In 2006, as I was selected by my country to fulfil the role of ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the Republic of Indonesia, and I found myself searching for options to further my education in the diplomatic field, without having to suspend work. Serving in a non-English speaking country made it an extra challenge to use local libraries for furthering my education. All the programmes I researched demanded on-site study which would have put my career on hold for at least two years – something I could not afford, nor was looking forward to doing. Then, as I was preparing for my assignment in Indonesia, I was introduced to the opportunities offered by DiploFoundation for online diplomatic study. I was no stranger to online studies, I had done short courses before for on the job improvement. However, studying for a degree online was a totally different experience not just for me, but also for those around me, such as my family and colleagues at the ministry.
Traditional vs. innovative
In Suriname, online courses and online education, even today, are not very well-known and are sporadically experienced. Learning through the use of the Internet, webinars, and attending conferences virtually are still developments that are not fully appreciated for what they offer in making processes more efficient and cost-effective. There is still a sense that face-to-face meetings, training, and participation makes for much better results. I experienced this when I was organising diplomatic training for new Foreign Service recruits, when I suggested, and was supported by the lecturer, that the lectures be done through a live session on Skype, saving the government thousands of dollars in expenses. The reaction was negative. For those who have no experience with online learning, it is very hard to grasp and imagine that the outcome, the product of this kind of virtual meeting, can be effective and successful. Many people still feel that studying online means that the knowledge they gain will be modest in comparison to that of someone who actually attended classes in person. Recognition of the degrees achieved through online studies can pose a challenge. The proof is in the pudding they say, and that is exactly what it turned out to be in my case. The recognition came when I impressively proved my skills and knowledge in practice, and I was tasked with organising the course for the next batch of potential diplomats myself. Still however, without any virtual sessions.
Online learning provided me with an opportunity to further my education and skills while remaining in my post. It did require however a few crucial things from me, of which the most important was discipline, followed by planning. As a fully functioning diplomat, I had a very hectic schedule that hardly allowed any free time, even on weekends. Jakarta is a bustling city with over 200 international representatives. There is a clear difference between taking a short course and setting yourself on the path to earning a post-graduate or master’s degree. The latter has definite deadlines and requires a lot of in-depth studying, research, and writing. It requires daily study, which I did in the early mornings and late evenings, sometimes even nights. Of course, the benefit of an in-home diplomatic training is that you can include your own country’s perspective in every aspect of the training. Online training is more general in approach, however, I found my experience enriched by the mix of participants from various countries worldwide. I was given the opportunity to view things from another perspective, and thus develop a broader view of the practice of diplomacy. This in my opinion allows us, who are products of these courses, to be stronger diplomats, better equipped, better prepared, more understanding of our colleagues, and better able to anticipate (in negotiations) the reactions and viewpoints from our counterparts.
Having led an on-site short course for diplomats, I do recognise that face-to-face contact has its advantages, in that people are in a natural manner interacting with each other and learning through doing. However, combining the online studies with daily practice makes up for this. As I went through the online course, I was able put into practice daily, my newly acquired knowledge, which improved the execution of my job. This provided an immediate benefit in job performance and results for the country.
For me, combining online learning with daily practice is definitely part of maximising the benefits.
It has to be noted however, that one hurdle in online studies could be language, since most courses are in English. Even though English is understood as being universally spoken, it can pose a limiting factor for full participation of those who are not fluent. In addition, depending on the participant’s location, the hours when live online training takes place might not always be practical, which means a sleepless night every now and then.
The issues of talking online, sharing with people you never met, doing research online, are all activities that in many developing societies pose extra hurdles that can cause a delay in participation. However, as I write this, it occurs to me that this could just be a generational problem, which will be solved with the new generation of diplomats who are all very proficient in social media and accustomed sharing many aspects of their thinking and doing online.
Another great advantage of online learning, adding to the previously mentioned ones, is that with strong planning and discipline, studies can be continued no matter where you are travelling to or from. All that is required is an active Internet connection. For success, it is required, however, that diplomats are keenly aware of the diplomatic practices at home, the positions and why these positions are in place.
The trends and tools that are most suited for diplomatic training in my opinion would be blended learning: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) combined with webinars and short courses on specific issues. The use of infographics is very useful as part of all these tools. While the use of comics and illustrations are more suited for advocacy purposes.
Strong and effective diplomacy is crucial for developing nations. In a constantly changing world with its many challenges (such as climate change, economic diplomacy, the specific needs of small developing states) the growing role of public diplomacy, and the qualitative and continuous training of diplomats is a great challenge for developing nations. Our countries need to form stronger alliances and networks for presenting shared visions and to negotiate shared interests on the international stage. We need diplomats who are skilled, well-informed, well-connected, experienced and knowledgeable.
Many times, the major challenges in reaching these goals, are in finance, human resources and knowledge, as well as the time available (i.e. missing the person in position for a certain time, and financial consequences for the trainee when not at work). Online learning provides a definite and viable solution for countries to develop strong diplomats with continued education all through their service. The best practice in my opinion would be that each country sets their own curriculum based on their national needs and interests, combined with online courses, varying from short courses (very specific in nature) to MOOCs as well as webinars for the general foundation of diplomats.
Online learning will be one of the topics discussed at Diplo's upcoming anniversary conference, Future of Diplomacy, on 17-18 November in Malta. Register and find more details on the conference website: http://15years.diplomacy.edu