Saturday, December 7, 2013

Why don't judges just settle legal disputes?

In some Canadian provinces, they take what is called Judicial Dispute Resolution (JDR) very seriously.  During designated periods, litigants can choose to have a judge (in Provincial Court matters) or a Justice (in Court of Queen's bench matters) help them settle their law suit in a confidential pre-trial conference.  The judge is free to choose a "facilitative" approach, emphasizing joint problem-solving and a very "hands on"mediation style or a more "evaluative" approach in which the judge forecasts what the outcome will probably be if the case proceeds to litigation. Judges who adopt an evaluative JDR approach assume that once one or both sides hear what the JDR judge has to say, they will get "realistic" and be more inclined to reach a settlement, often on their own.

I recently had a chance to spend some time with several dozen judges who do JDR.  I was
surprised to see how differently they approach their dispute resolution assignments. Since judges rarely have time to watch their counterparts work, so the variation in their methods surprised them, too.   To my way of thinking,  these differences raise several interesting questions. Is it fair to litigants when the judges in the same province offer radically different services under the JDR heading?  Or, is it advantageous?  Do the lawyers involved understand what they are buying into when they sign up for JDR with a specific judge?  If (some) judges are offering the same mediation services that private out-of-court mediators provide, does it make sense for judges to be doing this work?  Shouldn't their time and energy be devoted exclusively to more traditional judicial activities?

Let me begin by saying that in my view, every judicial system ought to include JDR. At present, though, only a few countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines are fully committed to the idea. (You can read more about why this is the case in Tania Sourdin and Archie Zariski's book The Multi-Tasking Judge: Comparative Judicial Dispute Resolution.) The general hope is that JDR will reduce the court's burden, minimize the time and cost involved in litigation, and generate agreements that leave both sides (rather than just one side) happy with the outcome. In the Province of Alberta, Canada, more than 80% of the litigants who take advantage of JDR, express a high level of satisfaction with both the process and the outcome.

Let me come back to each of the questions I raised above. If JDR produces "better" results (in the eyes of the litigants), more quickly, then it is probably worth the effort. If JDR takes judges away from more traditional judicial activities, leading to a shortage of judges to handle traditional cases, then that's a problem. If judges are consistent in their approach to JDR, taking either an evaluative or a facilitative approach, and both lawyers are aware of these styles and can choose the JDR judge they want, than the differences may be advantageous.  If lawyers are unaware of these trends, or have no control over the judge assigned to their case, then these variations may create significant unfairness.  This assumes, of course, that one approach is better suited to the facts of each case. For example, if settlement hinges on non-financial considerations (i.e. apologies, future relationships between the parties, creative swaps that go beyond what the rule of law requires, etc.), than an evaluative approach is likely to produce sub-optimal outcomes.  If only financial considerations are at stake, and the parties are not likely to have any future interactions, then a facilitative approach might not be necessary.

Some judges are quite capable of adopting a hybrid approach, relying on caucusing and joint problem-solving part of the time, but knowing when and how to introduce a forecast of what might happen if the case goes to litigation. If all the judges in the system are able to make the switch, and use either method, the variation in approach won't be an issue.  But, it appears, they are not. So, it might make sense for all cases headed for JDR to first go through out-of-court (facilitative) mediation.  If a case does not settle out of court, then, and only then, would it go to a JDR settlement conference.  My sense is that the JDR judge ought to have access to a summary report from the outside mediator. The report would not to go, of course,  the judge who ultimately hears the case if JDR fails.

I was surprised to learn that JDR judges don't receive much training in the tools of dispute settlement. That seems like a mistake.  Just because someone is appointed to the bench, doesn't mean that they are skilled in settlement techniques.  At the very least, I would expect new judges to shadow some of the most experience JDR judges in their district for a while before handling JDR cases on their own.

I know that published evaluations of JDR indicate that the parties who participate are mostly satisfied.  I'm not sure, though, they know what they might have missed. JDR participants might be happy because they avoided the discomfort and the cost of traditional litigation, not because they got an ideal outcome.  Someone needs to do assessments of JDR that look closely at the potential "joint gains" the parties may have left on the table and not just at the short-term satisfaction (or happiness level) of the participants.  Also, what about the 15 - 20% of JDR participants who are not satisfied?  We need to know what can be done to address their concerns.

