Part 2: Mediation training courses compared: on-site or online?

Posted 20 Jan 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic and its short-term impact on mediator training before February 2020, our mediation training, like most other mediation trainings in the world, was on site. Everything seemed agile and adaptable, yet one thing seemed set in stone – the training always took place on site. Mediators in our training learn how to conduct mediation and apply the methods of mediation in their teams as executives, personnel managers, and managing directors. The assumption had always been that these interventions would take place on site, in their companies, studios, or offices. Of course, we were aware of online dispute resolution (ODR) and saw booths at mediation conferences promoting online mediation. Our general assessment was that this was an interesting, but not relevant, niche. And then everything changed.

The old “Normal”

Mediation training is offered at a total of four locations (Stuttgart, Hamburg, Berlin, and Munich) and is usually held twice a year at all locations – at least, this was the case before COVID-19. The training is based on the specifications and standards of German Mediation Training Law. It is 120 hours. These are divided into five modules over three days. After five months the participants are certified mediators. The training group size varies from ten to fifteen participants.

The transition – “It is necessary”

New face-to-face courses were scheduled to begin starting in February 2020. COVID-19 started to call attention to the need for change, but the first module of the new courses took place on site as usual. Then the virus struck and it was forbidden to meet with more than three people in public spaces. What now? After internal consultation, we decided to do what was previously considered impossible – teach mediation online.

Evaluation

The guiding principles of our organization prioritize the quality of our training. We engage in continuous evaluation and quality improvement. In addition to individual feedback sessions, two evaluations are carried out after each module: one on the conditions of the module content, the lecturer and the group, and a second is an evaluation of the learning progress of the participants. In addition, the instructors complete an evaluation of the individual participants after each module. The lecturers are also regularly questioned about their perception of the group, their learning progress, their commitment, and their level of knowledge. This corpus of data also allowed us to evaluate the new formats and compare them with other formats.

The average rating across all the training formats is shown in this Figure:

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On a very high level, the online training was rated better than the hybrid and even better than the on-site training. The on-site formats and online training were selected and booked by the participants in this form. There was the most complete consistency here in how participants sought out the training and how it was received.

One hypothesis for this high acceptance could be the self-determined decision of the participants to use this format. The change from on-site teaching to online in this emergency situation was discussed in detail with the participants. The group itself decided to continue the training in this format. This could have been a commitment that led to a positive evaluation of the training, even if it was quite different from what was originally expected and booked.

The positive evaluation of the online training could also be related to the fact that the participants actively chose this format. The participants had the choice between the online training and a slightly later scheduled on-site training. The participants who chose this format therefore actively chose online and the higher ratings may reflect a preference for this format.

Online versus On-site: Advantages

In order to learn more about the special features of the two formats from the participants, we designed additional questionnaires after the hybrid modules. These contained open questions that deal specifically with the question of where the participants see the advantages and disadvantages of the on-site and online formats. The results are listed below in Table 14.3 in order of frequency of the response. Forty participants who experienced both formats were interviewed with an open-ended questionnaire.

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The results of the survey were discussed with the participants in the last module, and further explanations have emerged from this. Overall, there were twice as many mentions of the advantages of the online format as for the on-site format. In the subsequent qualitative question and answer session, it became clear that on-site teaching is considered normal and the default.

The participants see the greatest advantage in improved concentration in online lessons. More than half of all respondents stated that they were able to concentrate better on the lessons, the content, the exercises and also on the other participants, for example during simulations. Participants also felt that having everything happening on their screen helped them to keep everything in view and to be attentive. It has to be said that in our training there is a “camera on’” obligation. The participants also said that by always seeing themselves and being visible so close up to everyone else, they were forced to stay focused and not get distracted. On site, on the other hand, there are some distractions, and there is always more movement in the room (someone gets up, goes to the restroom, gets a coffee, etc.), which disturbs concentration.

