Sunday, June 12, 2016

Teaching Negotiation Online: What Happens when you Adopt a UX (User Experience Design) Orientation?

I taught an online negotiation course for the first time this spring.  MIT’s Professional Education Program and its Office of Digital Learning (ODL) invited me to design and teach a course for professionals around the world willing to pay approximately $500 to participate in a six week course for about 3 – 5 hours a week. I chose to focus on Entrepreneurial Negotiation and gave the course an added twist by adding to the title “The MIT Way” (reflecting the MIT motto of “mens et manus” or mind and hand, or knowledge and practice”). Over the past few years, ODL has attracted tens of thousands of online learners, so it sounded like an exciting opportunity. 

Some of you have heard about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  MIT participated jointly with Harvard and other top-tier universities -- through an entity called Edx -- to offer free online access to regular college courses.  These consisted of videos of college lectures supplemented by power points.  Students took machine graded multiple choice exams at the end of each module, and received a certificate of completion if they made it all the way through a class. Production and dissemination were paid for by foundation grants or donated by universities hoping to sell accompanying books or other teaching materials.  Edx has run through many millions of dollars. Only a tiny fraction of the global participants who signed up for most MOOCs (many of them high school students) actually completed the courses and mastered the material.  So, MIT has decided to look for a more financially sustainable and effective way of sharing the knowledge developed on campus with a wider international audience.

The MIT professional staff I worked with are practitioners of a new approach to online learning called User Experience Design (UX or UXD or UED). I like the Wikipedia description of UX: it is the process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product. It is revolutionizing all kinds of design efforts, including the way companies market products and organizations interact digitally with their clients.  The MIT Professional Education staff, with its UX orientation,  made me rethink every aspect of my approach to teaching negotiation.  I will share a few of things I learned.

First, online learners prefer to watch videos rather than read text. When I say videos, I don’t mean videotaped versions of the 50 minute lectures I would usually give in a regular class or training program.  They want short, animated or otherwise highly produced segments that get to the point and entertain (infotainment). The MIT team informed me that my usual negotiation lecture introducing key negotiation concepts would need to be reduced to a six minute animated short.  It took some doing (and a lot of help from several skilled graphic artists, especially one in the Czech Republic I never talked to directly) to present almost two dozen concepts in a six minute cartoon strip based on two key characters – Novi (a female, African-American inventor) and Vic (a male, Caucasian venture capitalist) who were about to negotiate the possibility of some kind of joint venture keyed to a new device Novi had created.  If you start, as UX does, from the standpoint of the learner rather than the instructor, everything you say and the way you say it, changes.

MIT has developed a platform that allows hundreds (actually thousands) of course participants to interact face-to-face simultaneously via the web (not skype).  So, each week, more than two hundred participants negotiated with randomly assigned partners from elsewhere in the world.  Each negotiation was scheduled for 60 – 90 minutes. When the scheduled time for negotiations was over, students could watch a taped version of my MIT graduate students doing the same negotiation (from start to finish) that they had been assigned.  Viewing my same negotiations that the online participants had just completed was optional, but almost all of the online students chose to view the tapes. Then, they watched me (on tape) interacting with two sets of my students who had completed the negotiation assigned to the online class that week.  My online video debriefing of each week’s negotiation assignment involved me going through the full tape of my two graduate student pairs of negotiators and selecting video highlights focusing on the key learning points I wanted to raise.  When I met with the four students (in a studio setting) to debrief, I had two giant screens on the wall that I controlled from a laptop in front of me. I pre-selected highlights (almost like a sports broadcaster reviewing all the games on a particular day) so I could question my students, pressing them to explain why they did what they did, what they might have done differently and what they learned.  The tapes of these studio interactions initially ran for several hours. But, with the help of my editing team, we were able to post-produce three or four eight minute segments keyed to the theme of the week. The online participants were also asked to complete short assigned readings each week from the electronic version of my recent book).  My assumption was that watching me debrief my students would resonate with the experience the online learners had just had. From the polling we did, that turned out to be true. It was as if I was debriefing the online learners.

When I first saw the tapes of my students completing the negotiations that the online class was assigned, I didn’t want to leave anything out.  Every second seemed valuable.  After multiple tries, however, I was able to isolate 8 – 10 minutes of highlights (especially pair handling the same moments in the negotiation differently). I pre-load these for the studio debriefing with my students.  When I reviewed the several hours of video of the debriefings that followed (all unscripted), I didn’t see how I would be able to cut these down to three or four segments of seven to eight minutes.  I had to put myself into the learner’s position. What did they most want to know?  And, why?  Each finsished video segment was “tested” multiple times by people like those we thought would sign up for the course.  While you need skilled editors to smooth out the video and audio, and to add titles and music, those of us who have only taught from our own perspective can eventually, on our own, identify with the needs of the learners.

