Find Mediators Near You:

A Step-By-Step Approach To Designing An Online ADR Course

Online education is rapidly becoming the preferred choice by many students pursing an academic degree. An online course is defined as having at least 80% of the course content delivered online. Blended courses deliver 30% to 80% of course content online. Online students benefit from not being susceptible to professorial lack of preparation, obfuscation, or favoritism (for whatever reason) sometimes experienced in physical classrooms. More important, dedicated online teachers invariably end up providing more individualized attention to student responses precisely because they are written. The “accountability factor” goes way up in online education. Exchanges between learners and teacher, and between learners themselves, become quality-driven due to the restrictions of the medium.

Institutions of higher learning have discovered that online programs offer access to various segments of the population who previously experienced conflicts between commitments to both family and work. In an online course, students access the course materials over the Internet at any time of the day or night, from any location, throughout the world.

The Graduate School of Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky, an Academic Partner with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is the first academic institution to develop a 100% Online Master of Science in Dispute Resolution (MSDR). Sullivan’s web-based degree program allows students throughout the world to “log on” and access complete course materials, discussions, databases, and assignments—regardless of time zone. Similarly, Concord Law School is the first institution to offer a Juris Doctor (JD) degree earned wholly online via state-of-the-art technology. With the latest Internet-adaptive technologies, the Concord program offers excellent course instruction combined with flexibility, specifically designed to fit into today’s busy lifestyles.

There are many valid reasons for applauding online programs, but one traditional element missing in online instruction is the face-to-face interactions with the instructor and other learners. This is a cause for concern for ADR educators since the field of conflict management and dispute resolution traditionally use simulations and group interactions as core elements for instructional critique and training. Granted, that not all face-to-face learning is equally effective or beneficial, online students do not have the benefit or pleasure of the uninhibited, often rapid exchanges when one is in a physical room. Technology simply cannot overcome that barrier. Sullivan University has altogether bypassed this problem in its online degree by abandoning artificial role simulations altogether, substituting instead real-world, supervised ADR experiences in the workplace.

Instructors can find comfort in the fact that online course development involves expertise in many traditional course development techniques and skills. However, as stated above, the lack of person-to-person interactions is an essential distinction in online teaching. This factor makes designing interactive course content one of the most important elements in facilitating online student instruction. Course design will necessitate creative and innovative approaches on the part of the instructor that will significantly impact the effectiveness of the online program.

The Sloan Consortium is a consortium of institutions and organizations committed to quality online education. The 2003 Sloan Survey of Online Learning is a research study designed to answer the following four questions related to online education:

Question #1: Will students embrace online education as a delivery method? Survey Results:

  • 1.6 million students took at least one online course during fall 2002.
  • Over one-third of these students took all of their courses online.

Question #2: Will institutions embrace online education as a delivery method?

Survey Results:

  • 81% of all institutions of higher education offer at least one fully online or blended course.
  • Complete online degree programs are offered by 34% of the institutions. Question #3: Will faculty embrace online education as a delivery method? Survey Results:
  • 59.6% of academic leaders agree that their faculty accepts the value and legitimacy of online education.
  • 40% of institutions are neutral or disagree with the above statement. Question #4: Will the quality of online education match that of face-to-face instruction? Survey Results:
  • 57% of academic leaders believe that learning outcomes for online education are equal to or superior to those of face-to-face instruction.
  • Nearly one-third of these same academic leaders expect that learning outcomes for online education will be superior to face-to-face instruction in three years.

So how will you as an instructor capitalize on these statistics by incorporating the above-mentioned resources and activities in an online course? Here is an 8-step approach to assist you in designing an online ADR program:

STEP 1 Exploring Web-based Teaching Strategies and Technologies

Traditional instructors must redesign their course materials to fit the online format. Students and instructors must possess a minimum level of computer literacy in order to function successfully in the online environment. Likewise, user-friendly and reliable technology is crucial. The web is saturated with resources, learning activities, and creative teaching activities useful for designing a successful ADR web-based program. The instructor can compile online resources by creating links to scholarly articles, websites, and other materials relevant to course content material. Utilization of various web search engines to research resources and teaching methodologies will translate into a successful online program. However, in order for online education to be successful, the curriculum, the instructor, the technology, and the student must come together to create a dynamic and synergetic environment.

STEP 2 Constructing the Online Course Syllabus

The syllabus should serve as a complete guide to the course objectives/learning outcomes. A comprehensive syllabus should include:

  • Course Title
  • Catalog Description
  • Course Description
  • Required Resources
  • Course Goals/Objectives/Learning Outcomes
  • Attendance and Assignment Policy
  • Discrimination/Disability Notice
  • Course Content/Learning Objectives
  • Course Calendar with weekly activities and assignments/test dates/timelines
  • Discrimination/Disability Notice
  • Academic Honesty Statement
  • Weight of Course Assignments
  • Instructor name, telephone, email, fax and office hours

STEP 3 Course Content Research and Resource Development

This will prove to be the most time-consuming phase of course development. The instructor must compose a course description narrative from the catalog description. After developing a description of the course the instructor will be able to select required and supplemental textbooks and other course related resources. The tables of contents in the selected textbook(s) are useful in deciding the major lesson topic areas. During this phase, the instructor will utilize various research methodologies to compile topic specific materials and coordinate weekly assignments and activities for each lesson.