Judicial systems that don't have any form of court-annexed mediation, or pre-trial settlement conference facilitated by a JDR judge or a trained mediator, ought to consider the potential savings associated with these options. Those that have JDR, ought to make some adjustments if variations in the dispute settlement techniques employed by the judges in their system are producing sub-optimal results.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Advanced Negotiation Training

The Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School ( just offered a Master Class in Negotiation for the first time. As one of the trainers involved, I can tell you it was not easy to decide what an advanced negotiation training course should cover.  In the end, we decided to accept only applicants who had completed one of PON's Senior Executive three-day training programs in the previous ten years.  That reminded us what a Basic Negotiation course covers,  including concepts like interests, BATNA, reservation values, ZOPA, value creation, value distribution, the use of objective criteria, packaging or trading, dispute resolution clauses, and other concepts presented in Getting to Yes (Fisher and Ury), The Art and Science of Negotiation (Raiffa), Getting Past No (Ury), Beyond Winning (Mnookin), Difficult Conversations (Stone, Heen and Patton), Negotiating Rationally (Baxerman and Neale), A Behavioral Theory of Labor Negotiations (Walton and McKersie) and The Manager as Negotiator (Lax and Sebenius). That still left open the question of what the content of the Advanced Course should be.

In the end, we decided that an advanced course should focus on the real-life obstacles that arise when managers try to apply concepts and strategies they learned in the Basic Course. We also decided to present some emerging ideas including expanding the negotiator's emotional portfolio, anticipating the most difficult questions likely to arise in any negotiation, taking account of "subjective" value and not just the financial or "hard" costs and benefits that most negotiators emphasize, and dealing with the organizational pressures that make it hard for negotiators to be effective. We asked the 60 participants to tell us before they arrived about the negotiations that worried them the most.  We discussed these in small (three and four person) setting over meals with the four senior faculty trainers.  The positive reactions suggest that we made some good decisions.  We kept the whole group relatively small.  We sent participants a lot of material to read ahead of time. We focused on the problems that participants wanted to discuss. We used video recording and intensive group debriefings to make sure people had time to make connections between the ideas we presented and their own practice.  And, finally, we devoted much more time to interactive exercises than lectures.

I will describe three concepts that I emphasized during my section of the Master Class.  All three stem from my strong belief that negotiation is as much an organizational task as it is an individual responsibility. The first is the idea of a Negotiation Audit. Organizations, companies or groups that want to enhance the performance of their negotiators should bring in a qualified outsider to conduct an audit of the most important internal and external negotiations undertaken in the past 12 - 24 months.  This usually requires numerous confidential interviews with a range of personnel, at various levels.  Based on such interviews, it is possible to prepare a Negotiation Audit, similar in many ways to a fiscal audit that a company might use to gain an independent perspective on how its money is being managed.  A good negotiation audit can pinpoint standard operating procedures that impede negotiation success. You can read more about Negotiation Audits in Movius and Susskind, Built to Win: Creating a World-Class Negotiating Organization, Harvard Business Publishing, 2012

The second idea I talked about is the importance of coaching. We modeled typical interactions between a senior manager and his direct report who wants advice before, during and after a crucial negotiation with a client the company can ill afford to lose.  The senior manager does not provide much help although he thinks he does.  A great many senior managers have no idea how to coach their direct report, so the organization never gets any better or learns from its experience.  We talked about ways of adding coaching resources so that negotiators can find the help they need, even when it is not a good idea to rely on their direct superiors.

The third thing I talked about is the use of tailored training to enhance an organization's negotiating capabilities.  I described the reasons why so much money is wasted on training that is not appropriately tuned to the needs of an organization. Company-sponsored negotiation training should almost never be off-the-shelf.  I reviewed the questions that negotiation trainers must answer if they are going to create training programs that produce results that drop directly to the bottom line.

Of all the things we talked about in the Master Class, the idea that seemed to get the most attention is how to manage the relationship between the person you are negotiating with and their back table. If you can't help your negotiating counterpart get the right mandate, it won't matter much what you say or how you say it.  Your counterpart is really your emissary to their back table. You need to learn how to take account of that.

So many training programs operate at a basic level. It's time to move to more advanced levels.  There are a series of new books coming out in the next year that may be of some assistance, although I think most advanced training programs need to zero in on the problems that are front-and-center for the participants.  The first is Michael Wheeler's The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World (Simon and Schuster, 2013). Wheeler talks about the importance of improvisation, arguing that anyone trying to adhere to a script, no matter how well prepared they are, is headed for trouble.  My new book, coming out in 2014 from PublicAffairs, is entitled Good for You, Great for Me: Winning at Win-Win Negotiation. My focus is on the "claiming problem."  At the basic level, we've taught people how to cooperate to create more value.  Now, at the advanced level, we've got to teach them how to claim as much of that value as possible (and as they deserve) without undermining relationships.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What To Do in a Risky and Uncertain World

Have you ever noticed that all the writing about risk perception and risk assessment assumes a unitary mind?  One single decision-maker is always trying to figure out what to do in the face of some potential hazard -- a possible earthquake, tornado, hurricane, sea level rise, terrorist plot, and something equally terrible. In actuality, most risk management choices involve collective decisions.  Whether our community decides to build a sea wall to protect coastal properties from storm surges isn't up to one person.  We need to make a collective choice.

