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A new place to explore and discuss ideas for moving beyond the complex intractable conflict problems that so threaten human society.

Moving Beyond Intractability
Massive Open Online Course Seminars (MOOS)

Detailed Project Overview

Guy Burgess & Heidi Burgess


Constructively Addressing the Scale, Complexity, and Intractability of Today’s Big Conflicts  

We believe that society's chronic inability to constructively handle intractable conflict constitutes a threat to human welfare that is at least as serious as that posed by climate change, infectious disease, or any of today's other big social, political, economic, and environmental challenges.   In fact, it is our inability to constructively deal with intractable conflict that is making it so difficult for us to effectively meet these other challenges.
The roiling Middle East offers but one terrifying example of how bad things can get when societies collapse into wars of “all against all.”  Also deeply disturbing is the degree to which the United States, and many of the world’s other developed democracies, are fragmenting into hostile factions that seem increasingly unable to work together to define, let alone advance, “the common good.”

Society's chronic inability to constructively handle intractable conflict constitutes as serious a threat to human welfare as climate change.

Those working in conflict and peace-related fields have an obligation, we think, to promote greater public awareness of both the seriousness and the pervasiveness of what we call the “intractable conflict problem.”  We also need to help people understand that there ARE realistic steps that can be taken – by “ordinary people," as well as conflict resolution experts and decision makers – over both the short and long-term, to address these conflicts more constructively.
As is the case with climate change, there is an urgent need to intensify our efforts to deal with this problem. Yet the amount of effort currently being focused on improving the way in which we handle conflict (as opposed to playing the same old destructive conflict games) is infinitesimal when compared with the amount of attention being given to climate change, or many other social, economic, and political problems--that are at their core--conflict problems.

We must find ways to raise the profile of the intractable conflict problem–and greatly increase the number of people with the motivation, knowledge, and resources needed to address it effectively.  To do this, we have to be willing to tackle the tough problems that lie at the frontier of the peace and conflict field and step away from the naïve and simplistic solutions that, too often, undermine the field's credibility.
This project is our effort to help us do that.

The Moving Beyond Intractability (MBI) Massive Open Online Seminars (MOOS) 

In order to encourage more people to more actively engage with this issue, we are convening something new that we are calling a “Massive Open Online Seminar” or “MOOS,” that is being hosted on Beyond Intractability (, and linked to three of the most popular social networks: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Unlike a standard MOOC (massive open online course), which is designed to certify mastery of a settled body of knowledge, our MOOS is being structured as a set of online seminars designed to present key existing ideas, but also to address unknowns and uncertainties and to discuss tentative new ideas at the frontier the field.  The seminars are considering both the nature of the intractable conflict problem, and strategies for dealing with it more effectively.  We are focusing particularly on the problems of scale and complexity that, we believe, make these problems so extraordinarily difficult and dangerous. 
MOOS Goals
We have four goals for the MOOS:
  1. To get many more people aware of, thinking about, and acting to address the problem of intractable conflict in the US and worldwide,
  2. To get people thinking about which currently-practiced strategies can be scaled up to better work on these large-scale, complex conflicts,
  3. To encourage implementation of those ideas that are already available, but under-recognized or under-utilized, and
  4. To encourage the development of new strategies designed to deal more effectively with the big and unsolved problems that lie at the frontier of the field.

Topical Focus

Unlike a MOOC, a MOOS is designed to provide a large-scale forum for exploring the tough problems that lie at the frontier the peace and conflict field.

