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Understanding eLearning in Maritime Job Training and Familiarization - Part 4

Posted to Maritime Training Issues with Murray Goldberg (by on February 6, 2012

This is the fourth installment in a series of five articles intended to cover eLearning in the maritime industry - what it is, what are its strengths and what are its limitations.This installment (part 4) covers the second half of the practical strengths of eLearning including: Trainee peer and mentorship communities, The potential for cost reduction (or not!) , Maintenance and currency of learning materials, and Standardization and objectivity.

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Understanding eLearning in Maritime Job Training and Familiarization - Part 4


This is the fourth installment in a series of articles intended to cover eLearning in the maritime industry - what it is, what are its strengths and what are its limitations.  Part 1 of this series introduced eLearning, talking about what it is, and why it is important that anyone involved in maritime training should do their utmost to understand its strengths and limitations. Part 2 of the series discussed what research has shown us about the strengths of eLearning. Part 3 of this series covered some of the practical strengths of eLearning.  It is highly recommended that you read part 1,  part 2 and part 3 before continuing here.

Before moving on to the limitations of eLearning in the final installment of this series, this installment (part 4) covers the second half of the practical strengths of eLearning including:

  1. Trainee peer and mentorship communities
  2. The potential for cost reduction (or not!)
  3. Maintenance and currency of learning materials, and
  4. Standardization and objectivity.

There is no doubt in my mind that eLearning is an important topic for the maritime industry. All of us involved in maritime education, whatever our views on eLearning, are going to have to come to terms with it. We all have a responsibility to understand it, including its strengths and weaknesses. Only by doing so can we can make intelligent decisions as to when to apply it, when not to apply it, how best to take advantage of its greatest strengths, and how to avoid common eLearning pitfalls.

In this series of articles, I am largely going to focus on the application of eLearning to maritime job training and familiarization, but most of my comments will apply equally to eLearning in maritime certification training. I think it behooves all of us involved in maritime training to understand eLearning. It is my hope that this series of articles will play a small part in facilitating that understanding.

Practical Training Considerations - Cont’d

The research on the subject is very compelling. However, there are also a number of positive practical considerations when contemplating eLearning. The previous article covered the following:

  1. anywhere/anytime learning,
  2. training reports and metrics
  3. trainee-centered learning, and
  4. objective trainee assessments.

This article continues from where the previous one left off.

Trainee Community

One of the greatest misconceptions about eLearning is that it is necessarily a solitary experience. On the contrary. In fact, eLearning can provide as much, or even more interaction than classroom-based experiences. As mentioned earlier in this series, trainee communication forums or trainee communities are often a feature of learning management systems. On the surface, the main value is that trainees can ask questions of their trainers or other trainees. This is indeed important, but falls short of describing the true value of creating a space where all trainees can share ideas and hold discussions.

First, realize that in classroom-based training, typically the extent of a trainee’s “learning” community will be a subset of students in that class. The trainee may be a member of one or more study groups and may also participate in classroom-based discussions. When an LMS is introduced, the extent of that learning community grows significantly. The on-line community facilitated by the LMS is likely to include all of the trainees in all of the courses the trainee is taking, and may also include past or even prospective trainees. And not only is the size of the community enhanced, but the opportunities for discussion are also greatly enhanced because there is no need for the trainees to all meet in one place at one time in order to hold a discussion, and the community does not need to disband at the conclusion of the training. In my own experience these communities have been very powerful - resulting in thousands of discussion posts over a three month class of 70 students.

The value of these discussions is something called “informal learning”. In this case, the component of  informal learning we are referring to is learning that happens peer-to-peer. Before you dismiss informal learning as a hobby or curiosity, you need to understand that by some estimates, as much as 70% of learning in the workplace is by informal means. This may not be an unreasonable estimate. Consider for yourself how much knowledge you acquired from courses, vs. how much you have learned everyday on the job from your peers and superiors. Trainee communities extend the opportunities for this kind of informal learning.

Cost Reduction

One of the most greatly debated “benefits” of eLearning, especially in the mid 90’s, was the issue of whether the costs for eLearning were less than traditional class-based learning. There is now general consensus on this topic.

First - it is important when looking at the cost of training to compare apples with apples. Too often people compare a classroom experience against (for example) learning from a CD. It is clearly the case that learning from a CD is going to be the less expensive option (unless the number of students is very small and revisions are very frequent). However, learning from a CD is also very likely to result in far poorer training experiences and outcomes.

