record the classes, tracking of student participation, enablement of student presentation from their locations and seamless integration of IT aids in class delivery. Academic publishers such as Sage, also offer facilities for direct linking of videos and other media to powerpoint presentations that can be delivered online.
There are some real practical considerations to take into account with the virtual classroom. Practicalities of geography mean different time zones.We have students in China, India, all across Africa, Latin America, Europe… meaning all time zones. When delivering virtual classes one has to keep in mind that some students may be at work while others may be staying up or getting up in the wee hours of the night.
Online classes have been critiqued for the lack of the direct interaction between faculty and students as well as amongst students. You can partially make up for that by integrating the online format with a high intensity, residential component. We require for example that all online students attend a Residential Institute that is three to five days long, once or twice a year. This is especially necessary with practice courses such as mediation, facilitation and negotiation where you need to conduct simulations and role plays. For the residential institute all the distance students come to campus and attend classes in a traditional format and we organize numerous other student oriented activities, such as working groups, student seminars and of course some entertainment during the institute. It does involve travel and all that entails. Despite the added expense, consistently our students have waxed poetic about the value of meeting their professors as well as their colleagues in person. Many friendships and support groups have emerged out of the institute.
This blend of online delivery provides us instructors with much needed direct interaction with students and vice versa; students feel connected. The live classes and the residential institute also reassure accreditation bodies about student faculty interaction.
Beyond the online format, course offerings can be elevated to a dedicated hybrid format. In courses where there is greater need for face to face interaction, but students cannot or do not want to relocate, be away from careers and/or family et.c for years, the hybrid class works extremely well.
Hybrid Courses in Conflict Resolution
In our Department of Conflict Resolution studies, several of our courses have been of the hybrid variety; some of which also include a service component. We believe this hybrid format, which combines a substantial residential obligation with modified distance learning requirements, has particular strengths for academic curriculum in our field.
Most of our hybrid courses have been in the areas of Interpersonal, Group or Organizational Conflict and have titles such as Negotiation, Mediation, Conflict Management in Groups, The Reflective Practitioner, Conflict Coaching and Conflict Intervention Consulting and Training. Most often they start with 3 full, 8 hour days of residential class, though some have 5 consecutive 4 hour ½ days of residential class and, occasionally, some are over two weekends. All of them require some extensive discussion board work on Blackboard, with some optional E-live sessions and required paper assignments (usually some type of portfolio reflecting insights from readings/class/application) and a research paper.
The combination of initial residential class followed in sequence with blackboard postings on discussion board, on-going reflection portfolios and final research paper seem to work particularly well. The front end face-to-face interaction allows students to form some familiarity and interdependent relationships with others (in the Organizational Conflict classes we form a temporary Consulting Group whose success depends on each member doing high quality work) and for teaching staff (Professors and teaching assistant) to assess the readiness of group members to undertake actual field work with clients. In the Conflict Management in Groups class, the three-day marathon is essential since we form an “experiential laboratory” for members to observe individual and group behavior while they encounter challenging situations, and the need to function in a variety of group settings *(Katz et.al., 2016).
Since the residential classes are so intense, so focused, and time consuming; most of the reading of material takes place in the weeks following. This sequence actually seems to work better as contrasted with requiring participants to read to “prepare for class. “ We refer to this method as “just in time leaning” since our belief is that one purpose of the residential portion of the course is to “wet their appetite” for more intellectual understanding of what they experience in the face-to-face encounters (especially in the Conflict Management in Groups Course). Readings that supplement the skills based courses in Negotiation and Mediation help support, reinforce and extend the in-class learning by providing theoretical justification of the skills and strategies, and describing illustrative real life examples of their use, sometimes in high stakes situations. For example, some of the readings in the Negotiation course provide evidence of the positive impact of the utilization of Interest-Based Negotiation principles and tactics in actual labor-management encounters, in discussions leading to the ending of apartheid in South Africa, in successful third-party interventions in teacher contract negotiations, and environmental disputes.
Hybrid classes seem to be particularly useful and successful when students need a concentrated time to give full attention to personal growth material that lends itself to introspection and analysis. For instance, the Conflict Management in Groups class provides opportunity to give and receive feedback on one’s behavior under challenging conditions and the impact of behavioral choices on individuals and groups. The on-going feedback loop is supported by the fact that every member is experiencing somewhat similar feelings as they cope with complexities surrounding issues such as group formation, and developmental stages. We believe the “bonding” and “I’m not alone” effect that helps both the coping and learning is enhanced by the extended, concentrated time together as opposed to the more traditional class structure of once, twice, or three times a week meetings.
In the primarily skill-based classes, the hybrid format also has some decided advantages. During the residential portion, participants can concentrate on being attentive to instructors’ modeling the skills through live demonstrations with participants, video presentations, and stories of actual use with positive results. Ample time is provided for skill practice with observation and critique, a luxury that would be difficult to accomplish in classes of only one or two hours. Again, the concentrated time allows for a sense of trust and intimacy among group members so that they feel more willing to experiment with what might be new and awkward behavior, and receive feedback from instructors and peers. This extended skill practice time with concentrated feedback is particularly important because in some of our classes they have a “performance examination” of skill proficiency as part of the student evaluation.
Several of the organizational conflict classes have an actual consulting component with real organizational clients as an essential part of the course. The hybrid format is particularly helpful in these classes since the participants need to be both confident and competent to carry out their field work assignments whether it be leadership coaching, process consulting, or leading conflict resolution training. High quality support and standards are also reinforced by the formation of a “Temporary Consulting Firm” set up during the residential section of the hybrid class in which all are accountable to the success and reputation of the Firm and are counseled in the need to assist one another when necessary.