The focus of this MOOS goes beyond the narrow goal of limiting violence, to include the broader peacebuilding goals of promoting wiser and more equitable strategies for meeting basic human needs and protecting the social, economic, and environmental commons upon which we all depend.
As this is starting as a US-based project, we feel that we have a special obligation to focus a substantial amount (but not certainly not all) of our attention on the United States' slide into alarmingly hostile, identity-based conflict that is threatening the very viability of US democracy.  Until we can demonstrate that our conflict-handling strategies work on the tough conflicts in our own country (where our own future is at stake), we believe we ought to be very circumspect in offering advice -- or intervening in the conflicts -- of others.
It also seems likely that, over the long term, the global viability of democratic models of governance will, in large part, be determined by how well the US and other developed democracies are able to meet their current challenges.  If we can't make democracy work in these countries, with all of their advantages, should we really expect others to follow our “good governance" model?
Global Connections --- That said, we recognize that intractable conflict is a global problem and that the active cross-fertilization of ideas across social and cultural boundaries offers the best hope for finding solutions.  We also understand that we, in the US and elsewhere, have a moral obligation to help others escape untenable living situations around the world--particularly (but not only) those that we had a hand in creating.  Therefore, we must contribute towards proving safe haven for war refugees, while working diligently to figure out ways to stabilize their home countries so they can return.  Thus, we want to extend as wide and open an invitation to participate as possible---welcoming participation from people outside the US, and welcoming conversations about issues that are focused outside the US along with conversations about how to deal with intractable conflict here. 
Unfortunately, at this time, we do not have the funding to provide materials in any language other than English.  Over the longer term, we want to seek the partners and funding needed to effectively span language and cultural differences.

MOOS Format 

Post-Based Structure --- In a conventional seminar, discussions are organized around a syllabus that systematically takes participants through an exploration of a complex topic area---the sort of thing that is worthy of a semester-long effort.  Individual seminar sessions are then built around short presentations from the seminar leader that introduce a topic and, as a starting point for discussion, offers some initial ideas or questions for consideration.  The MOOS Seminars also have a syllabi (see below).  But in place of face-to-face seminar sessions, the Seminars are built around a series of posts with short essays or videos that present key ideas and then ask questions or open topics for participants' consideration.

The MOOS format is built around a series of social network "posts" (also available on Beyond Intractability) that highlight interesting ideas to consider along with links to provocative materials.

Initial Content --- Initially, the MOOS content and organization is being based on ideas and materials that we (Guy and Heidi Burgess) have developed and have taught over the last 20 years in both face-to-face and online courses.  These courses are, in turn, based on our collaboration with over 400 people who have contributed to the development of Beyond Intractability and related projects. Thus it includes the work and ideas of many people, not just the Burgesses.

In a sense, the baseline MOOS material would constitute a book, if it were being written in a more traditional way.  But given that few people seem to have the time or inclination to sit down and read whole books anymore, and we want to encourage discussion and collaborative thinking on this topic, we are experimenting with this MOOS as an alternative framework for presenting ideas. 

The MOOS Seminars
While we originally thought we would produce one MOOS, we realized that we really need several seminars, all of which will "run" simultaneously and be designed for audiences with different interests and time availability.  Current plans call for
  • One Semester Seminar: A comprehensive semester-long exploration of a broad range of intractable conflict-related topics.  
  • Several "Brown-Bag" Seminars:  A series of shorter seminars, each focused on particular problems and ideas for addressing them.  We might have one "brown bag seminar" looking at the intractability of US politics, for example, or another one looking at the conflict between those who want to compromise and those who continue the fight.
  • One Key Ideas Seminar:  Videos or essays explaining (in 5 minutes or less) central, "prerequisite" ideas that everyone working in the peace and conflict field should (but may not) know.  
‚ÄčEach of these seminars will include two types of posts: "core posts," many, but not all of which, will be written by Guy and Heidi Burgess, and "supplemental posts" which will further illustrate core ideas with outside articles and videos taken from the news, practitioner and scholarly reports, etc. All the core posts and supplemental posts will also be available from two blogs:
  • The Core Posts Blog – Which contains all of the core posts and discussions thereof from all of the seminars, and
  • The Supplemental Materials Blog – which contains other articles, gathered around the web providing additional interesting and provocative ideas about the intractable conflict problem.  Many of these will be used in the seminars as well, but other will appear here alone.
MOOS Advantages -- We hope this MOOS format will allow us to reach a much larger number of people, much more quickly.  Books typically take one to two years (or more) to produce, and most sell only a few thousand or tens of thousands of copies.  Beyond Intractability has been reaching about 200,000 users each month, and we hope many of those will at least “check out” this MOOS.
Another advantage is that the material is being presented in “bite-sized” segments presented in language that that is designed to be broadly accessible (no inscrutable academic jargon).  The goal is that each segment can be read and/or watched quickly, but taken together over time, they will provide an in-depth look at a complex and difficult topic.
This format also allows us to get immediate feedback and amplification of the ideas, as readers respond and add their own ideas on each topic.  Unlike a book, which is “set in stone” once it is printed, this MOOS can be constantly expanding and improving. We can change what it says depending on events, we can add many other people’s thoughts to our own.  It is much more “alive” than a book.