Instead, consider a high quality classroom based training experience compared against an equally high quality eLearning experience. The eLearning experience is going to have most of the features described above - content, trainee community, frequent assessments, etc. Most importantly, the eLearning experience (like the classroom-based experience) is also going to have a training facilitator. This is the eLearning equivalent of the classroom instructor. The eLearning facilitator will be present in on-line discussions with the trainees, will answer questions, will guide the trainees, and so on. This kind of eLearning experience is going to, on average, yield equal or better training outcomes when compared to classroom-based training. Now that we know what we are comparing, let’s look at the costs.

First, it has been found that the delivery cost is roughly the same. There are initial outlays for the eLearning experience (setting up of the courses, creation of the learning materials, etc) which are smaller or non-existent for classroom-based instruction. Having said that, the eLearning facilitator is likely to be able to effectively  train a somewhat larger number of trainees than could equally be taught in a classroom. This is because some of the effort (lecturing, grading, etc) is offloaded to the LMS. Therefore, it is generally accepted that it is neither a lot more expensive nor a lot less expensive to employ eLearning vs. a classroom-based approach. Having said that, there are other costs which need to be considered.

First is the cost of travel. If the trainees need to travel (or be lodged or fed) during training, then there is a clear cost savings in favor of eLearning. eLearning has no such costs. Second is the cost of infrastructure. A large percentage of universities in North America are growing their student base, but the vast majority of the growth is in their on-line programs - not in on-campus students. This has a significant cost implication because classrooms do not have to be built to teach these students. In maritime training, this may be less of an issue because your organization may already have the necessary training facilities. However, most will find that the next round of facility renovation or construction will be less expensive if more eLearning is used in place of classroom-based instruction.  Finally, there is also a small cost savings with eLearning in terms of training material replication and dissemination. Once the training materials are written, updating them and distributing them can be comparatively inexpensive since it is done either partially or entirely on line.

So, to conclude the cost discussion, there are some cost savings to be had in terms of infrastructure and travel. But high quality eLearning experiences are not generally a lot less expensive to deliver than similar quality classroom based training.  

Content Currency

In a paragraph above, I mentioned that the learning  content in an LMS is (or should be) always current or up to date. To elaborate, one advantage of having a web-based centralized learning resource (i.e. eLearning) is that if a change to the materials is needed, it is made in one place. The very next person to access the learning resource receives the new, current version. There are no on-board manuals to collect or revise, thereby reducing cost and complexity. In addition, some learning management systems have discussion forums or community modules which make it easy to communicate the fact that there has been a change. Thus, not only can an LMS greatly simplify the process of updating learning materials, but it can also help communicate the change to those who need to know.

In addition, as was mentioned in the section describing learning management systems, some LMSs have user feedback mechanisms. If a trainee, trainer or training administrator sees an error or omission in the learning materials, they simply click a feedback button near the issue and a report is made. Making it easy to report issues as they are found goes a long way to ensuring that they are quickly addressed. This is important in order for the trainees to have confidence in their eLearning system.

Objectivity and Standardization

Finally, an advantage of eLearning that cannot be overlooked, and one that is especially important in safety-critical training such as maritime training, is objectivity and standardization. In fact, this was one of the main goals that BC Ferries had in creating their SEA program (Standardized Education and Assessment) - a program which uses an LMS (MarineLMS) for training and assessment.

Standardization of training is achieved because, with an LMS, you are assured that  each trainee is receiving exactly the same information. This information has been created by your training organization and is therefore guaranteed to be exactly the information you would like trainees to have. It is the collected wisdom and experience of your companies’ most experienced and knowledgeable trainers.  There is no third-party interpreting company best-practices before they reach the ears of the trainees. What you create is what they get. When you compare this to a classroom based experience, or even more so to a job shadowing experience, the difference is significant.

Objectivity is also enhanced through the written assessments facilitated by the LMS. Although written examinations can be administered without the assistance of an LMS, the practical implications of ensuring that questions are not shared among trainees, the effort of grading (and ensuring consistency in grading), and the exam analytics offered by an LMS make eLearning a preferred option for written exams.

We’ve now covered the primary strengths of eLearning. Now it is time to explore the limitations.

Conclusion of Part 4

The next installment of this series of articles will cover the limitations of eLearning including:

  1. Not a replacement for Hands-On Training
  2. eLearning Cannot Replace an Instructor
  3. eLearning is not a Cure-All for Training Issues
  4. eLearning Costs
  5. Differences in Learning Styles, and
  6. Internet Connectivity in the Maritime Training Environment.

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About The Author:

Murray Goldberg is the founder and President of Marine Learning Systems (www.marinels.com), the creator of MarineLMS - the first learning management system specifically for maritime industry training. Murray began research in eLearning in 1995 as a faculty member of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia. He went on to create WebCT, the world’s first commercially successful LMS for higher education; serving 14 million students in 80 countries. Now, in Marine Learning Systems, Murray is hoping to play a part in advancing the art and science of learning in the maritime industry.

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