Societal risk (R) is calculated as follows.  First, figure out the probability (p) of a hazard occurring (H).  Then, multiple that by the impact (I) the hazard will cause if it does occur.  R = p (H) x I. If there is a 1% chance of a flood occurring in our community in a given year,  and major (100 year) floods in the past have done a $10 million in damage, then the annual societal risk associated with a 100 year flood is $100,000 a year.  Easy, right?  Well, first we have to be able to forecast the likelihood that a major flood will occur in a given year. Climate change is making that hard to do.  Whatever the past pattern of flooding has been, it may be changing.  And, it is not easy to calculate the impacts of a major flood. The $10 million figure is probably just a measure of average property damage in the past. What about the long-term impacts on the natural environment and all the ecosystem services that will be lost if soil or wetlands are washed away?  And, there may be loss of life or injuries involved.  How should we put a price tag on those losses?  And, the psychological and emotional damage involved in losing one's home or neighborhood is not insignificant. If our community has to decide whether to build a $1 million sea wall to protect some, but certainly not all, coastal property, the costs and which benefits on different groups in the community have to be assessed, and priorities have to be set.

The more uncertainty attached to an estimate of societal risk (in terms of both p (H) and I), the more difficult it is to reach agreement in a community about the measures that should be taken.  Risk management can sometimes reduce the probability of an event happening.  Most of the time, though, risk management measures are aimed at reducing impacts. So, if we have an emergency evacuation plan, and we practice it ahead of time, we can avoid some of the costs (i.e., deaths and injury) when the hazard occurs. There's a cost to preparing and rehearsing. And, not everyone will want to pay the costs involved. If the "best" risk management approach involves restricting what is allowed to be built near the shore, or imposing new construction methods, other groups are likely to object.  Some will oppose such measures because they will experience additional costs if those measures are implemented. Others will object in principal, arguing, for example,  that individuals have a right to build where they want and the way they want.  Of course, the costs to the rest of the community (of having to provide emergency evacuation services to those who refuse to move, or needing to build and maintain roads and other infrastructure for the benefit of people who refuse to move, or facing higher town wide insurance premiums and lower bond ratings) are rarely taken into account in these conversations.

So, risk management involves collective choices, but the theory and practice of risk management always seem to assume a single (rational) individual will weigh all of these costs and benefits and do what's best.  When there are multiple stakeholders, and they stand to gain and lose different amounts, while holding different views on what ought to be an individual's responsibility and what should be the government's responsibility, risk management decisions become extremely contentious.

One approach to dealing with these difficulties is to rely heavily on technical or scientific expertise.  If there were a way to produce an indisputable forecast of the likelihood of H occurring and the  likely impacts (I) if it does occur, there would still be differences among stakeholders with regard to the actions that should be taken, but at least everyone would be working with the same forecast.  As it turns out, the "systems" we need to model are quite complex.  And, even if we add a lot more computing power, the complexity and uncertainty involved in most socio-ecological system interactions makes forecasting extremely difficult.  This means that the task of reaching a collective judgement about how best to handle R is doubly hard.  We can't get a definitive forecast AND we have different views about the appropriate response to whatever forecast is available. As climate change adds even more uncertainty, the job of managing the risks associated with sudden climate change becomes even more difficult.

Another approach, one that de-emphasizes the search for a definitive technical forecast, is called scenario planning. This is a technique that begins with a wide range of possible forecasts (each the result of starting with a different driver of change). The task of risk management involves searching for "no regrets" actions that will reduce societal risk whichever "future" materializes. So, for example, instead of building an expensive sea wall that protects only a few coastal properties, a community might decide to build up natural barriers along the shore that provide some additional protection to all landowners AND enhance ecosystem functions at the same time (whether or not there is a terrible storm). While this may not protect a particular property owner as well as a sea wall if a ferocious storm occurs, it will provide a range of community benefits every year that more than justify the collective investment.

Scenario planning assumes we can not produce a reliable forecast of societal risk.  So, like a financial investor trying to figure out where to park his or her money for the long term, a community is better off with a diversified portfolio rather than a single bet.  Scenario planning provides a wide range of forecasts, each based on a different set of assumptions about p and I. They can use the full set to bracket the risks the community faces.  Then, they can ask which risk management strategy makes the most sense given the bracketed range of possible futures.

