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Making Vessel-Specific Training Effective and Practical Using Adaptive Learning

Posted to Maritime Training Issues with Murray Goldberg (by on January 28, 2013

It is difficult and expensive to do vessel-specific training well - which is probably why it is under specified, and in many cases poorly implemented - often via job shadowing. But there is a technology called "adaptive learning" that every vessel operator should be aware of as an excellent tool for vessel-specific training. This article looks at what adaptive learning is, and examines one vessel operator’s deployment of it to facilitate vessel-specific training across its fleet of 35 vessels.

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It is difficult and expensive to do vessel-specific training well - which is probably why, unlike certification training, it is under specified, and in many cases poorly implemented - often via job shadowing. But there is a technology which is an excellent tool for vessel-specific training, and every vessel operator should be aware of it. It is called adaptive learning. This technique is so important and so deeply applicable to the maritime industry, that I have been meaning to write about it for quite some time.  This article looks at what adaptive learning is, and examines one vessel operator’s deployment of it to facilitate  vessel-specific training across its fleet of 35 vessels.

The Need for Vessel-Specific Training

Certification training is well defined and regulated by the STCW and the various flag state regulations. Course lists are specified, course curricula are provided, and even model courses are available to guide trainers. It makes sense that certification training is highly regulated and specified.

However, there is another training component which is largely unregulated and only minimally specified, but is arguably just as important to safe operations: vessel-specific training. This is the training required for safe operations given the unique combination of vessel characteristics, layout, equipment, routines, routes and corporate policies of the vessel operator. Vessel-specific training has always been critical to safe operations, but in recent years has grown much more so in light of the continuously increasing sophistication and complexity of modern vessel-based systems. To make matters worse, simply knowing “how” to operate these sophisticated systems is not sufficient. A deeper understanding  is required in order to facilitate intelligent problem solving when the systems are not behaving as expected or, worse yet, when interactions between multiple sophisticated on-board systems produce unexpected behaviours.  Crews must be armed with the knowledge necessary to make an informed analysis and arrive at a logical decision.

There has been some recognition of this problem by the STCW. The best example is recent regulatory change for ECDIS training. ECDIS machines are essentially little computers and training is required in order to understand how to operate them correctly. This training is now mandatory. But why do the regulations stop there? ECDIS machines are not the only sophisticated systems on board - far from it.

The Problem

The answer is that ECDIS training is regulated because it is possible to regulate it - it is a single system being trained in isolation. However, specifying and regulating the training of all complex vessel-based systems and procedures  is simply not possible given the infinite combinations of systems found on today’s vessels. Ignoring regulation for a moment, it is even difficult to deliver standardized vessel-specific training across a fleet. To illustrate, let’s look at an example.

Consider a vessel operator which manages 50 vessels. Because our world is imperfect, these vessels are not uniform. There may be 5 different types of propulsion system over the 50 vessels. The operator may be working to standardize the bridge equipment, but it is still far from uniform. Fire fighting systems differ sometimes in their type and manufacturer, and differ always in their layout and implementation. And although the operator is working hard to standardize procedures across all its vessels, the simple fact that each vessel differs from the others in some fundamental way means that the procedures on board can never truly be the same. On top of that there are many other differences: life rafts differ, chutes differ, ship handling differs, and even the route that the vessel is currently operating on can require different reactions to an otherwise similar situation. So how can a vessel operator possibly create a standardized vessel-specific  training program when the knowledge requirements vary so much from one vessel to another?

A potential solution is to create vessel-specific training programs in much the same way as we create vessel-specific manuals. Each vessel would have a separate, unique (though overlapping), training program. This is possible, but very expensive to create and even more expensive to maintain. These training programs would have to be updated, in the same way that vessel-specific manuals are updated, each time a change occurs to the vessel. More problematic is that training programs, to be effective and remain current, should always be the subject of ongoing measurement and improvement. One change to an onboard procedure (or even to the way that procedure is taught) may require updating all 50 training programs. Given that such updates are a necessary part of continuous improvement in training, the cost becomes prohibitive and the result is outdated and ineffective training courses.

In light of this problem, most vessel operators are relegated to highly imperfect techniques for vessel-specific training such as job shadowing, sometimes combined with small amounts of classroom-based training, in order to facilitate vessel-specific training. Fortunately, the technique of adaptive learning can provide a solution.

What is Adaptive Learning?

Adaptive learning is a computer-aided training technique designed to tailor each training instance to the needs of the individual trainee. Although this may sound complex, it can be surprisingly simple and highly effective. In general, adaptive systems “learn” about the student and then adapt the learning content and interaction to fit that student. For example, the student can be asked questions about learning goals, can be given evaluations to see what they know, and can even have his or her response times and other behaviours measured to try and tailor the instruction to the specific needs of that student. How can this be applied to vessel-specific training? The best way to illustrate is to look at how British Columbia Ferry Services Inc. (BC Ferries) uses it to provide vessel- and route-specific training across its 35 vessels serving 47 terminals on 25 routes.

