Ebner on the New Mediation Syllabus

From FOI Noam Ebner (Creighton), a wonderful and thought-provoking essay on preparing our students for practice in the technological era, describing work he has been doing with Alyson Carrel, Erin Archerd, and others:

No, mediation jobs are not going to be taken over by robots.

I though I’d foreshadow this important point, as any discussion of technology in mediation seemingly inevitably reaches it. Also, as scary, gloomy, futuristic headlines seem to capture attention, as we’ve just demonstrated. Made ya look!

Still, short of stealing our jobs and those of our students, how might technology affect mediation? And, now that we no longer fear being usurped – how can we in the mediation field – practitioners, researchers, and teachers, including those of us who are a little bit of all these – navigate technology’s entry into mediation so that it enhances the field, the profession, our students’ skills, and our parties’ processes and outcomes? To put it another way: if robots are not coming for our jobs, how can we bring them to our jobs, and put them to good use?

Those are some of the modest questions Alyson Carrel and I set out to answer in a paper addressing the relationship between the mediation field and the use of technology, identifying this as mediation’s next great challenge.

I can hear some of you saying ‘Heard that already!’ – so I’ll quickly jump in and suggest you probably have not, noting that the paper is not about Online Dispute Resolution (ODR). It does not discuss how to conduct mediation processes online, between parties at a distance. That area has been dealt with by the field of ODR, with increasing success and visibility and with no little amount of opposition and debate.

However, perhaps owing to the ODR debates that many in our field have participated in, a simpler or more basic question has largely gone unasked and unaddressed, in practice, teaching, and the literature:

What is the role of technology in traditional, in-the-room, face-to-face mediation practice?

This question is the focus of our paper. Mind the Gap: Bringing Technology to the Mediation Table, recently published in the Journal of Dispute Resolution.

While there are of course many exceptions, I think many of you will recognize that in many physical mediation rooms the most advanced technology is the legal pad or perhaps a whiteboard. Many of us use no technology at all; others use it only at the fringes of their practice. Few mediators use technology seamlessly and comprehensively to improve the mediation process, parties’ engagement with it, and its outcomes.

In our article, Alyson and I project a dim future for a technology-less mediation field, for sociological and psychological, as well as market-related, reasons. Far from wanting to sell out the heart of human mediation to robots, we wish to encourage mediators to consider how carefully applied human use of technology in mediation can improve the process, serve our clients better, expand our businesses and benefit the field as a whole. The paper provides examples for all these, and suggests models for considering technology’s roles in all areas of a mediator’s practice.

Beyond that, the paper asks a lot of questions, and opens a lot of space for the blend of innovation, problem solving, curiosity and creativity our field is built on – only this time, with a technological twist. I hope that many of you will join in this conversation and evolutionary process (and I am living proof that no professional tech-savvy is necessary in order to be a part of mediation’s technological evolution!).]

A session that Alyson and I, together with Erin Archerd (and planned together with Lynn Cohn) facilitated at the Appreciating our Legacy and Engaging the Future conference in June 2019 clearly showed that the attitudes of professionals and teachers in the field are changing towards greater acceptance of technology, in the field and in our teaching. The same participants (painting with a broad brush, of course) expressed that this accepting of the inevitable (largely affected by increasing use of technology in day-to-day and personal activities) does not necessary translate, however, to more comfort with using technology in professional activities (e.g., using technology in the classroom or teaching online), or to a sense of efficacy or capacity to teach about its potential roles in the activity of the dispute resolution field.

How might we be able to teach future mediators or mediation participants about use of technology, with most of us not having used technology in mediation practice, not having been taught about it, not having a set of best practices to recommend, and not having experience in teaching about it?

Simplest? The lowest-effort and lowest-risk approach might be to assign Mind the Gap to your students, and ask them to weigh in. Most likely, this will have the effect of tossing a match into a gas can, only in a good way. Even the most unstructured discussion of the piece will lead to a robust discussion around technology’s potential, and challenges, for the field.

Beyond that, and for those seeking a more structured approach to teaching this unstructured, unknown, and somewhat daunting topic, we’ve got you covered there too.

In a separate piece recently published in ACResolution, entitled Digital Toolbox Pedagogy: Teaching Students to Utilize Technology in Mediation, Alyson and I took on this pedagogical challenge. In this piece, we introduced a number of approaches to adopt while teaching this topic. Common to these is understanding of the instinctive reticence many of us have to teaching this topic, and overcoming this through providing structured approaches. These approaches all focus teachers on what they do know, and always utilize in teaching students: mediation process expertise, mediation theory expertise, and structured critical thinking – and using these core foundations as safe jumping-off points for discussing things we know less about. Also common to these approaches is the suggestion that, provided our guidance in these three core areas, our students will engage with the topic enthusiastically, bringing to it their own experience with technology, which is likely to be far broader that our own. Pooling these sources of input will allow students to consider, suggest, experiment with, and assess uses of technology in mediation without any need for their teachers to be able to build robots, program software, or even find the remote.

Of course, these teaching suggestions are only the beginning of what Alyson and I hope to be an ongoing, and hopefully rapidly developing, area of pedagogical exploration. With a new semester barreling down on us, what better time to kick this off?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.