To make this work in practice, three things have to happen.  A broad set of stakeholder representatives in the community need to engage in scenario planning.  If they aren't involved directly, they are not likely to have much confidence in the multiple forecasts that emerge.  Also, they will probably need technical assistance to sort through the various risk reduction options and the likely costs associated with each scenario.  Second, the product of the scenario planning effort ought to be widely publicized.  Risk management is not something that should be turned over to elected officials to decide on a community's behalf behind closed doors.  The public needs to be heard once it has reliable information. There is no correct decision, only a plausible decision given all the concerns that the various stakeholders bring to the table.  Third, every community should probably put a collaborative adaptive management (CAM) strategy in place. When we are dealing with complex and uncertain systems, every move we make should be seen as provisional.  So, once we've made a move, we ought to monitor the results closely (as well as the results in other places where they have taken different approaches) so we can make adjustments.  Risk management needs to be a continuous process.

Most people haven't stopped to think about the chances of an earthquake occurring in the place where they live. Yet, at some point, some people decided to impose construction standards that could reduce the risk of death dramatically. If buildings have to be earthquake "proof," they are probably going to be more expensive. Even if we have very little confidence in our ability to predict the likelihood of an earthquake occurring (pH) or estimate the impacts (I) if it does occur, we will probably be glad that we live in an earthquake-resistant building.  I assume that the same thing is true about climate change. Even if we can't predict sea level rise or increasing storm intensity (pH) with much confidence, we have an idea that the impacts (I) would be enormous.  Super-Storm Sandy taught us that. If there are ways a community can increase its resilience and reduce its vulnerability (and achieve a variety of other goals at the same time), the collective choice should be relatively straight-forward.  Of course, this will only work if the community has access to the results of a transparent scenario planning process.

In a risky and uncertain world, we should treat risk management decisions as collective choices.  We should not pretend that we can forecast p(H) or I very accurately, or that there are "correct" risk management decisions.  Instead, we should commit to a transparent process of adaptation planning that yields the information stakeholders need to participate in collective choices.  And, we should admit that whatever actions we take are, at best, provisional, while we learn more and make adjustments.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Learning from Malaysia, Learning In Malaysia

I am pleased to be part of the five year Sustainable Cities Partnership that MIT just initiated with the Universiti of Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), Malaysia' #1 Engineering and Science School.  More about the Partnership in a moment.

Malaysia is sometimes overlooked. It has a population of just under 30 million people. It shares land borders with Thailand and Indonesia and maritime borders with Viet Nam and the Philippines.  The country has two segments with roughly equal land area -- the peninsula under Thailand where the majority of the population lives in big cities like Kuala Lumpur and Johor, and where the country is connected to Singapore via a bridge. And,  a second more rural portion of the country, quite far away in the South China Sea, over Borneo.  Malaysia is a progressive Islamic nation, a democracy that operates in the British style.

The population is about one-half Malay, one-third Chinese, just under 10% Indian (Tamil), and the remainder a range of other minorities and aboriginal peoples. So, we are talking about an ethnically diverse Islamic democracy with a GDP that has grown about 6.5% for the past 50 years. Why is Malaysia, with its commitment to democratic ideals and sustainable development not the focus of attention when Americans think about Islamic nations?  It is a country that has invested its oil and gas revenues in education, shifting in just a few decades from a predominantly agrarian and extractive economy to a high-tech, knowledge-oriented economy with excellent entrepreneurial universities. UTM, MIT's partner,  has more doctoral students than MIT does (and two-thirds are women). It has research partnerships with more than 100 well-known universities in the developed world.

While Malaysia faces environmental problems, like air pollution, that are partially the result of deforestation and rapid urbanization, the country has a commitment to promoting more sustainable development.  They are ranked 25th on Yale's Environmental Performance Index (out of 132 nations), making improvements and trending in a sustainable direction, especially with regard to air quality and the management of maritime resources.  They are signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity, not insignificant in a country that has 20% of the world's animal species. They are working hard to preserve the important mangrove forests in a protected Ramsar site across from Singapore, even as they try to develop that area into their own international port.

Malaysia is ranked 64th out of the 186 countries listed on the UN's Human Development Index. It invests a substantial amount of money in improving health care. The status of women's health has improved markedly over the past few decades. At last count, the GDP per capita was about $10,000 (US). Per capita income was about $15,000 (US).  The country is home to two World Heritage Sites, including Georgetown, the city at the center of the northern island of Penang, a predominantly Chinese section of the country where high-tech investment has been booming.

Queen Raja Zarith Sofiah is Chancellor of UTM.  She has a PHD from Oxford in Chinese studies. The Prime Minister, although facing strong pressure from the Chinese segment of the population to ensure that public policy creates the same opportunities for them that it does for the Malay majority, is committed to diversifying and globalizing the country's economy.