There are lots of other innovative instructional elements in the course.  We interviewed Cambridge entrepreneurs – mostly MIT spin-offs – in their offices. I asked them on camera to talk about the most difficult negotiations they have had. These were also reduced to six minute cameos that appear week by week and align with the four teaching themes around which the course is structured – dealing with ego and emotion, coping with uncertainty, managing technical complexity and building trusting relationships. While I got better at preparing five or six minute mini-lectures introducing topics like these, it took the guidance of a skilled video producer to help me transform my usual pedagogical style to a learner-oriented approach to presenting my ideas.  By the way, I found it impossible to use a teleprompter to read scripts. It was only through multiple impromptu takes that I found the voice I was looking for.

The MIT teaching platform allows students to share their written work with each other, and give each other grades and feedback (all anonymously).  I assigned a short-follow-on scenario each week that picked up where the assigned negotiation exercise left off.  They had to write out one page of their best advice to Novi and Vic in each situation. Then, each participant had to offer comments and grades to at least two other people on their written responses.  I provided a detailed grading template with an example of how I graded a student’s response to each assignment. This is all accomplished electronically and automatically by the MIT Professional Education platform.  But, a problem emerged when a handful of online participants offered nasty comments and unfair grades.  I had to add an online ombudsmen (one of my post-docs with a lot of negotiating teaching experience). He was available to re-review comments and grades for anyone who felt they had been treated unfairly. While this only amounted to 1% - 2% of the participants, I was genuinely surprised at how mean the class participants could be to each other.  Remember, everyone was paying to participate in the six week course and these were mostly young professionals.  These were not your usual internet trolls who write vitriolic comment and leave.

I asked the participants to reflect at the end of each week (in writing, but for themselves) on what they learned and what they were confused about.  At the end of each week I entertained questions (on the Open Electronic Forum also supported by the platform). I chose about a dozen (from about 50 – 60) questions to answer in writing each week. It took me about two to three hours to write out my answers each week. It was clear that participants were taking the class very seriously and reflecting carefully on what was happening.  I posted by weekly answers for the whole group to see each Monday morning as a new unit began. I could tell from their questions where I had failed to be clear or where the materials I had developed did not go far enough.  Answering their questions in real time was important, also, for those who had expected to interact with me personally when they had signed up for the course.

In the last week of the course, I asked them to prepare a composite reflective memo.  While we polled the group each week (after every exercise and assignment) to find out the ratings and judgments about each component of the class),  their detailed closing evaluations made clear that the idea of a “learning journey” really does make sense.  They elaborated on what they took from the course (relative to their individual needs) and gave me a sense of whether I had succeeded.  There’s no way a “final exam” makes sense in this context (and I wonder, in retrospect, how much sense it makes in more traditional in-person classes).  My focus on their evolving theories of practice and the importance of continuing to learn from your own negotiation experience may be the most important thing I gave them.

Preparing and presenting the online course made me think very hard about how people learn to negotiate, how they acquire and master various micro-skills, how they confront and reformulate their personal theories-of-practice and how they learn from their own ongoing negotiating experiences.  As I try to think 10 years ahead, I imagine that my face-to-face negotiation instruction and training sessions will incorporate a lot more prepared video elements (before and after class).  I’ve already introduced a new kind of video assignment in my “regular” MIT class – requiring students to videotape (using an ipad) at least three other pairs or groups of students doing assigned negotiations and producing (using imovie) annotated video presentations for the rest of the class.  The act of having to edit, add titles and sub-titles, and narrate a three to four minute composite video turns out to be a great way to get students to realize what they are supposed to be learning.  Video debriefing allows us to all be looking at the same thing.   

The MIT Professional Education team hired someone (an MIT undergraduate, it turns out) to write the detailed code “automating” every moment of the six week on line course.  Imagine you had to anticipate every question, every concern and every bit of confusion that online learners might have. Then, you had to write the instructions to those learners (both in terms of how to use on the platform and in terms of queuing up the learning assignments they are required to complete).  That’s what it means to incorporate a UX perspective in online negotiation instruction.  That’s what I think we should all learn to do.