Hybrid classes have one additional decided advantage. For working adults, it is often more possible to arrange schedules to be on campus for 3 consecutive days or over 2 weekends rather than take off work to go to attend class one or more times a week for a full semester. At our University, with a large contingent of distance students, we also arrange to have the hybrid classes attached to our mandatory Residential Institute which requires in-person attendance for all on-line students in our fall and winter terms. This allows distance students to save on travel costs since they have to travel to be on-campus anyway, though they have to extend the time to be with us on a residential basis.
Experiential Learning, Service Learning and the Scholarship of Engagement
The field of conflict analysis and resolution is one of practice. Even if one wishes to eventually become an administrator, researcher, trainer, or professor, the foundation is based on practice and the related skills. Our students come from a variety of academic and professional backgrounds and are primarily mid-career working professionals. Some students may be leaving or retiring from a career and seeking the tools and credentials to start a new career, and others are just starting a first career. We have students with professional backgrounds in government, social services, teaching, law enforcement, health care, corporate and not-for-profit organizations, mental health counseling and therapy, school and higher education administration, clergy and other religiously-based professions. The reason for many to pursue a graduate degree in conflict resolution has been their experience with conflict in the family, community, region, or workplace. They wish to be able to address conflict in its many forms and contexts, using the knowledge and skills of the field (McKay, 2012, McKay 2004, 16)
Our department recognized from the beginning that hands-on experience is key. Therefore experiential learning was built into our curriculum. It takes the form of simulated exercises in applied process classes such as mediation, facilitation, negotiation, conflict coaching, dispute systems design, and organizational conflict. These laboratory-related courses provide both knowledge and skills and the opportunity to practice those skills in activities such as roleplays. Experiential learning also occurs in non-practicum courses. In some courses, a major component and the final project is a consultation project with an organization in the community. Examples include classes such as Strategic Community Planning (*) and some of our organizational conflict courses. This experience is helpful to students in gaining much-needed opportunities to apply their skills.
Our students also do a practicum. A practicum is both a course as well as a simultaneous field placement. Students are dually mentored by a professor in class and a site supervisor in the field. In the class the instructor guides the students in areas such as ethics and confidentiality, workplace behavior, workplace culture and dynamics, and how to utilize conflict analysis, management and resolution. At the site, the supervisor is there to guide student in the mission of the organization, the site activities, and how the student will operate as a part of the environment.
The Practicum may be done locally, nationally, or internationally. We engage our students’ right from the beginning of their first term in practicum planning. Students are encouraged to think of practicum planning as an important part of their career development plan, with the practicum providing the opportunity to use their knowledge and skills directly in a real-world setting. Students select their site based on their career interests and needs. Many will select local sites close to home, while others may select sites in other parts of the country or world. Since we offer both distance and residential classes, we have students studying with us from a number of locations. This has resulted in practicum partnerships in many places.
In addition, we offer global practicum opportunities led by our faculty in a variety of international locations such as Ecuador, Ireland, Israel, Suriname, and Morocco. Faculty wishing to offer a global practicum plan well in advance. Information is disseminated to students the year before so they are able to consider their options and ability to participate.
Practicum settings and activities are often part of what would be identified as service-learning. Most university programs in conflict resolution require a practicum and many focus on service learning. Service learning is generally defined by each program or university. It usually involves specific types of activities intended to provide both experience for the student and a needed service to an organization or community. Seen as a “win-win” situation for the students and sites, service learning is a very popular way for the university to interact positively with the community.
In addition to service learning, universities are expanding their understanding of community engagement. One such understanding is called the Scholarship of Engagement. Service learning is a valuable part of the practicum experience and fulfills the goal of experiential learning and providing assistance to the community. It is not however, the same as the Scholarship of Engagement. According to Boyer, universities should be partners with communities in the search for solutions to social problems (Boyer, 1996). Barker (2004) posits that the Scholarship of Engagement “….reflects a growing interest in broadening and deepening the public aspects of academic scholarship” (123). According to Barker (2004), the Scholarship of Engagement contains a specific and distinct set of practices and stresses the role of the public as a contributor to academic knowledge, not merely the recipient of that knowledge (125-127). This scholarship essentially is a departure from a parochial notion of the university as the “expert” and the community as the “novice” (McKay, 2012, * ) Instead, the university and the community join as research and practice partners to explore and address social issues (McKay, 2012). “Increasingly, I’m convinced that ultimately, the Scholarship of Engagement means creating a special climate in which the academic and civic cultures communicate more continuously and more creatively with each other, helping to enlarge what anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes as the universe of human discourse and enriching the quality of life for all of us” (Boyer 1996, 33).
This is an exciting time when students and faculty in conflict resolution have options to provide experiential learning, service learning, and the Scholarship of Engagement. All three of these are used by our department to enhance student learning and enable students to gain practical experience, making them more skillful and marketable.
Boyer, E. L (1996). The scholarship of engagement. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 49(7), 18-33. doi:10.2307/3824459
McKay, J. (2012). “The Scholarship of Engagement: Transforming Communities and Organizations through Practicum and other Collaborative Projects.” In C.L. Duckworth & C. D Kelley (Eds). Conflict resolution and the scholarship of engagement: Partnerships transforming conflict (pp. 102-118). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.
Katz, Neil H., Katherine J. Sosa and Suzzette A. Harriott. “Overt and Covert Group Dynamics. An Innovative Approach for Conflict Resolution Preparation. Conflict Resolution Quarterly. Vol. 33, No. 3, Spring, 2016, 313-348.
McKay, J. (2004). Practicum: The bridge between academics and practice: NovaSoutheastern Experience.” The Fourth R. Wash D.C., The Association for Conflict Resolution.