The new MIT-Malaysia Sustainable Cities Partnership will bring 10 scholars from universities in developing (G-77) countries, each year for the next five years,  to UTM for half a year and then to MIT for half a year.  These Visiting Scholars will be working to answer key questions about the effectiveness of sustainable development efforts in Penang, Kuala Lumpur (especially Putrajaya, the planned government center about 25 kilometers south of KL) and Johor Bahru. How can developing countries introduce high-tech investment while preserving the culture and traditions of local areas?  How can growing cities in the global South increase their economic well-being while maintaining ecosystem services and achieving sustainable use of natural resources?  How can national energy policies grow electricity supplies needed to support new investment while reducing greenhouse gas emissions?  How can the ill-effects of deforestation and inadequate attention to marine resources be remedied while at the same time permitting investment in eco-tourism, restoration of fisheries and air quality improvements? How can a nationally-driven federal system implement high quality and coordinated infrastructure improvements while empowering states and localities to shape development in ways that reflect their priorities and decentralized ethnic and political concerns?  These are just some of the questions the Partnership will be trying to answer, with reference to actual efforts on the ground in Malaysia.

After spending a half year working with cities, development agencies and faculty at UTM, each year's
Visiting Scholars will then spend a second half year at MIT, working with faculty and doctoral students there (under the umbrella of MIT's Community Innovator's Lab) to prepare video teaching materials summarizing what they have learned.  We hope these video inserts can be distributed through the new MITx and Edx channels currently being used to put MOOCs on-line.  The goal of the Partnership is to strengthen the teaching of sustainable city development in the global South, not replace what is taught there with courses developed in the North.  At the end of five years, we hope to have an international network of at least 50 scholars committed to shifting the city development and regional planning strategies taught at universities around the world from an emphasis on economic growth to a more sensible emphasis on sustainable development -- all with illustrations and analysis growing out of the Malaysian experience.  It is our contention that development strategies taught in the North, about the North,  are not especially relevant to the problems facing mega-cities in the global South.

The Partnership is searching for the next ten Visiting Fellows (  These must be full time academics teaching about some aspect of city and regional development at a college or university in the developing world. It doesn't matter what there discipline is. They will need the endorsement of their academic department. If selected, they will receive full salaries for a year along with a stipend to cover travel and living expenses in Malaysia and at MIT (Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA). The goal will be for each Fellow to contribute to a growing digital library -- available for free via a video channel at MIT -- depicting the results of their field-based research regarding the success and failure of particular sustainable development efforts in Malaysia. If you are interested in being added to the Partnership mailing list, please email me at

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Participatory Action Research (PAR) vs. Applied Social Science as We Know It

There are a number of authors like Bent Flyvbjerg who have done a masterful job spelling out all the reasons why social scientists should stop aspiring to be natural scientists.  See his books Real Social Science and Making Social Science Matter for a full explanation.  The statistical tools available in the social sciences can only help us understand, not prove, why things happen.  Natural science, because of the elegance of the scientific method, can generate causal generalizations ("proofs")  that apply reliably across time and place.  Social scientists only know something about very specific situations. Generalizing across people, organizations, communities, and countries is a lost cause. The differences outweigh the commonalities, and efforts to "control" everything but the one thing we want to study are either unethical or impossible. This is not to say that social science isn't important.  On the contrary, the most serious problems we face are social and political, not physical.  "We have met the enemy and it is us." So, it is important to understand how to push social science in a useful direction and produce helpful prescriptive advice for those interested in social change.

There are some social scientists, mostly economists, who aspire to the mathematical rigor of the
natural sciences.  They undertake "double blind" controlled experiments. They give half a community something and not the other half, and see if they can detect statistical differences that prove the poverty-relieving effectiveness of a specific policy or program.  First,  you've got to believe that the two halves of the community are initially the same (and stay the same) during the course of the experiment. Second, you've got to believe that everything else stays constant during the course of the experiment. Third, you've got to believe that the experimental effort and not something else caused what statistically significant outcome might be found. Mere correlation, though,  isn't a basis for reshaping public policy or interfering with people's lives. So, whatever appears to be statistically relevant still doesn't explain why good or bad things happen. Put aside whatever concerns you might have about withholding something good or imposing something bad on half a community so that social scientists can test their ideas or a new practice. My view is that social scientists should stop pretending that correlation equals causation. They should admit that the complexity and uncertainty involved make science-like generalizations about people, communities and institutions extremely unreliable.

