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Can you learn practical diplomatic issues online?

29 April 2013

Could we get another Talleyrand or Metternich through an online course? Diplomatic protocol, negotiations and other practical topics in diplomatic training – is it a “learning by doing” exercise or can you teach these efficiently in an online learning environment? One of the three debates of the Online Learning Day

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that DiploFoundation held on April 17th, presented two views on this issue. This is a summary of the discussion.

Yes, you can:

  • With using an analogy of ironing shirts, Jovan Kurbalija argued that you can get a lot of tips and tricks on ironing by watching a YouTube video. You learn about the instructions, which you can apply in the real-life setting. Thus, theory gained online helps on the longer journey of skills-acquisition.
  • When Diplo entered the world of online learning 10 years ago, our first online training exercise was on diplomatic negotiations. Everybody told us this was not possible. But we still wanted to experiment. We learned that yes, we can learn important aspects of negotiations online – such as procedures. And this is crucial for junior diplomats who are not those negotiating peace deals in a chalet in Norway on Switzerland. They spend their time at UN meetings for instance and need to know the procedures, which they can easily learn online.
  • Paradoxically, what Diplo found out from its experience is that you can learn procedures more efficiently online than in situ. Obviously, Talleyrand and Metternich were first of all gifted negotiators, but also to get there they had massive experience behind themselves. More than an online course could have covered. There are no shortcuts.

No, you can’t:

  • I confirmed the argument that Jovan used to strengthen his, i.e. that the only aspect of practical diplomatic issues that you can learn online, is the necessary theory. However, it really does not give you any skills.
  • You can only gain the skills with significant time and practice.
  • Any fun simulation activities online are out of reality and do not get you ready for the real-life situation. You may have an illusion that you know how to negotiate. You have not tried this when the stakes were really high. How harmful could this be for a real-life negotiation?!
  • You cannot cover the whole range of other important aspects in an online environment – emotions, personal chemistry, gestures, body language, or even the power of the unsaid.
  • You can gain the necessary skills only by being immersed in the actual process, by learning from the more senior and more experienced colleagues.
  • Even in courses that Diplo provides, with a very thought-through methodology, we should not aspire of being able to tackle every aspect of diplomatic training taking place in an online environment. 

The vote taken after the debate showed, that 68 % vote for utopia (in this case, yes you can teach practical diplomacy online) and only 9 % for reality (in this case, online learning cannot prepare you for practical diplomacy) (the rest undecided, see further the post on reality and utopia aspects of the debate by Jovan). I have to blame my discussion partner that he actually confirmed that practical diplomatic issues taught online do have significant limitations, indeed. That, I hope, is the only explanation of why I lost the fight!

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