Intended Audience:

The Seminars are free (though donations are sought) and open to anyone with a serious interest in the intractable conflict problem (including those from outside of traditional peace and conflict-related fields). 

At this stage, the idea of convening a truly "massive" seminar may seem pretty presumptuous.  Still, we need to find some way to scale up the peace and conflict field’s efforts.  Too many of today’s peace and conflict projects are too modest in scope, too short-term in focus, and too limited in participation to be able to tackle large-scale intractable conflicts effectively.  We are hoping that this effort will lay the groundwork for a much more extensive effort by taking advantage of the opportunities implicit in the social networking systems that now reach so broadly around the globe.
Initially, we plan to start with the informal learning community that we have assembled in conjunction with our Beyond Intractability and CRInfo projects.  We are inviting these colleagues to invite others and will use social networks to find as many other participants as we can.
But you don’t need an invitation to participate.  This seminar is open to anyone who has an interest in the topic and who has an Internet connection.  We want to make a special effort to reach out to people from outside the traditionally-defined peace and conflict fields.  We are particularly interested in involving people who are thinking about topics such as wicked problems, complexity, and systems, as well as governance, development, human rights, criminal justice, and other “allied” fields. 

MOOS Content

The Seminars offered by the MOOS project will (when fully implemented) offer a variety of opportunities for exploring and discussing a variety of intractable conflict-related topics. They include:
  • A Semester Seminar – A comprehensive semester-long exploration of a broad range of intractable conflict-related topics; 
  • "Brown Bag" Seminars – A series of short seminars, each focused on particular problems and ideas for addressing them. Topics to be determined, but likely ones include:
    o   US Politics (particularly, right now, the upcoming elections)
    o   The battle between fighters and compromisers
    o   Complexity-oriented peacebuilding
    o   Responding to terrorism
  • Key Ideas – Videos or essays explaining (in 5 minutes or less) key ideas that everyone working in the peace and conflict field should (but may not) know.
In addition, all MOOS content can be found in two blogs:
  • The Core Posts Blog – Which contains all of the core posts and discussions thereof from all of the seminars, and
  • The Supplemental Materials Blog – which contains other articles, gathered around the web providing additional interesting and provocative ideas about the intractable conflict problem.  Many of these will be used in the seminars as well, but other will appear here alone.
If there is interest, we might also start distributing content periodically by email. Just let us know that you are interested in such a service.) 
As the Seminars proceed, participants will receive a 1-2 core Seminar Posts posts per day plus often 1-2 links to related "Supplemental Material."  (During the initial Beta-Test phase of the MOOS, there may be a fewer number of posts per day.)  The core posts will include “mini-lectures”(2-10 minute videos), links to short essays written specifically for the MOOS, related news articles and other interesting materials posted by others, readings from Beyond Intractability, discussion questions–and responses, and other related materials.

 While most of the posts will be relatively short “quick reads” that can be read in the context of people’s busy schedules, they will, over the course of the several month seminar, provide a fairly comprehensive look at an extraordinarily complex and difficult topic.  We will also provide links to more in-depth materials for people who have more time and want to explore particular topics in depth. A subset of these posts will be pulled out to provide content for the other seminars, and we will be supplementing those duplicate posts with posts unique to the shorter seminar format. 

MOOS Participation Options

"Read-Only" Participants -- We expect that many participants will want to simply browse the MOOS posts on the platform of their choice, and if a particular post interests them, click on the link to see the full post on Beyond Intractability. While everyone is welcome to join us in this way, we encourage those who have something to contribute to take the next step.