Instead, social scientists should work harder to make connections to client-communities, agencies and government entities that want help figuring out what they should about a specific problem  (or how they should alter their policies and practices).  And, they should team up with these groups to figure out how to make sense of past and current practices or events.  Alliances of this sort, in which the client calls the shots, may seem less than ideal for scholars who want to make a name for themselves by calling into question the conventional wisdom about some aspect of everyday life or current public policy. Social science scholars who want to be able to frame their own research questions, use methods of analysis that peer-reviewers will approve, remain entirely detached from the places or groups they are studying, and draw whatever conclusions make sense to them are in a special category.  They want to continue following the "lets-pretend-we-are scientists"approach to applied social research.  Instead, I would suggest a very different approach called Participatory Acton Research (PAR).

PAR as described by Action Research and Action Science specialists was developed, in part, by
my MIT colleague, the late Donald Schon. Davydd Greenwood and Morten Levin, Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change do a nice job of summarizing the current state-of-the-art.  PAR can produce meaningful results even though it tends to focus on individual cases rather than statistical analyses, large samples or controlled experiments.  PAR puts a premium on local knowledge (what people in the actual situation know from their first-hand experience), not just expert knowledge. And, PAR measures its success by the way in which client-communities feel about the "results"of the research  and its usefulness rather than the way in which peer-reviewers in the social science community feel about its methodological rigor (in traditional terms) or the replicability of the findings. All PAR knowledge is "situated."  That means it is place or case specific.  The goal isn't to come up with provable generalizations.  Quite the contrary, the objective of PAR is to generate what Aristotle would have called "practical wisdom" or useable knowledge, believable to those who have to take action if social change is going to occur.

I will be teaching PAR seminars for the first time at MIT next year. I'm sure there will be an extended discussion of whether PHD candidates will be allowed to substitute these classes for more traditional research methods classes. From my standpoint, there are three reasons why PAR methods should be accepted as a viable alternative to the usual applied social research (read statistical) methods that doctoral students in applied social sciences are normally expected to master.  First, unless graduate students learn how to interact with a client-community from the beginning of a research effort, they will never learn how to communicate "with" rather than send messages "to" agencies, groups, organizations and institutions seeking to promote social change. And, I would argue, the only ethically defensible role for social scientists is as partners to those who want to promote social change. Second, unless they learn how to make sense of what is happening in a specific case or context (rather than in a randomly drawn sample of places or situations),  they will always be limited to analyzing superficial correlatiosn when what they are really interested in is causation. One has to "go deep" to have any hope of diagnosing what is actually going on. Third, unless they learn how to build relationships with the users of actionable knowledge, they will always be offering pronouncements to the "cognizanti," not collaborating with the people who have the authority to make change.

There are all kinds of dilemmas that surround participatory action research.  Who represents the community, the agency or the client?  What if power is maldistributed inside the client-community? How does a "friendly outsider" (i.e. a PAR researcher) convince a client-community that he or she can be trusted? Who makes the final decision about which data that will be gathered and how findings will be analyzed or interpreted?  How should case specific information be integrated with findings from other cases or even more general findings produced by traditional applied social scientists?  What role should PAR researchers have in formulating prescriptions for action?  Is some kind of collaborative adaptive management possible, in which the PAR researcher stays involved with a client-community as its seeks to monitor results and make ongoing adjustments?

The resistance to PAR is strongest among social scientists who yearn to be part of the natural science fraternity.  The traditional types are more concerned about being respected by other academics than they are about "doing social change."   They fear that advocates of PAR feed right into the hands of natural science skeptics who think putting "social" in front of scientist is equivalent to putting "witch" in front of "doctor."  PAR practitioners, for their part, are worried that traditional social scientists are oblivious to the harm that they do when they generalize about social and political phenomenon and fail to appreciate the case specific implications of their findings.

We need to start a different conversation.   PAR teachers and practitioners should focus on explaining to their potential client communities what they do, and why they do it (and why it would be best to work with PAR researchers, not traditional social scientists).  They should codify the ethical norms that guide PAR in practice so they can be held accountable.  They should think hard about the best ways of integrating what PAR teaches about case specific situations with the kinds of generalizations that traditional social scientists produce. It may be that graduate students interested in PAR will also have to master traditional science research methods if they want to be taken seriously in the university. That's twice as much work, but it may be necessary.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

An Online University? Are you Crazy?

I wish some of the people who are so excited about the prospect of online college courses being taught by famous faculty members understood a little bit more about what a university education is really supposed to accomplish.  The reason students (ought to) go to college is to enhance their capacity to function in the world-at-large once they graduate -- to function as citizens, productive workers, parents and as potential leaders in all walks of life.  When colleges do their job, students learn fundamental skills (like how to master a new body of knowledge, express their views effectively in writing and in spoken terms, and how to listen and respond to others with very different values and beliefs). They are also expected to familiarize themselves with a substantial body of knowledge (the Cannon of Western Literature? Great Books? Key Concepts in Science and Math? Great Moments in History? Competing Theories of Social Change and  Human Progress? ) that educated people use to make sense of what is going on around them.