The second advantage mentioned was that online training provided a greater mix of media for presenting content, which was also related to improved concentration. Presentations included visual content, interactive quizzes, film clips, and group work which participants reported felt more varied than similarly applied methods in the on-site classroom. They stated, for example, that it was more pleasant to follow a presentation on their computer screen because it was closer and easier to read than, for example, content projected onto a screen in a classroom.

Almost half of the respondents also cited the more observable facial expressions of the other party in a simulation as an advantage in the online space. The participants found the conversations to be more direct and immediate and had fewer doubts about the alignment between what was said and the body language in the form of facial expressions alone. In conversation, they said they could read the others better in the online environment. The feel- good factor of being in one’s own environment also played a role. Things like “preparing your own food,” “your favourite brand of tea,” “a comfortable chair,” and wearing “more comfortable clothes” were all mentioned. There were 17 mentions of better time management. Being directly at home and not having to travel at the end of the lessons were particularly emphasized. Since the classes take place on the weekend, the topic of “still having something left of the weekend” also played a role.

A surprising issue for us, which we plan to investigate further quantitatively, is the participants’ impression that everyone is more effective in the online format. For example, several participants said that there were no excessively long speaking turns, which about a quarter of the participants felt was a positive and advantageous aspect of the online format. However, when we questioned the trainers about this, they did not feel there was an observable difference in the length of individual speaking turns in the online or on-site format. The trainers did, however, perceive that the material was conveyed more quickly in online lessons because there were fewer interruptions. In on-site training, the trainers often felt that lengthy discussions had to be stopped in order to get through the program.

A final advantage of the online format was the perception of greater discipline among the group. It seems that there are not so many interruptions in the online format and the participants are more punctual. This point was particularly related to the start of classes after breaks. While in the on-site format the coffee machine conversations were often so interesting that not all of them came to an end, in the online format the participants returned on time for the restart of the lesson. This is consistent with the trainers’ observations.

Advantages of on-site formats

Moving to the advantages of on-site formats, it was precisely these coffee machine conversations and personal encounters that the participants named as the greatest advantage of the on-site formats. They stated that it was of great value to them to exchange ideas and get to know each other better during the breaks and that valuable networks could be established. In the eyes of the participants, the discussions during the breaks also led to a trusting relationship within the group and between the individuals, which provides a good basis for learning. Making mistakes, for example, or being “stupid” in one’s own eyes is easier when a personal relationship and initial trust has been built up with colleagues in the course.

Body language in simulations was mentioned as the next advantage for on-site formats. Participants said that it helped them to better assess the situation when they could observe body language holistically. Movement in the space was also mentioned as an advantage of the on-site formats. Just walking to a group room, doing an exercise standing up or writing on a flip chart provides physical balance and is perceived as an advantage.

The use of the flip charts and the snacks and drinks available on site were also mentioned as an advantage of the on-site format. The use of the flip chart was an interesting point in the discussion that followed. It seems that those who have either been working with this medium for years or who are very creative and like to express themselves visually have a greater desire and concern to include a flip chart in training and also in mediations. Those who do not have this experience are rather reluctant to write on the flipchart and prefer any digital options for making notes and visualizations.

The participants were also asked about the disadvantages of the formats. Overall, there were only half as many mentions of disadvantages compared to advantages. This discrepancy shows that the participants have a positive overall view of both formats. However, it should be noted that the question of disadvantages also reflects that often what was seen as an advantage of the on-site format is at the same time a disadvantage of the online format, and vice versa. Therefore, participants may not have answered the disadvantages question because they felt it was redundant.

