Trainees Learning from One Another: Excellence in Maritime Training
One of the most powerful forms of informal learning is peer learning - in other words, trainees learning from trainees. Yet although both research and experience tell us of the power of peer learning, most training organizations do almost nothing to support it. This article looks at peer learning as a supplement to traditional instruction, and discusses how we can take advantage of it to improve learning outcomes, trainee experiences and trainee engagement.
Maritime Mentoring: International Maritime Mentoring Community - Find a Mentor, Be a Mentor
If you have read my articles in the past you may remember the often-cited statistic that as much as 70% of professional learning happens via informal means. “Informal learning”, as it is called, is learning which happens outside of regular curriculum-based instruction (i.e. outside of course lectures or assigned learning materials). It can happen in a variety of ways - including experience through trial and error, individual reading on the web or from a book, mentorship, and so on.
One of the most powerful forms of informal learning is peer communication - in other words, discussions with other trainees. We all know this to be true because we have all been a part of it. For example, classroom-based discussions, group study sessions, working together on group assignments, and even the simple act of asking a classmate to clarify something the trainer just mentioned. These are all examples of peer learning, and they can account for a tremendously strong learning tool.
Although both research and experience tell us of the power of peer learning, interestingly most training organizations do almost nothing to support it. This is especially true in the maritime industry where opportunities for trainees to communicate with one another before, during and after training are rare. This means we are missing a huge opportunity.
This article looks at peer learning as a supplement to traditional instruction, and discusses how we can take advantage of it to improve learning outcomes, trainee experiences, trainee engagement and even corporate culture. The next article in this series will continue with some concrete ideas on how to engage your trainees in peer learning, and then discuss some of the benefits which accrue to you as a training organization. If you would like to be notified when part two is available, and have not already signed up for article notifications, please feel free to do so here.
Peer learning works because trainees are not uniform in their knowledge, experience and academic abilities. For any topic in any course of instruction, there are trainees who already understand that topic well (or can learn it quickly), and others who struggle with it. Therefore, if you look at the trainee population in a course as a whole, invariably for every topic taught, there is almost always at least one trainee who finds ease with that topic. If you can find a way to pool this knowledge making the sum of it available to all students, then you would have an outstanding educational resource which covers the entire course curriculum. And because each student is only contributing a small subset of that knowledge pool, the workload is distributed making the effort required by individuals quite small (as opposed to the effort required of the instructor to single-handedly impart all course knowledge).
The other powerful aspect of peer learning is that it is “student-centered”. Student-centered learning is a way of training which places the student at the center rather than having the instructor or course content at the center. It is meant to engage the student and cause them to be active participants in their training (as opposed to being “vessels to be filled with knowledge”). It is said to improve training outcomes, address a wider variety of backgrounds and academic abilities, and provide a greater emphasis on higher-order thinking (problem solving skills and the ability to evaluate and judge) than do traditional lectures. Peer learning does this because it is responsive to the needs of individual students (as opposed to lectures which are not), and it requires the student to analyse and evaluate what their peers are telling them (compared to information from the lecturer which is typically taken as absolute).
Therefore, peer learning is actually a very powerful supplement to traditional learning. Some would argue that it is much more powerful than traditional training. When we combine peer learning with traditional classroom instruction, we have a form of blended learning. This has been shown to improve training outcomes and satisfaction.
My first experience with the power of peer learning came when I stumbled upon it while teaching as a faculty member of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia. My research area was the effectiveness of web-based education. I had created a learning management system (LMS) for university and college called WebCT and was using it in my teaching as a research tool. WebCT later grew into a company whose LMS was used at 4,000 universities in 80 countries. One of the features we had built in to WebCT was the ability for students in a course to be able to hold on-line discussions. If any student made a discussion posting, all of the students would see it.
I had created the discussion feature in WebCT because, selfishly, I was tired of answering the same question over and over. I felt that if students all asked their questions in the on-line discussion area, then I could answer each only once, and the entire class would get the benefit of my response. Likewise, I felt that students in subsequent year’s classes could use the discussions from previous years as a learning resource.