You can read about all of these things.  There's nothing new about that. And, now we can put these materials and study guides on line.  Big deal.  And, we can capture the best lecturers in the world presenting these materials and post them online so that people all around the world can listen and watch without having to relocate. We certainly do that with recorded music.  But that doesn't a university make!  We wouldn't imagine giving someone a degree in music theory or performance because they had listened to long list of records or disks. Any anyone who thinks that open on-line enrollment in a catalogue of college-level classes equals a college degree, is sadly mistaken.  And, even if we add computer-graded exams to be sure that the many thousands of people taking these on-line courses have read the material, we will still be nowhere near what it takes to master fundamental skills and use a substantial body of knowledge.  Mastery requires real-time interaction with other learners and hands-on coaching by skilled teachers.  It requires, trial and error, feedback and reflective discussion. That's why large lecture classes are almost always supplemented by small sections in which students try to use the skills and knowledge they are reading or hearing about in collaboration with other students and teachers.

There are three reasons that on-line universities or efforts to approximate them will fail.  First, the most important feedback students need takes the form of questions asked, answered and reconsidered in real-time with a cohort of other learners. A list of Frequently Asked Questions with standards responses pre-prepared by instructors won't give each student the opportunity and responsibility they need to try formulating their own questions as they grapple with the material.  Second, students invariably learn more from other students than they do from faculty as they try wrestle with the materials they are trying to learn.  This, in turn, requires a safe and supportive environment in which students dare to ask questions (even if they feel foolish revealing what they don't know) or offer tentative answers to questions posed by others.  This works best when students meet outside of class on a regular basis, study together and  earn each other's trust.  They also need one-on-one time with faculty (or teaching assistants) to talk about assigned materials, review work in progress or get feedback that puts exam results in context and makes sure they figure out why they got something wrong.  Grades (especially when they are machine-generated) can't do that.  Third, when skill development and not just knowledge acquisition is the goal, students need repeated opportunities to try-fail-reflect- and discuss to achieve mastery. Multiple choice, machine-graded exams will never be able to substitute for hands-on faculty coaching and real-time interaction with peer learners.  That's why we need smaller not larger classes (or cohorts of students).

My own university (MIT) is poised to invest tens of millions of dollars in on-line education for the world-at-large. There are some ways in which this could be enormously helpful (and could strengthen residential learning), but merely recording and transmitting on line (even for free) the "best" course in various fields is not going to help very much.  We tried that in the past by writing text books.  People all over the world were encouraged to use the basic economics and physics textbooks developed by MIT faculty. Did that improve and sustain the quality of teaching in other universities?  I don't think so.  The only way to do that is by enhancing the capacity of teachers in those other places and help them enhance their teaching skills.  On-line courses are going to be used as an excuse by college administrators in other parts of the world (and even in the US) to fire faculty members and give students credit for taking on-line courses (offered by MIT and others).  That won't strengthen education in the developing world, for example, it will weaken it.  On the other hand, we could use MITx to create an on-line learning community for economics or physics faculty members around the world.  It would need to be highly interactive.  The focus should probably be on how to meet the culturally-defined learning needs of the students each of these faculty members is trying to teach. An on-line forum -- with the capacity to upload teaching demonstrations by one participant that could become the focus for the larger group to review--would aim to share what we know about teaching key concepts or using various teaching methods.  Strengthening teaching capacity in as many places as possible ought to be our goal, not reducing or eliminating teaching capacity.

I can imagine giving students a lot more video material to look at before classes begin.  I teach city planners about the way certain kinds of resource management challenges can and should be handled.  Seeing detailed video accounts prepared by colleagues all over the world, showing how certain problems were handled, would be a wonderful supplement to the readings I assign.  But, when students come to my class, I will still pose hypothetical scenarios to see if they can use what they have been viewing and reading.  I want each student to be ready to respond to any question another student might ask, or that I might ask.  I want to give them collective feedback on their latest assignment.  I want them to react to the feedback I provided to them individually on the quiz or exam they recently completed. Then, I will ask them to work in teams or small groups to come up with the best response to still another hypothetical situation I have proposed. Finally, I want to gather them together for a cross-group discussion where one person from each group presents their group's "best advice" to the hypothetical client (using everything they viewed or read before class, as well as the ideas that came up during their small group discussion). This is the only way I can help my students master the material I am presenting.

On-line video and other interactive materials can help students prepare for a class or review what
happened in a class, but it can't substitute for the real-time group learning that college education is meant to offer.  Similarly, on-line course, if used correctly by qualified faculty members, can supplement what it taught -- especially if it is accompanied by on-line forums that explain to faculty how they can use new materials to teach their particular students. But, online courses can't substitute for residential (i.e. face-to-face, real-time) learning.