Key to transforming the Seminars into a large-scale learning community is the willingness of participants to contribute their expertise.

"Read-Write" Contributors ---  The real key to the success of the MOOS concept will be our ability to persuade participants to actively contribute to the Seminars by (among other things):
  • Adding their own general comments to a discussion,
  • Offering examples of problems and solutions discussed in particular posts,
  • Citing the work of others who have addressed similar or related issues (though, perhaps using very different terminology),
  • Offering alternative ways of addressing the same general problem (participants should feel free to cite their own work),
  • Asking questions, requesting clarification, and warning about possible misunderstandings,
  • Identifying individuals and organizations working in a particular area, and
  • Offering constructive criticisms.
We do ask "Contributors" to use the Moving Beyond Intractability MOOS Comment system, rather than posting on another entry platform (such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn). This will keep all the discussions and new materials in one place, which will be much easier for everyone to follow, rather than having different discussions on each platform.  Some people may still post their responses on the individual sites and that’s okay–if we have the resources, we may try to get permissioin to pick these comments up and put them on MBI as well. But this is starting with almost no funding, so we may not be able to do much of that until outside funds are obtained.  So for those who really want to actively engage with other seminar participants, the BI platform is the place to do it. 

Required Beyond Intractability Registration, Username, and Password --- In order to protect the MOOS from being "spammed" and to prevent offensive or inappropriate posts, we require all contributors to register with Beyond Intractability and obtain a username and password (which is quick and free). Once logged in, registered users will have read/write access to the comment system (the general public has read-only access).  You will also be able to submit more extensive materials to be published on the MOOS (although these are subject to review before they are posted).  Click here to register.

Confidentiality --- Since this is a public system, all contributions are public and on the record. Still, we would like to cultivate a safe space where people can feel free to raise tentative ideas without being held to those ideas. So, we ask (but obviously cannot guarantee) that participants refrain from quoting one another outside of the MOOS context without explicit permission from the person being quoted.
Participantion Guidelines / Comment Screening --- We do not have the funding (now at least) to pre-screen all comments, so comments will be posed without review.  But if we or other users find comments to be offensive or inappropriate, we reserve the right to remove them and block the user from future posts.  (Posting guidelines, requiring basic civility and respect will be posted clearly on the site.) 

Grading and Certification --- At this stage, there is no effort to provide any type of grading or certification for those who participate–we do not have adequate funding or staffing to do that.  We do, however, hope that the opportunity to learn from other MOOS participants and to consider provocative new ideas for advancing the frontier of the field will be sufficient incentive to participate. There will also be opportunities for participants to publicize and, perhaps, publish their work on Beyond Intractability and the MOOS. 
Related Seminars --- We view this as a new way of promoting very large-scale learning communities.   Ideally, this effort will spawn a series of related MOOS projects, each built around a different syllabus and focused on a different approach and perspective.  While we are starting this one and if it succeeds, several more, we invite others to build additional seminars that use and, hopefully, improve on the strategy outlined here. To the extent that we can coordinate these efforts, the closer we can come to the vision of a truly massive learning community. 


The sense of urgency that underlies this project has meant that we have skipped the traditional process of spending a year or more seeking funding for what is clearly an unconventional and risky project.  Instead, we figured out how to inexpensively start posting an initial version of the Seminars.  Our goal is to demonstrate the viability of the concept sufficiently to obtain the funding needed to assemble the much larger project team and budget that will be required to take the next steps of offering more seminars, translation, more active facilitation, wider participation, improving the “production values,” etc.
In the meantime, we will be running this project on what is a critically short budget and as an overload project on top of our regular teaching. So, please forgive us if we occasionally fall behind or if things seem a little rough.
Appeal for Support:  Also, we ask that those of you who can afford to do so, please make a tax-free contribution to our account with the University of Colorado Foundation.  We are committed to making everything that we produce freely available.  We just need to raise enough money to sustain this long enough to prove its value and get the funding needed to make it a truly massive, yet sustainable enterprise.  In order to do this, we need to raise a minimum of $10,000 over the Spring 2016 semester.  Please help if you can! 