It did turn out that students ended up asking questions in the discussion area as I expected. A lot of questions. However, to my surprise, I found that often before I could manage to answer the posed question, some other student in the course answered it for me! And then, more often than not, a third student would add their opinion and knowledge. And then a fourth, and a fifth, and so on! What was happening was that students began teaching one another. I was not completely out of the loop, but I found that I only had to jump into the conversation now and then to add my so-called “expert” opinion. This was a revelation.
Thinking about it in hindsight, prior to the introduction of the on-line discussion area, students had only limited opportunities to interact with the class as a whole. There was minimal interaction during class time as they were spent with me lecturing. And outside of class, at most, small groups of students would meet for study sessions. But the on-line discussions reached 100% of the students equally. As long as there was one student in the class that could help answer a question, the question got answered.
The key to peer learning is the creation of opportunities and incentives for your trainees to communicate with one another. This can (and should) be done in advance of training, during training and after training.
In most cases, the only viable means of enabling trainee communication is on-line discussion or community software. The alternative of face-to-face meetings generally does not work. Face-to-face meetings require gathering all of your trainees at one time in one place outside of class. Even if this were possible (which it generally is not), it would only allow one conversation to happen at a time, making the discussion not useful for the majority of the trainees, since each will have different questions and concerns which they need addressed. On-line communities do not suffer from these limitations. They allow:
- Participation from any location
- Asynchronous discussions (meaning that the participants do not need to be on-line at the same time in order to participate)
- Multiple, concurrent conversations
- User choice (a trainee can participate in those conversations to which they can contribute or from which they can learn and ignore the rest)
Taken together, this means that on-line discussions are effective and viable before, during and after training. The only limitation to this, which is sometimes a factor in the maritime industry, is that some form of internet connection is required in order to participate. This can be a problem for mariners aboard vessels without viable internet. While this is indeed a limitation for some, it is a diminishing one, and those affected can usually connect once ashore.
In terms of software for establishing this community, fortunately many modern learning management systems (LMSs) have either discussion forums or community software built in. These can both be effective, but compared to community software, discussion forums are relatively limited.
Discussion forums are a simple form of communication tool which are effective at allowing trainees to exchange questions and answers. A trainee can post questions for the other trainees to view and respond to. Although this is effective, it has a couple limitations. First, the ability to filter conversations is relatively limited. Therefore, trainees often have to take a quick look at each discussion post to determine whether it is something that applies to them. Likewise, discussion forums are limited to just that - discussions. There is no other opportunity for deeper knowledge building and sharing.
Community software is a newer form of group communication and learning tool. It has it roots in discussion forums (and includes discussion forums as one feature) but also provides much more. For example, community software often provides the ability for individual users to maintain profiles so that other trainees know the backgrounds, experiences and strengths of each user. Community software often also provides some form of “reputation” measurement which indicates who, among the community, is typically regarded as providing good and useful information. Community software usually provides the ability for users to form into groups of common interest, allowing subsets of the trainees interested in a particular topic to gather, discuss and exchange resources. Finally, community software sometimes even allows for the creation of a community library, allowing members to add useful resources they have found to a permanent community resource. In general, community software allows more targeted and structured communication and knowledge sharing, and is much better at allowing users to “discover” information of use to them. It also tends to be much better at helping users form and maintain learning relationships which may sometimes last a lifetime. The LMS made by Marine Learning Systems (the company I work for) has a full-featured learning community module.
Next, I’d like to continue this article with some concrete ideas on how to engage your trainees in peer learning, and then discuss some of the benefits which accrue to you as a training organization. However, this article has already possibly exceeded the attention span of many readers, and thus I will continue on this topic next week, in part two of this post.
If you would like to be notified when part two is available, and have not already signed up for article notifications, please feel free to do so here.
Until then, thank you for reading, and I wish you a great day and happy maritime training!
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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. Now, in Marine Learning Systems, Murray is hoping to play a part in advancing the art and science of learning in the maritime industry.
Maritime Mentoring: International Maritime Mentoring Community - Find a Mentor, Be a Mentor