When I first started teaching online courses in mediation and conflict resolution in 2003 I had all the same reservations as everyone else did. How can you teach something with no real-time, face-to-face interaction when what you are teaching takes place mostly face-to-face and in real time? It’s an inherent contradiction.
In my eight years of online teaching, I’ve found that three considerations contribute most to success:
- how closely an online course should resemble the weekly format of onsite courses;
- whether changes in technology and connectivity that have redefined the online environment should be incorporated into the course structure;
- how the responsibility students have for creating their own learning success increases for online courses.
Let me state clearly that these comments are based only on what I learned from my experience with the courses I have taught. None of the courses focused on online mediation, so that area is not addressed. Law schools and other online programs might have very different approaches depending on their needs and populations, or they might use different software, or have bigger budgets, which will change the discussion. In a state school with shrinking budgets, expensive teaching materials are not part of our world.
My decision to teach is based on my commitment to getting the skills and techniques of mediation into a wide range of situations besides court-ordered mediation, so while I may struggle with the limits, I also push to get past them.
Why students study online.
Students take courses online for reasons that are quite different from the reasons they take onsite courses.
First, logistics. Some students can’t be in the same place at the same time each week, so the lack of a fixed class schedule is the only way they can study. Deployed military personnel, health care professionals, people on night shifts or who travel extensively, and people in all areas of law enforcement generally cannot participate in onsite classes. The lack of a fixed schedule allows students to work at their own convenience.
Second, availability. Many students can’t find onsite programs in their areas that meet their needs, for example, in Nepal where one of my students lives, so they study online or not at all. I am absolutely committed to helping people learn this material, so if I can reach someone in Nepal by teaching online, I will take that opportunity. In addition, studying online gives students the opportunity to work with experts who are not in their local area.
Third, learning style. Some students don’t need or want the face-to-face interactions of onsite courses, and they prefer studying independently. The online format simply suits their personalities, learning styles, or life circumstances best.
Onsite programs are, in effect, limited to those who can show up and can work within the highly structured course environment. Online courses offer expanded opportunity and participation. The student population in the online program is much more divers because students all over the world participate, and the richness of their experiences adds enormously to the conversation. In addition, they take their new skills into very different workplaces, so the impact of mediation will grow.
Click here to read the rest of the article on alternative course structures and the additional responsibilities of online students.