Step 4 Designing Web-based Learning Activities

Students will be able to contribute to the learning process by engaging in the following learning activities:

  • Teamwork – Depending on the size of the class, each class is divided into teams of 3-7 individuals. Students will be expected to work together in small teams to facilitate the creation of a collaborative and supportive learning environment.

  • Communication – Team members may utilize various modes to communicate. Forums may consist of student-to-student, student to class and student to instructor utilizing E-mail, Chat Room, and/or the Discussion Board.

  • Resource Development – Students to increase their knowledge base can assess various web-based search engines. To facilitate resource development, students may be required to create a list of interesting and relevant websites or online journals/articles to support course content.

  • Resource Sharing – Frequently students will find interesting websites, articles, or books that they want to share with other members of the class. To facilitate a team component to online learning each student will is encouraged to share with other members by posting his or her weekly websites on the Discussion Board.

  • Creative Problem Solving – Emphasis is placed upon understanding ideas, concepts and theories. For example, each student can be assigned to read and analyze a weekly assigned case problem and then submit a critical critique and analysis.

  • Application of Learning – Reflective investigation to determine applicability in life and work is encouraged. Keeping a journal is a good way for the student to keep track of their thoughts about what they have read and discovered.

STEP 5 Assigning Weekly Coursework

Each week throughout the course, extensive reading, and researching, evaluating, and writing assignments are required. The instructor may assign readings from the textbook, website links and other online materials, writing assignments, and group/team projects. Students work on their own time submitting weekly assignments by email or fax.

STEP 6 Providing Asynchronous Interaction

Asynchronous interaction (where simultaneous responses are not required by the assignments) allow for freedom of time so students can participate as their schedules and lifestyle dictate. Fellow classmates can post team presentations and individual comments/discussion items on the Discussion Board of the virtual classroom for asynchronous review and discussion. Also, the instructor may utilize the Discussion Board to post discussion topics related to weekly readings, weekly assignments and/or team activities/projects.


Providing Synchronous Interaction The instructor must post office hours where students can make appointments for synchronous—simultaneous, or “real-time” interactions. Synchronous tools and software provide immediacy and enhanced modes of problem solving and decision-making.

A student lounge with live chat forums can be created in the virtual classroom to facilitate real-time communication among individual students and team members. Students may be encouraged to meet weekly as a group in the Chat Area of the lounge. The student lounge should be a site for students only. However, the instructor can arrange his/her schedule to be available during this time slot for any instant messages. These chat-rooms sometimes can generate responses that are more candid than physical exchanges. The purpose is to develop student rapport and create a learning community.

This can be a time for students to address assignments, individual progress, thoughts and emotions about how the course is proceeding—or they may just “chat” about unrelated matters.

STEP 8 Establishing Evaluation Criteria

Students are evaluated on a combination of factors – individual assignments, group activities/assignments, and participation in class discussions. The virtual classroom can also incorporate web-based technologies to integrate online quizzes and tests. Online quizzing/testing may be a good source of immediate feedback, as well as student self-assessment. In addition, extensive writing is often required in online courses. A formal written paper may be required at the end of the course to summarize course content. Additionally, evaluations consisting of weekly self-evaluation forms, an end-of-the-course self evaluation form and a course evaluation form may be completed and submitted by the student.

The above dialogue is the result of “perils and tribulations” I encountered while developing my first online ADR course. Hopefully, your journey will be made a little smoother by my experience.

The “up-side” is that as a full-time government employee with a private mediation practice, online teaching allows me to reach beyond Los Angeles to the very ends of the earth’s telephone connections. I’ll accept the perils in exchange for the privileges! What about you? Go for it!


I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman. Sizing the Opportunity: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2002 and 2003. The Sloan Consortium, 2003.


Jacqueline Reese

Jacqueline Reese, JD, RN, MN currently provides mediation services and training for various agencies within the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA). In addition, she provides contract mediation services for the United States Postal Services (USPS), the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), and the Los Angeles Superior Courts.… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Revised ICC International Court of Arbitration Rules Become Effective March 1st

Disputing Blog by Karl Bayer, Victoria VanBuren, and Holly HayesOn March 1st, the International Court of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce’s (“ICC”) newly revised rules designed to enhance...

By Beth Graham

Eviction Mediation Updates, December 2021

Just Court ADR by Susan M. Yates, Jennifer Shack, Heather Scheiwe Kulp, and Jessica Glowinski.This article is part of a series of perspectives on eviction mediation program development that is being supported...

By Eric Slepak

FINRA Dispute Resolution Makes Great Progress on Implementing Task Force Recommendations

Indisputably In December 2015, a FINRA Dispute Resolution Task Force issued its Final Report and Recommendations for improvements to the administration of its forum and its ADR processes.  (See my...

By Jill Gross