Adaptive Learning at BC Ferries

When a deckhand (as one  example) requires training at BC Ferries, the actual knowledge required will vary tremendously depending on the vessel and route the deckhand will be operating on. Specifically, there are several different types of knowledge required:

  1. Core knowledge: This is the same for all deckhands. This includes company information, standardized procedures, safety and protective gear, etc.
  2. Vessel-specific knowledge: this is the required knowledge pertaining to the vessel that the deckhand will be operating on. It includes equipment on that vessel, procedures unique to that vessel, and so on. It consists of hundreds of pieces of knowledge, the combination of which will be unique to that vessel.
  3. Route-specific knowledge: this is the required knowledge pertaining to the route the deckhand will be operating on.
  4. Vessel-Route knowledge: this is knowledge required which is unique to the specific combination of vessel and route that the deckhand will be operating on. For example, operating procedures for the car ramps at the various terminals will often differ based on which vessel is at the terminal.

Obviously for BC Ferries, as for any vessel operator, the creation of custom training programs for every combination of job position, vessel and route would not be possible as it would number in the many thousands. Even if we took routes out of the equation, the number of distinct training programs required for every combination of job position and vessel would number in the hundreds, rendering their creation and continuous improvement not financially viable.

So instead, BC Ferries uses its learning management system (MarineLMS - the company I work for) to provide the necessary training through adaptive learning. Because MarineLMS has been created for the maritime industry, it provides adaptive learning specifically for this purpose.

The trainee experience is now as follows. When an employee  begins his or her online training, they are first asked to specify three pieces of information:

  1. What position they are training for
  2. What vessel they will be operating on, and
  3. What route they will be operating on.

The training content in the  learning management system (LMS) database is all tagged according to position, vessel and route. With the answers to the questions above, the LMS is now able to reach into the database and gather the various individual learnings required for that position on that vessel, while operating on that route. It then dynamically assembles all of this information into a single, cohesive learning package.  The effect is as though someone created, by hand, a learning program specifically targeted at that employee.

The same is true for assessments. When a test is about to be administered (either online or on paper), the LMS asks for the position, vessel and route. The examination is then dynamically created to address the competencies specific to that combination.

The Advantages of Adaptive Learning

For the Learner

The advantages of adaptive learning are reasonably self-evident for the learner. He or she is provided with a learning program which is specifically targeted at the knowledge needed. It is cohesive and seamless and does not require the trainee to judge whether this or that bit of information applies to their position while on their vessel and route. It all applies. More importantly, adaptive learning makes this kind of deep vessel-specific (and route-specific, in this case) training possible where otherwise it would be a practical impossibility.

For the Training Organization (this is important …)

The advantages to the training organization are possibly even greater. Aside from the greatest benefit of improved training, adaptive learning creates efficiencies in learning content creation and maintenance - the same ones that make vessel-specific training possible. To understand them, a small bit of background is required.

When creating learning materials for an LMS which supports adaptive learning (and please note that only a small fraction of LMSs  do support adaptive learning  - but there are some), one “learning resource” is created for every “thing” that needs to be trained. For example, if in a fleet of 50 vessels there are three different ECDIS machines, then three lessons need to be created for ECIDS training - one for each different type of machine. If four different RADAR units are dispersed across the fleet, then four lessons need to be created for RADAR - one for each unit. This is replicated for the various equipment and procedures which need to be taught. When these lessons are entered into the LMS database, they are tagged with the position, vessel or route (or any combination of the above) to which they apply. Now, as described above, when a learner specifies their position, vessel and route, the LMS software gathers the learning resources and, using a “framework”, assembles them into a customized course.

Now perhaps the advantages to the training organization becomes more clear. First, in a fleet of 50 vessels, it is not necessary to write a separate, complete learning program for each vessel. Instead, each procedure or piece of equipment to be trained is documented only once in one small module, and then that module is tagged to indicate which vessels, positions, etc. it applies to. There is no redundant work required.

More importantly, maintenance of the courses is now very manageable. If a vessel has its ECDIS machine swapped out for another, all that is required is the changing of one tag in the LMS database to indicate which ECDIS machine now applies to that vessel. From that point on, training for that vessel will encompass the correct ECDIS machine.  Likewise, if the training for one procedure or one class of ECDIS machine is updated to reflect  some new information or an improved training approach, only that one learning module needs to be updated, no matter how many vessels or positions that one module is relevant to.  From that point on, all trainees in positions or on vessels to which that learning module applies will immediately have the improved training experience. It is in this way that deep vessel-specific training is made possible and practical by an LMS which supports adaptive learning.


The advantages of adaptive learning to maritime industry training cannot be overstated. Properly applied it makes vessel-specific training not only possible, but also highly practical where previously it was neither. Given the importance of vessel-specific training in this era of ever increasing complexity of vessel systems and procedures, this technique is one which is critically important now and will  only increase in utility and applicability as time goes on.

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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 learning management system designed 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. Murray has won over a dozen University, National and International awards for teaching excellence and his pioneering contributions to the field of educational technology. Now, in Marine Learning Systems, Murray is hoping to play a part in advancing the art and science of learning in the maritime industry.

Blog Notifications: For the latest maritime training articles, visit our company blog here. You can receive notifications of new articles on our company blog by following the blog.

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