Topical Syllabus

The topics that we are planning to address in this first semester-long MOOS are outlined below.  This is a daunting list – one that will certainly generate “sticker shock” among some participants.   Still, this is a “thinking big” seminar focused on developing a very broad strategy for a scale and complexity-oriented approach to peacebuilding---one that we think is required for any serious effort to address the “intractable conflict challenge.”  It is expected that most participants will focus primarily on broad overview materials plus more in-depth materials in a few areas where they choose to specialize.
Since we teach at universities that offer semester-long courses, we are thinking in terms of a semester-long seminar, at least for a starting point. We realize that it may take longer than that to cover the essential materials and that a second semester MOOS may be required.

At this point, we plan to address the following topics: 
  1. The Nature of the Intractable Conflict Problem
    1. Scale - the need to move from small group, table-oriented processes to societal-level efforts involving millions of people.
    2. Complexity - the challenges of working with complex, self-organizing systems that can be influenced, but not controlled.
    3. High Stakes - problems arising in situations where the parties are motivated to go "all out"  in defending their vital interests.
    4. Commons Focused - the difficulties associated with protecting common good with respect to the social, economic, cultural, political, and environmental commons.
    5. Cynicism -  the refusal of people to address the problem, because they see it is insoluble.
    6. Over-confidence - the tendency of people to assume that they have "the answer" and all the world needs to do is listen to them.
    7. The Power Trap - the assumption that coercive force is the only way to get things done.
    8. Resource Limits - the extreme and chronic shortage of the resources needed to develop and implement better solutions to conflict problems.
  2. Dealing with Scale and Complexity and the many factors that make society-wide conflict so intractable.
    1. Scaling Up strategies for coping with the fact that the number of things that “need doing” exceeds the capabilities of even the largest peacebuilding efforts by many orders of magnitude.
    2. Extending Rational Models of human decision-making beyond cost-benefit calculations to include the non-rational complexities of human perception, psychology, and neurobiology.
    3. Ecosystem-based Models of social organization for overcoming limits of hierarchical and network based models.
  3. Strategies of Change
    1. Empowering “Power-With” Compromisers so that they can successfully resist the “power over” Machiavellians.
    2. Macro, Meso, and Micro Responses – simultaneously working at the levels of macro-level strategy, meso-level project design, and micro-level conflict skills.
    3. Massively Parallel Approaches – assessment and mapping strategies that enable people to identify and people to pursue the large number of independent but mutually supportive intervention efforts that complex, large-scale conflicts require.
    4. Beyond Crisis Response – reframing the conflict problem as a decades long research and development effort that will, at best, be marked by a steady stream of incremental improvements.
    5. Big Picture Design, Monitoring, and Evaluation strategies that advance the long-term efforts to promote more constructive approaches to conflict (as well as short-term project assessment).
  4. Key Challenges to Be Addressed– types of projects that will need to be continually refined and implemented as part of a massively-parallel, complexity-oriented conflict strategy.
    1. Promoting Understanding – mass communication strategies capable of extending the benefits of small scale, table-oriented programs to the larger society.
    2. Mobilizing Expertise – so that society’s different “ways of knowing” can generate information that is more trustworthy, trusted, understood, and sensibly acted upon.
    3. De-escalation – improving strategies that allow communities to step back from ongoing hostilities and violence far enough to explore alternatives.
    4. Unrightable Wrongs – developing better ways of coming to terms with past crimes and laying the groundwork for more positive and mutually desirable futures.
    5. Visioning – enabling deeply divided societies to develop a detailed, realistic, and attractive images of a more desirable future that they would like to pursue together.
    6. Governance that collectively manages the social, economic, and environmental commons in ways wisely and equitably implement the community’s vision.
    7. Social Entrepreneurship that generates a self-sustaining market for the many things that conflict handling activities that “need doing” so that they can be scaled up with only modest governmental and philanthropic support.


Moving Beyond Intractability Massive Open Online Seminar
Copyright © 2016 Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess, Co-Directors
Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado
UCB 580, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0580, (303) 492-1635,


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