Last semester, one student in CONF 501 Introduction to Conflict Analysis and Resolution, travelled with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Another student was back and forth between Belize for work. Others needed to return to their home countries during the semester. Still, none of them missed a class thanks to Professor Rob Ericson’s online section.

The fully online CONF 501 section was created in response to the frequent requests of itinerant or distance students. Professor Ericson, from the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR), partnered with instructional designer Susan Campbell to develop the course. It will serve as a model for the remainder of the S-CAR Master’s program courses which will soon all be available online.

Professor Rob Ericson describes his background in conflict analysis and his goals for students in this course in the video, “Welcome to Conflict 501, The Distance Learning Course.”

Conflict Case Studies

In this course, students consider appropriate responses to a variety of conflicts. One case study asks them to compare stakeholders’ responses in the ideologically caused conflicts of the Waco, Texas incident, the MOVE group case, and the Koran burning episode. Another study discusses how US Officials could best help to resolve the social conflict in Congo spurred by coltan mining. The diversity of the students’ life experiences motivates an array of resolutions to these authentic issues.

One student, Dale Robinson, began the class with 20 years of conflict resolution experience under his belt. He works at Virginia Tech as the Compliance and Conflict Resolution Manager. “People thought it was odd for me, as an expert in the field, to take this introduction course,” he noted. “But I was really able to broaden my scope through it. I learned about the history of the field and how my skills can be applied for peace building and in an international setting.”

Students on the Go - CONF 501

Coltan is a rare mineral which is used in cell phones and several other electronics. Conditions created by coltan mining in the Congo has led to military and militia fighting and subsequently increased stealing, killing, and raping in the region. CONF 501 students discuss ways to resolve this conflict. Photo and video courtesy of BBC News.

Let Every Voice Be Heard

Each student develops a resolution to the case study conflicts and posts them on an online “discussion board” where their classmates are encouraged to comment. The online discussion model allows for every voice to be heard.

“In a face-to-face course, there are always a handful of students who dominate the discussion and those who rarely contribute. When you have an online discussion, it gives everyone – the shy, the unconfident English speakers, etc. – time to think about how they want to respond. You hear from voices you normally wouldn’t,” explained Professor Ericson.

Students also participate in virtual study groups during the semester which provide a means for constant discussion and support. “I was impressed with all the different tools provided in the course to interact with the professor or other students,” explained Dale. “I saw that you really can learn information in many ways besides just reading from a book.”

Learning from the Best

As students review the conflict case studies and discuss their solutions, they are instructed in key concepts of conflict via video segments. The video segments are unique – several are made by Professor Ericson, others by the former director of S-CAR, Professor Richard Rubenstein, and some by a former US Ambassador, John McDonald.

“I try really hard to not let the course ever get boring!” said Professor Ericson. “One aspect of the course that appeals to students is the variety.”

Ambassador McDonald serves as a guest speaker on topics such as “Empire and Nation State” in the
CONF 501 online course (PDF movie transcript).

At the end of the semester, students give a final presentation over Skype to Professor Ericson. “It is not intimidating at all,” recounts Dale. “Early on in the semester, Professor Ericson meets with everyone on Skype and he is available to talk to you all throughout the semester. So, by the time the final presentation arrives, you have already developed a rapport with him.”

While CONF 501 is a pre-requisite for all students in the S-CAR Master’s program, it is open to non-majors as well. Are you preparing for a career in business or at an educational institution? Are you currently working for a government agency or international development organization? Will you ever be part of a religious group, community center, or union? If so, the skills you will master in this class will be critical for your success, and the online format is certain to fit with your lifestyle and schedule.