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Manila STCW Amendments Push eLearning Protocols to the Head of the Class

Posted to Global Maritime Analysis with Joseph Keefe (by on July 28, 2010

Long awaited by the global maritime industry and much feared by American educators in particular, the newly adopted additions to the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) code for Seafarers are here. Last Week’s 2nd Annual International Maritime eLearning Conference brought the enhanced STCW code – and the blended, eLearning techniques that will allow it to be implemented – under the harsh glare of collective scrutiny. By week’s end, conference attendees had every reason to be cautiously optimistic. More importantly, a cogent way forward had been defined for both issues.

June 25 2010 – IMO Sets the Bar

Easton, MD (Calhoon MEBA School): With the world’s maritime training schemes already groaning under the collective weight of flag state and International requirements, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) last month plowed ahead with promised amendments and additions to the STCW code. These agreements, adopted on June 25 2010, are now and forever known simply as “the Manila Amendments”. But, there’s nothing simple about any of this. And for those who last week sat through the U.S. Coast Guard’s Zoe Goss’ presentation of the mind-numbing list of new training requirements for deck and engine personnel, the implications for implementing speedy compliance were more than obvious; arguably, they were daunting.


The first of two Keynote speakers for the 2nd Annual eLearning Conference – both notably from the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center – Goss patiently brought the ‘good news’ to her gathered audience of maritime educators, government regulators, industry representatives and technology providers. A myriad of changes were in store, she reported, including changes to the celestial navigation, visual signaling and BRM training requirements, the addition of ECDIS training to the code, new A/B competencies and much, much more. Her 45 minute talk also revealed that the new amendments would enter into force on January 1st, 2012, with existing seafarers who commence approved education and training programs (maritime academies) or an approved training course after July, 1 2013 must meet the new minimum training standards, where applicable, by January 1, 2017. 

Another dreaded development, at least for the American side of the equation, was put off until January of 2011. At that point, the possibility of inserting language that would address the (lesser) U.S. maritime academy sea time requirements will probably come to a head. For now, however, the considerable changes and additions to the code were enough. To be fair, the IMO didn’t finish up in Manila without offering at least the possibility of providing for (new) ways for all parties to implement the new code requirements. For the first time ever, STCW language includes room for eLearning to be added to the mix. It’s a start.

Maritime Momentum: Conference participants weigh in, work out details

Building on the momentum generated from last year’s inaugural International eLearning Conference, the 2010 working groups, meetings and presentations provided real meat for industry to move forward. Discussions spanned the full gamut of relevant issues, including the need for a “consortium-type” approach to future maritime and/or STCW education. Quite a bit of business also got done here, too. Still, with as many as 160 different schools providing STCW training in the United States alone, there is little in way of cooperation or collaboration between many of these parties at present. In order for the eLearning protocol envisioned by the majority of the conference attendees to work, that’s one metric that has to change, and soon.

Leaving aside the technical discussions for those better qualified to give that report, a major outcome of the conference was the general agreement between all parties – regulatory, commercial and educators alike – was that eLearning for mariners is best packaged in a “blended format.” As a baseline, that blended learning can be defined as providing a certain portion of the “knowledge-based learning” in an online, distance format with retention of the “hands-on” portion to be conducted in the traditional brick-and-mortar setting.  That the two can complement one another if done correctly is no longer in question; how it will ultimately be codified, approved and carried out will be the hard part. And, if there as one thing that everyone gathered at the Calhoon MEBA Engineering School all agreed on, it was that the effort was worth the sweat equity that will eventually produce the model upon which future standards will be based.

Baseline & Fundamentals

Ultimately, any future, blended eLearning that is applied to satisfy STCW requirements will have to be certified in much the same way that current course curriculums, instructors and venues are approved. Involving both a regulatory and standard-setting approach, there are certain steps to be followed before any of this can come to fruition. As such, it was no surprise or accident that DNV was in attendance at the Learning Conference, and prominent in their involvement. Already a key standard setter and watchdog of sorts for maritime course offerings at many schools, DNV aims to ensure that eLearning – blended or otherwise – is carried out to same quality standards as the brick and mortar course counterparts.

At last Wednesday’s conference presentation on “Quality System Standards for Maritime training Institutions,” DNV’s Gordon Halsey told his gathered audience, “DNV was on forefront of ISM standards and they see great opportunities to be first again.” To that end, he also promised a finalization of an eLearning standard by October 2010. He added, “We will apply, among other things, lessons learned from our experience in with technical standards for certification of simulation.” That said, he also cautioned that any eLearning system will need to include a Quality System Standard, equipment that conforms to a substantial level of realism, robust student-teacher interaction, strict conformance to content standards and then, a benchmark upon which all systems can be based.

For its part, the U.S. Coast Guard promised to play ball. Having previously agreed to certify two STCW courses for purely online delivery, they’ve arguably made good on that promise. In Friday’s climax Keynote address by Robert Smith, Chief of Mariner training & Assessment at the National Maritime Center, he promised that the Coast Guard was actively working to ramp up their electronic footprint in many ways and not just in terms of eLearning. With regard to future blended eLearning courses, he nevertheless vowed a strict certification process, at least as stringent as that which is already in place for traditional “brick-and-mortar” schools. That’s a good thing.

DNV and the Coast Guard left little doubt last week that changes to mariner training in this country would go forward only if done correctly and at the end of the day, the eLearning knowledge ‘transfer’ fully satisfied the intent of the STCW protocols. Conference attendees seemed to embrace that metric and some further vowed to exceed it.

Pie in the Sky?

