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[WebDebate #34 summary] Exploring innovative teaching methodologies: Digital tools for teaching diplomacy

Published on 16 March 2020
Updated on 05 April 2024

Digital tools have garnered substantial interest in the context of teaching and training in diplomatic practice. Tools such as video conferences, small online courses, and massive open online courses are changing the landscape of what is possible in the field. Conversations on digital tools for teaching diplomacy are important in order to keep diplomatic teaching and training up to date, offer the best possible experience for participants, and reach those that might have been excluded previously.

The key experts for this debate were Prof. Jaime de Aguinaga García (Professor of Practice of International Development, School of Global and Public Affairs, IE University) and Dr Katharina Höne (Senior Researcher and Lecturer, DiploFoundation). In particular, they explored the digital tools currently employed; the ‘how’ and ‘why’ they are utilised; the challenges and opportunities associated with them; and, best practices and lessons learned. The debate was moderated by Mr Marco Lotti (Project Manager, DiploFoundation and Geneva Internet Platform).

How are digital tools used in teaching diplomacy and training diplomats?

De Aguinaga highlighted that there are many ways in which digital tools can be included in the training and teaching of diplomacy. However, it is important to think about the implications of these tools for students and teachers. He explained that at the IE University, a variety of blended formats (such as mixing face-to-face contact with digital lessons) are explored. In this context, he stressed his belief that blended formats are often the most successful ones, as they can draw on the advantages of both face-to-face and digital approaches.

Highlighting some of the innovations explored at IE, he mentioned the use of apps to draw on the aspects of gamification in the learning process; facial recognition in order to tailor learning content by analysing the student’s reaction, and thus, increase the quality of teaching and the overall learning process; digital simulations of business negotiation cases; and, virtual reality.

He also explained the idea behind IE’s WOW-room which includes 48 screens, cameras, robots, holographic projectors, and the use of facial recognition:

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However, despite new possibilities due to technological innovations, he stressed that teachers and instructors need to be trained in the use of online and digital tools, because the human component is often what makes or breaks these tools.

Höne introduced DiploFoundation’s approach to online learning, which builds on small-scale courses with a maximum of 25 people, which last around ten weeks on average. These courses are highly interactive and highly collaborative. She explained that at the core of each course is the discussion of a tailored lecture text each week. Participants go through the text and highlight key words or phrases in places where they have questions or comments to deepen their understanding of the topic. Course lecturers, who are often also the ones developing the lecture texts, join the ensuing discussion to answer questions, respond to comments, and further drive the discussion.

She explained that three approaches are particularly important: asking and answering questions; weaving different topics together in order to create a tightly knitted discussion; and, summarising key points in the discussion. Each week, this practice results in discussion trees which are typically well over a hundred entries long. This approach puts collaborative learning at the core. The assumption is that everyone in the course has something to contribute and the course brings all of this together in order to construct knowledge jointly

What are the advantages and disadvantages and best practices that others can learn from?

Completion rates are a concern when it comes to online learning, and while there are various ways to address this, Höne argued that a ‘human approach’ might be the best solution to keep completion rates high. She explained that in Diplo’s courses, there are at least two people in constant interaction with course participants: one focusing on discussing the content, and one focusing on keeping the participants on track, managing their workloads, and providing support and guidance where needed.

The distinction between synchronous learning and asynchronous learning can also be usefully employed to provide the best possible training. Asynchronous learning content is content that can be accessed and interacted with at any time. Synchronous components of online learning require all participants to be online at the same time. Höne highlighted that asynchronous tasks help to include people who are geographically dispersed and living in different time zones. In this way, people from all around the world can be included. Building on asynchronous learning also helps in allowing participants to fit their learning around busy working lives or other commitments they might have.

Höne also cautioned that it might be tempting to see digital tools and online learning as a way to respond to an accelerating world. She argued that while it is true that these tools allow for providing just-in-time courses or learning units on current and emerging topics, this should not lead to neglecting other aspects of learning. She advocated that it is crucial to protect spaces for broader reflections.

De Aguinaga stressed that it is easier to teach face-to-face in a physical environment, and that it is crucial to realise that online teaching is not easy. He argued that, from his experience, in order to keep people engaged, the number of participants should not exceed 50 people. Furthermore, the right faculty and the right people in the classroom make a huge difference.

He also shared some of the key lessons from his work at IE. Flexibility and the willingness to update content continuously are important. Similarly, moving an existing course online requires some careful thought on how to build and sustain a community of learners. Learning from peers is often even more crucial than learning from a professor. In addition, careful thought needs to be put into the design, including considerations on format, timing, and attention spans.

Both speakers agreed that digital tools are not a panacea nor a magic bullet; they have to be chosen and tailored very carefully.

How can we decide which tools to employ?

Höne emphasised the need to start with a clear definition of the learning objective. Is the aim: (a) acquiring and remembering information; (b) developing analytical skills; or (c) practising problem solving-skills? Depending on the answer to this, different approaches are called for. She argued that recorded lectures and massive open online courses (key elements include watching a video or reading a text) are useful when it comes to acquiring and remembering information. A totally different approach is needed for developing analytical skills and problem solving-skills. In these cases, moderated discussions, essay-writing, experiments, and simulations are called for.

De Aguinaga pointed out that there is high demand for learning and an overwhelming supply of information. Yet, it is a whole other question to create effective learning and a community of learners and practitioners. He highlighted different dimensions that impact the decision for or against a specific tool: access, scalability and the question of how many people it is trying to reach, affordability – especially in terms of the marginal cost of the tools, possibilities for engaging the participants, evaluation of learning (in terms of knowledge and skills), possible actions that come after learning, and the value participants attach to certification.

In addition, questions around inclusion are important. For example, Höne explained that the work at Diplo focuses on diplomats and other officials from developing countries. In this context, questions around the digital divide and making sure that no one is left behind become important. Issues around the lack of access, lower bandwidth, and intermittent electricity or Internet access need to be taken into account when choosing learning tools.

And finally, de Aguinaga stressed that ‘you should be able to use the technology without having the feeling of using a new technology’; the setting should be intuitive and feel familiar.

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