Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 29/01/2010

classroom simulation of Afghan reconstruction

Although it was published a year ago, I’ve only just come across an article by David Mendelhof and Carolyn Shaw on “Connecting Students Internationally to Explore Postconflict Peacebuilding: An American-Canadian Collaboration,” Journal of Political Science Education 5, 1 (January 2009). PaxSims readers, especially those working in educational settings, will likely find it of interest:

This paper presents the design and assesses the results of an international collaborative course of American and Canadian undergraduates on the topic of postconflict peacebuilding. Using online discussions, a web-based role-play simulation, and videoconferencing this collaborative course sought to enhance student engagement with the material by exposing them to views from different countries and encouraging broader thinking about the complex set of activities and challenges involved in peacebuilding. The challenges and benefits of such collaboration are discussed.

Specifically, the article describes an ongoing simulation, lasting most of one university term, involving students from two separate institions each role-playing reconstruction actors in Afghanistan. Technically, it was supported by use of the Blackboard course support software (found at many institutions), as well as the SimPlay online role play simulation platform created by Fablusi.

The simulation consisted of two phases: the preparatory phase and the conference phase. The preparatory phase, which ran approximately seven weeks, consisted primarily of individual tasks designed to prepare students for working collaboratively with fellow players in phase two, in which they produced a collective “Final Plan of Action.” Students began the preparatory phase by reading general descriptions of all (fictional) characters, which were posted on the simulation Web page, and submitted their actor preferences to the instructors. The simulation included six main types of actors, each with different roles and responsibilities (and graded components and deadlines). These included Afghan Ministers, regional governors, Afghan Presidential Advisors, international diplomatic representatives (ambassadors, NATO and UN representatives, etc.), intergovernmental and NGO representatives, and Afghan and foreign media.6 Once assigned to their role, students were tasked with creating a general profile for their character, indicating, for example, the character’s educational, personal, professional, and political background and expertise, their primary policy objectives in the conference (which was available for all to see), and a “private agenda” (which was visible only to the Moderators/Instructors). Students were encouraged to research real-life individuals and institutions and to use imagination and creativity in generating their character’s profile and defining their objectives.

During the preparatory phase most players also prepared two individual memos. In the first memo, they were asked to identify the major barriers to peacebuilding in Afghanistan from the perspective of their actors. In the second, they were asked to advance the most viable policy options for overcoming those barriers. Ministers and governors submitted their memos to designated Presidential Advisors, who read them and, based on their own research and responsibilities for more than one ministry/issue area, provided critical analyses of the memos. Members of the international diplomatic community and local and international NGOs submitted reports to the media and to relevant ministers. Though the substantive work carried out during this phase was largely individual, students were nonetheless encouraged to keep abreast of latest developments by checking the postings of the international and local media (as well as real-world events) and to begin to interact with other actors in the simulation who might share similar interests and expertise. We believed that this would assist them in the preparation of their individual written work and in the more collaborative portion of the simulation later in the course.

Another major player in the simulation was the local and international media. Assembled into collective editorial teams of three to four students with a designated editor, media members were tasked during the preparatory phase with writing news articles and editorials on issues related to peacebuilding in Afghanistan. This included interviews and profiles of key players, in-depth analyses of social and political issues, and reports on the analytical and policy memos. Each editorial team was responsible for producing three pieces per week. Students coordinated among themselves how they would divide up the labor and produce the required material. News items were submitted to the editor who posted them to the International Tribune and the Kabul Times pages, respectively, of the SimPlay Web site, for all to read.

Conference Phase

The last four weeks of the simulation were devoted to the “conference phase,” where players worked collaboratively, first in smaller Working Groups, and then in a plenary session, to draft a collective Final Plan of Action (POA) for peacebuilding in Afghanistan. Students were told that the POA was intended to help major donor countries, international financial institutions, United Nations agencies, individual states, and nongovernmental organizations guide their policies vis–vis Afghanistan in the years ahead. The document was not intended to be a binding international agreement or to secure any international aid commitments. It was merely supposed to be a succinct policy document that clearly states the policy priorities for long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan arrived at through consensus among a wide-range of Afghan and international stakeholders.

During the first two weeks of the conference phase players sorted themselves into smaller thematic Working Groups: Afghanistan and the International Community, State Capacity, Security and Narcotics, Economics and Development, and Human Rights. This stage of the simulation was designed specifically with the literature on collaborative learning in mind. Students themselves were responsible for determining the focus and membership of the Working Groups and to designate rapporteurs, who would be responsible for submitting each group’s draft Plan of Action. By being able to set their own agendas rather than have them dictated to them, we hoped that students would develop their own problem-solving skills and have a larger stake in the process and outcome of the simulation. The Working Groups were asked to produce a report that (a) identified the specific problem(s)/concerns within the Working Group’s purview and explained how it was a problem for peacebuilding; (b) described specifically the range of policy options available to address the problem(s) identified, and (c) explained the policy option the group believed to be the most viable. Once submitted, the draft plans were made publicly available on SimPlay to allow all players to consult them. The intention was for the draft plans to serve as the basis of discussion in the plenary session.

The final two weeks of the conference phase were devoted to the plenary session, where all players worked together to draft a final Plan of Action (POA). Students were responsible for nominating and voting on a conference Chair and Deputy Chair and setting the agenda for the conference. The only instructions given were to produce a final Plan of Action that (a) identified the top three issues of concern for peacebuilding in Afghanistan, (b) explained why the problems in each of these three issue areas presents challenges for peacebuilding, and (c) described the policies that the consultation group believed would best address each problem area and explained why the group believed these to be the best policies.

In both the Working Groups and the plenary session, players used both asynchronous communication (“SimMail,” and “Conference Room” discussion boards) and synchronous communication (SimPlay-enabled chat sessions) to set working agendas, discuss and debate the substance of the issues, and to work out the language of the collaborative reports. Players also used the various communication tools to forge alliances with players who shared interests and policy priorities and made contact with the media, through press releases or granting of interviews, to advance their own interests in the conference.

At the completion of the conference phase all participants were required to submit a formal, written report assessing the final POA document from the perspective of the particular actor they were portraying. Players were asked to comment on the POA’s strengths and weaknesses, areas they believe might have been neglected that should have been included, and any additional comments/reactions they might have.

Two videoconference sessions were also held over the course of the simulation. In the first, carried out in advance of the Conference phase, the Afghan Ambassador to Canada addressed both classes (based at Carleton with teleconference hookup to WSU). He provided historical background to the conflict in Afghanistan, his personal experiences in the country, and his own views on the state of peacebuilding there. Most important, he answered student questions for approximately 90 minutes.

The second videoconference took place at the conclusion of the simulation, where students engaged in a collective debriefing session focusing on the substance of the Plan of Action (strengths and weakness, how it was arrived at, what they would have done differently, etc.) as well as student experience with the simulation experience. All of the students had an opportunity to identify who played which role in the simulation and to discuss their reactions to the exercise. In addition, all players were required to complete an evaluation of the simulation itself. To encourage completion of the evaluation, students were given a small amount of course credit for doing so. We made it clear that credit was given merely for submission and not on the substance of the remarks. This worked exceptionally well, as nearly all students submitted their evaluations.

It is not clear what (simulated) resource constraints or organizational imperatives that the various actors might have been acting under (often important determinants of joint action strategies). Nevertheless, it all seems to have been very effectively integrated into the learning experience in the coure(s).If you have online access to the (Routledge) journal through your library, etc. you’ll find the full article here. There is also an earlier version of the article, presented as a paper at the 2006 International Studies Association conference, available here.

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