There will never be an on-line university that offers more than minimal vocational training -- learning the material, step-by-step, by yourself, at your own pace and taking a machine-graded test.  That doesn't come close to generating mastery (i.e. an ability to use concepts and methods in an improvisational way). Mastery can only be achieved through trial-and-error-and-coaching-and-correction-and-question-asking in a continuing group of trusted peer learners. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hydropower Conflicts in Southern Chile

Chile is now relying on hydropower to support its amazing economic growth.  It is a country without oil, gas or coal reserves of its own.  Liquified natural gas (LNG) and coal imports are being increased, and there is some talk of expanding non-conventional renewable resources, but hydro represents at least 35% of the current energy mix and is likely to grow.  Somehow Chile needs to generate an additional 8000 MW of new power  by 2020 -- that's a 6% - 7% increase per year in electricity generation. The problem is, hydro has a variety of harsh impacts, especially when electricity has to be shipped 1,000 miles along an "electricity highway" that cuts through some of the most ecologically important areas in the world,  as well as the homelands of hundreds of thousands of indigenous (Mapuche) people.

I just spent several weeks with colleagues in northern and southern Chile (i.e. Patagonia) as part of an ongoing partnership between MISTI (MIT Science and Technology Initiative) and Universidad Austral de Chile (UACh).  In conjunction with the Consensus Building Institute we organized a Devising Seminar to explore the possibility of expanding opportunities for local and indigenous communities to participate in decisions about hydropower development that affects them.  A Devising Seminar is an informal event (usually a half day to a day) that brings together representatives (not in any official sense) of government, industry and civil society to hear each other out and think strategically about a difficult public policy question.  In our case, the question was, "How can communities, indigenous groups and environmental interests be given more of an opportunity to raise concerns and participate in hydro power decisions in a timely fashion?" The Devising Seminar, in Santiago, was facilitated (in Spanish) by skilled public dispute mediators. Before the event, confidential interviews were completed with carefully selected individuals. These were incorporated into a Background Document in which no one was quoted directly, but the scope and content of major disagreements was spelled out.  During the dialogue, points were raised in a respectful but passionate way. By the end of the discussion, the participants were surprised, I think, to discover more common ground than expected.  Everyone will benefit from early and constructive consultation with those likely to be effected by further hydropower development.  How such consultation ought to be structured, though, (i.e., should the laws regulating the scope and timing of Environmental Impact Assessment be changed?) will require further conversation.

Laws in Chile do not guarantee stakeholders much of a voice prior to final decisions being made about energy projects.  And, the country's Environmental Impact Assessment laws allow only 30 days for concerned citizens to review thousands of pages of technical material before decisions are finalized. While international law requires that indigenous people be consulted prior to decisions being made that might adversely affect them, Chile has been unclear about when and how this is supposed to happen. And, some indigenous leaders have made it clear that they expect to be on a more equal footing with the national officials when they meet to talk about such matters.

In some instances, the courts in Chile have stepped in, questioning the adequacy of regulatory reviews, even halting ongoing dam-building projects. But,  massive projects to which the government is committed will probably just be delayed temporarily.

Some way must be found, not just in Chile, to create a public space (I don't mean this in a literal sense) where energy policy-making and problem-solving can take place in a truly collaborative way.  There are certain projects that should probably not go ahead at all (in the locations proposed or in the manner  suggested). Affected groups should be able to point this out, early on, without having to argue that nothing of the sort should proceed anywhere.  Nor should they have to come up with technical solutions to all a country's problems in order to be taken seriously.  On the other hand, industry and government must be able to act after they have done everything they can to minimize and mitigate the adverse impacts of projects that are clearly in the public interest. Compensation might be required. In Canada, indigenous peoples are equity partners in certain energy projects. This gives them much more control over what happens as well as a share in the profits.  The ground rules for joint problem-solving need to be spelled out legislatively and administratively. Once they are, capacity building help (including money) must to be provided to communities of all kinds so they are ready to present their own view effectively.

I'm optimistic that Chile will make progress in the near future.  Public opposition to hydro development is growing. There is a chance this will spill over into growing opposition to all forms of energy development.  Energy companies are aware of this. They know they need to engage stakeholders in a timely way. Some experiments along these lines may be in the works.  A few successful efforts (even if they are not required by law) could pave the way for new legislation that would be probably be supported by all sides.  I'm hoping that my colleagues at UACh can assist energy companies and state and national agencies that want to pilot test new forms of collaborative problem-solving over energy development of all kinds.  I'm confident, from what I recently heard, that there are Mapuche and environmental leaders ready to partner if an offer to collaborate is made in good faith.