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Much Fuss About The Forum: Noam Ebner Goes To Cyberweek (Again!)

Sitting (well – really standing up, singing and Whooo-ing) while Paul McCartney played Tel Aviv last year, I had some of those magical rock-concert moments. You know those moments – you suddenly feel very aware that it’s not just you and the performer and the music, but it’s also the hundreds or thousands of people around you (50,000, in this case), straining to hear the same words or screaming them out together with you, that make the experience so special. It’s as if the venue itself, or the air connecting everyone in it, suddenly becomes alive.

Maybe it’s the fact that the first ODR conference I attended was in Liverpool that brings this analogy to my mind (in one of those contagious trends, every speaker tried to open his or her talk with a line from a Beatles song. Some were better than others). Or, maybe I just need to get out more often. One way or another, I had quite a few of those moments last week, as I participated in Cyberweek, the annual online conference on Online Dispute Resolution. There’s nothing like a good show combined with the feeling of a vibrant, lively community. For a few days, it really did feel as if the web was alive with people, thoughts, ideas and connections.

I’ve participated in Cyberweek for the past six or seven years, always excited to participate in this conference which really mirrors the nature of its content – an area of dispute resolution that anyone can take part in, regardless of geographical or financial limitations, and participate in pushing a constantly expanding envelope. This year it was my good fortune to be on the organizing side, as Cyberweek was hosted on, the web platform set up by The Werner Institute for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution at Creighton University’s School of Law. Werner co-organized Cyberweek together with the conference’s long-standing primary organizer, The National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution (NCTDR) ,and a committee including Ethan Katsh, Dan Rainey, Colin Rule, Jeff Thompson, Alberto Elisavetsky, Jeff Aresty, Bryan Hanson and I tried to walk the ODR talk, convening and organizing online, across timelines and borders.

In addition to satisfying my own personal Jones-ing for ODR schmooze, organizing this conference served higher goals. The Werner Institute offers a masters degree program in negotiation and dispute resolution, in both a traditional, on-campus format and in an online format. The online format is the only graduate degree in the world to include a course on ODR (taught by Dan Rainey) as a required, core course – fitting the forum to the fuss, and the fuss to the forum, so to speak, in many ways. In addition to showing our commitment to ODR education through hosting Cyberweek, we also aimed to give our online students the experience (which is usually reserved for campus-based students) of their department hosting an international conference – allowing them exposure to, and contact with, leading figures in the field, and others who intend to be. This last was one of the reasons for setting up ADRHub as a networking and resource site with live videoconferences and webinars as a core part of its content. After Cyberweek, I can definitely say: Stay tuned for the next episode of ‘Online Conferences’ at ADRHub – we are certainly going to host more of them!

So, who showed up at Cyberweek?

The surprising thing is, that we don’t know! Sure, we know that 270 people signed up at the Cyberweek registration site, and that about half that number of people were active participants in the discussion forums. However, we also know that people checked in to Cyberweek from over 1500 IP addresses, so even assuming that some people used multiple computers or had dynamic IPs, the sum total of people who registered, showed up, checked in, posted, viewed, spoke up or just lurked at Cyberweek remains an unknown, yet undeniably large, number.

However – that is only half the picture! Cyberweek was organized as a bilingual event, with the Spanish-language section of the event masterminded and coordinated by Alberto Elisavetsky. Over 200 registered participants – in addition to a large body of unregistered lurkers similar to that on the English-language side – participated in this section, mainly from South America.

And – what did they do there, anyway?

As always, participants spoke up in text-based discussion forums. All in all, Cyberweek saw participants voicing their thoughts in fifteen forums. Some of these were on themes that had been raised in previous Cyberweeks and ODR or ADR conferences, such as the role of trust in online negotiation and mediation, and ethics in ODR. Some new themes introduced in this year’s forum included the question of culture and diversity in online communication, the notion of translating the important roles played by apology and forgiveness to the online venue, ODR for organizational and workplace disputes and the feasibility of ODR taking hold in Latin America.

Participants were also offered opportunities to contribute and experience in other ways: Throughout the week, among other events, they participated in simulations organized and hosted by well-known ODR platforms The Mediation Room, Juripax and Smartsettle as well as LiSimba’s cross-cultural communication simulation. and also in a contest sponsored by the ABA’s Section on Dispute Resolution focusing on ethics in ODR. Bill Warters produced a fantastic presentation on ODR’s history and development, using cutting-edge participatory technology that allowed any participant to add material on and enrich the presentation.

Anything new?

The main innovation this year was Cyberweek’s advance from teleconferencing to live-videoconferencing as the real-time interactive heart of the conference. In ten live webinars, participants engaged with leaders of the field and with each other – in full Technicolor, as the old TV ads used to say. This transition to incorporating visual real-time events made a tangible difference in Cyberweek’s interactions and dynamics (Jeff Thompson’s live webinar on using Web 2.0 for ADR practice, during last year’s Cyberweek, was the harbinger of this shift. You’re a trendsetter, Jeff!). The webinars are archived and fully accessible on the Cyberweek homepage, so no matter what you were doing during Cyberweek, you can still see what I’m talking about.

In the webinars, it was easy to see how ODR is still a rapidly evolving field. The Internet Bar Organization’s presentation about using ODR for settling land disputes in Afghanistan, and for pre-empting music-rights disputes in Haiti is certainly not only a great example of this – it is also a challenge to everyone else out there to think of new venues and contexts for ODR. In a very creative expansion of the field, John DeBruyn brought together a group of online family mediators and a group of collaborative law practitioners to discuss how the methods used by the first group might be employed by the second to take collaborative practice online. The question ‘should / could online mediation be employed in family issue’, which I’ve certainly heard asked in the past, was left behind in the dust and unasked as these two groups of family dispute resolution experts discussed implementing online processes. Wrapping up the week with a closing webinar, Arthur Pearlstein challenged the field to find other ‘open spaces’ where traditional dispute resolution mechanisms – whether court or traditional ADR – cannot provide the goods, and to offer creative solutions through ODR.

What’s next?

Some very interesting initiatives are taking place as follow ups to Cyberweek. Some Cyberweek conversations are still going on, and the week’s entire content – forums, videoconferences and activities – are archived forever on ADRHub. Several groups of practitioners have expressed interest in keeping conversations going, or in forming permanent ‘groups’ on ADRHub for information, resource and idea –sharing. Other ripples include a group of practitioners who have undertaken to try out a variety of webconferencing platforms available on the market for free or for fee, in order to identify those most suitable to ODR. Got an idea for something like that? That’s what the Hub is for! Talk to us, we’ll help you set it up.

In addition, as I’ve already said – we’ll be using for other conferences in the future. But right now, after weeks of late-night planning sessions and then a week of participating in Cyberweek with a time lag, some well earned rest for the Hub team! (Ordinarily, I don’t mind being 7-8 hours ahead of the States – but when webinars are scheduled for the evening US time, seven hours forward makes a big difference…).

All for now – Noam


Noam Ebner

Noam Ebner is a professor of negotiation and conflict resolution at Creighton University’s Heider College of Business. Prior to joining the faculty at Creighton, Ebner taught at universities in Israel, Turkey, and Costa Rica. He practiced as an attorney, negotiator, and mediator at his Jerusalem-based firm, trained mediators for the… MORE >

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