Not everyone is convinced that this can work. In fact, it already has. At least two Coast Guard approved courses already are being delivered in an online, eLearning format. Developed by Calhoon MEBA’s Dan Noonan, the two CMES-sponsored courses – Crisis Management and Human Behavior and online Crowd Management – are truly interactive courses, complete with required “live” forum participation. Delivered to the eLearning mariner in an entertaining format, the courses can be monitored by the Coast Guard at any time they so desire. Having personally taken and completed both offerings, I can attest to the value of the medium. For those who are worried about making sure that the person on the other side of the computer is actually who they say that they are, I can also certify that no STCW certificates were produced in either case until a closely proctored examination had been passed.

Noonan has known from the very beginning, in terms of STCW level online education, that ‘blended’ training would be the ‘end game.’ The design of MEBA’s Distance Learning System (DLS) that received NMC approval has several core components that will work with a variety of scenarios (Live student teacher interaction, simulations, for example) and will allow blended training to be incorporated into an already approved DLS. Those additions all need NMC approval. They also need “buy-in” by stakeholders who may be skeptical of something that did not originate from within their own shop.

There is no guarantee that what CMES has pioneered will eventually become standard practice on the waterfront. Nevertheless, and bucking the headwind of change engineered by the U.S. Coast Guard, IMO, and others, it is also not a bad place to start. More than two years ago, at the start of this process, CMES’ Noonan cautioned, “Courses need to be screened very carefully. You need to ask, ‘Can you accomplish all of the objectives?’ Maybe not. And for a lot of what we do here, the answer is no.” In his own way, that wisdom probably helped to define what we call today, ‘blended learning.’

Blended Learning: How, and more importantly, WHY

Last week’s conference helped to foster the continuance of eLearning development for the maritime community, but the dialogue (deliberately) exposed some of its limitations. Using the STCW-required Basic Safety and Training (BST) course as a perfect example, some training material could be delivered online; with the student taking the on-line section delivered by a particular school and then physically traveling to another approved facility to take the practical “hands on” portion. This provides a more efficient use of physical resources as well as being less expensive with savings in travel and lodging. This arguably describes blended learning at its best and purest form.

Still, there are unanswered questions. At Easton, MarPro asked DNV’s Gordon Halsey what would happen when one school provides 24 hours of online training, followed by 16 hours of practical, hands-on learning received at another. In other words – who awards the certificate? At a time when liability and credit issues always seem to be important, the answer wasn’t yet completely obvious. And, in a sign that not all details had been completely settled, my attention was also brought to recent official U.S. government reports which faulted, among other things, the U.S. Navy’s approach and heavy reliance on computer based training (CBT) for surface fleet officers and crew.

The GAO report, as well as a Naval Inspector General Study, both scolded the Navy for its heavy reliance on CBT to the detriment of hands-on skill training. In a nutshell, crew competence has declined measurably. Beyond this, the findings also pointed out a decidedly poor coordination of acquisition of such learning material and poor controls over it once in use. Also – and no doubt rubbing an already raw nerve for commercial U.S. mariners and maritime unions everywhere – the reports (somewhat ironically) also conceded that the Navy’s woes, in part, stemmed from reductions in crew size for some platforms, which also necessitated increased CBT because of a shortage of qualified on board instructors. Any of that sound familiar?

On the other hand, another U.S. government (March 2009) report also claimed that CBT was “most effective when used in a blended learning environment vice as a stand-alone training medium.” In other words, and in its haste to save money and resources, the Navy ignored the very tenet which has already become the bedrock of commercial U.S. maritime eLearning efforts still to come. There seems little danger that Coast Guard-approved STCW-mandated mariner training will follow down the errant path blazed by the U.S. Navy, but the lessons learned there are certainly worth mentioning here.

Beyond Easton

Call it whatever you want – Bricks and Clicks, maritime eLearning, blended learning or the Maritime Technology Training Taskforce (M3T) – it is here, it’s now and sure to become a permanent part of the future of global STCW training compliance. At home, it is also all but certain that June’s IMO decisions will mean that the U.S. maritime academy model of officer training cannot survive within its four-year, college-style package; certainly not without changes in how that curriculum is delivered. In other words: the perfect recipe for blended eLearning.

Although the venue of next year’s eLearning Conference has not yet been decided, one thing that is certain is that industry leadership and collaboration for this concept is not limited to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Just maybe, next year’s conference will be domiciled on 1,000 computers in 1,000 far-flung places. That’s ‘Okay’ with Dan Noonan and School Director Chuck Eser at CMES.  Gracious hosts of the first two eLearning conferences, they are also candid about their hopes that the eLearning, M3T concept takes on a wide and more varied ownership down the road. In fact, unless that is exactly what transpires, it probably won’t happen at all. – MarPro.

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See Keefe’s previous MarPro column on this subject by clicking: http://www.maritimeprofessional.com/Blogs/The-Final-Word-with-Joseph-Keefe/June-2010/Bricks---Clicks--Beyond-Maritime-eLearning.aspx

To read more about the new Maritime Technology Training Taskforce (M3T), click: http://m3tgroup.org. M3T is the collaborative product of input from the Maritime Industry, Government and Regulatory sectors, Maritime Training Institutions and Technology Providers. The goal of the Strategic Alliance is to improve mariner training outcomes using existing and future technologies.

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Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com, a licensed mariner and a 1980 graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. His ongoing efforts to achieve STCW compliance for his marine credentials continue; online and in the brick-and-mortar environment. You can read about these efforts here or in print in MarineNews and in The Maritime Reporter magazines. He can be reached at jkeefe@maritimeprofessional.com or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.


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