It is therefore not surprising that the biggest advantage of the on-site format is also the most frequently mentioned disadvantage of the online format. The lack of coffee or break room conversations and the lack of face-to-face contact in general was perceived to make networking more difficult in the online format. The lack of movement and looking at the screen for too long were both cited as the second disadvantage. However, less than half of the respondents identified this as a disadvantage. The lack of body language in mediation simulations was also mentioned as a disadvantage of the online format. There were four mentions of connection and technology problems, and these all came from participants who do not normally work with computers and were less comfortable learning new platforms. Online versus on site: The disadvantages The disadvantages of on-site teaching also reflect some (though not all) of the advantages of online teaching. Travel and costs were mentioned as advantages by 15 participants. Seven participants stated that they found on-site teaching stressful. In discussions, we learned that some participants felt they had to “behave” the whole time on site. They perceived that they could not take a break from other participants even at lunch; whereas in the online classes, they could shut off their camera and stay quiet, creating a more relaxing space.

The final disadvantage of the on-site format discussed was about the group dynamic. There were two issues raised here (1) some participants felt overlooked during discussion sections of the training; and (2) some participants felt that individual participants dominated conversations and spoke for too long, resulting in statements such as “the discussions get too out of hand.” Several of the participants perceived that being on site invited certain participants to contribute more frequently, leading to resentment from more quiet participants. It is important to note that those participants who tended to speak more frequently did not report that they felt any less heard in the online format. Therefore, in the digital, online space everyone felt treated more equally.

Summary

To sum up, this spontaneous journey which we did not set out on voluntarily, provided a great wealth of knowledge. What was unthinkable in the old world is now part of a new reality: new formats of mediation training have emerged. After evaluating the interviews with our participants and the trainers and observing the interaction of the participants in the mediation training, it can be said that the online training as a new format was very well received by the participants and is equally effective in achieving the goal of becoming a mediator. This is also the case with the classical models of on-site training. Both formats have strengths and weaknesses. Knowing this gives us the opportunity to optimize the formats.

In online formats, digital presentation forms, the organization, the exercises for self- reflection and the group dynamics are rated positively. In on-site formats, the opportunities to talk to participants outside of the training, to network, to keep moving, and to better perceive the body language of others are particularly positive. The opening up of training from fully on site to hybrid and even purely digital formats also enables the diversification of groups. Whereas the on-site room only connects participants from the immediate environment, the digital format sets no geographical limits.  Currently, mediation associations, training certification bodies, and training institutes all over the world are discussing what will be recognized in the future and how.

Unfortunately, personal interests and market policy considerations play a role far too often. It would be desirable to continue this journey that has just begun and to find, test, evaluate, and further improve more new pathways instead of putting on the brakes and returning to the old formats by saying “it has always been this way.”

There are initial surveys and studies5 on how mediation practice has changed in times of COVID-19. Most active mediators assume that they will continue to mediate online more than ever, even after the end of the pandemic. Mediation training should train mediators for a professional reality and not as an end in itself to fill the coffers of training institutes. The future of mediation training lies ahead of us. Flexibility and openness to new formats and constant further development in training is what future mediators demand and deserve.

If you are interested in online mediation training, we have the right offers for you!

International Online Mediation Training (English)

  *   Internationally certified (International Mediation Institute)

  *   University certified (International School of Management)

  *   40 hours of live online seminars in 12 weeks

  *   Experienced conflict experts from business, science, psychology and law as trainers

It is also possible to do the Mediation Training in German Language:

Mediation Training Online – Winter 2023

  *   Part-time training course to become a certified mediator (m/f/d)

  *   BECOME AN EXPERT IN CONFLICT RESOLUTION AND MEDIATION!

  *   Our certified mediation training is aimed at people who deal with conflict resolution in their work and would like to complete a professional mediation training online.

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Alexandra Kieffer

Alexandra Kieffer

Alexandra Kieffer is a certified mediator with a background of peace and conflict studies and responsible for international networks and training and happy to answer all your questions.

Dr. Andrea Hartmann-Piraudeau

Dr. Andrea Hartmann-Piraudeau is an international certified mediator and conflict expert with a broad international network and many years of experience in mediation and ADR. She is responsible for curriculum and research.