Understanding eLearning in Maritime Job Training and Familiarization - Part 1
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. This is the first installment in a series of articles where I take a step back and talk more deeply about what eLearning is, and what its strengths and limitations are in the maritime training environment.
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 its 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.
This is the first installment (of 5) in a series of articles where I take a step back and talk more deeply about what eLearning is, and what its strengths and limitations are in the maritime training environment. I am largely going to focus on its application to 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. This first article presents a basic introduction to eLearning.
You May Think You Understand eLearning - But Do You?
Education in all industries world-wide has been going through a significant transformation toward on-line learning over the last 15 years. It started in higher education (universities and colleges) and has since spread to corporate education in most industries. It is now a staple of most teaching and training environments.
Too often eLearning is dismissed by people who do not understand it (or have seen it poorly applied) as a cheap and inferior alternative to classroom-based or on-board learning. This was a common misconception in the mid 1990’s when eLearning was new to the training industry. Since then, eLearning has matured and improved at the same blistering pace as other technologies. Now we have reached the point where the world’s teaching and training industries understand eLearning and have employed it wherever its strengths can be used to advantage. Experience has taught us that both its costs and its effectiveness cannot be described using single-dimensional statements. It can save costs, but it is not always cheaper. It can be more effective or less effective depending on the subject matter and the attributes of the learner. Like any useful tool, it has both its strengths and its weaknesses, but can be used to great advantage if it is intelligently applied. Therefore, while it is foolish to think that eLearning is always inferior to classroom based or on-board learning, it is just as foolish to believe that it could ever replace all aspects of classroom based or on-board education.
As such, in order to be able to judge the utility and application of eLearning in the maritime industry, we first need to fully understand what eLearning is. Once it is understood, I believe that most will come to the conclusion that it can be a valuable supplement to traditional, hands-on maritime job training and familiarization delivered by vessel operators.
What is eLearning?
A quick definition summarized from Wikipedia is in order here:
“E-learning is essentially the computer and network-enabled transfer of skills and knowledge. E-learning applications and processes include Web-based learning, computer-based learning, virtual education opportunities and digital collaboration. Content is delivered via the Internet, intranet/extranet, audio or video tape, satellite TV, and CD-ROM. It can be self-paced or instructor-led and includes media in the form of text, image, animation, streaming video and audio.”
… Wikipedia, January 10th, 2012
The definition above is very broad. For our purposes, we will mostly consider web-based eLearning where trainees study, write exams, and interact with their peers and a course facilitator - all on-line. We will also discuss CD-based learning to some extent. The delivery of eLearning and the facets which can make up a “good” eLearning experience are presented in the next section.
The facets of eLearning
A good eLearning environment is supported by a software system called a "Learning Management System" or LMS for short. LMSs are created by software companies just like any other kind of software such as word processors or bridge simulators. LMSs are typically web-based systems, and are responsible for providing access to learning content, delivering examinations, tracking of learner progress, provision of metrics and analytics to measure the effectiveness of the training organization, and management and oversight of training. The LMS is the central site which trainees, trainers and training administrators use to take, conduct and manage training.
Note, however, that the LMS software simply provides the infrastructure to support eLearning, not the content. The content (learning materials, examinations, and so on) are typically created by the training institution (in our case a vessel operator) and loaded into the LMS for delivery by the LMS. The LMS provides the learning environment (website) and the vessel operator provides the curriculum. Thus the features of the eLearning experience are largely dependent on the LMS chosen, and the quality of the curriculum is largely dependent on the author of the learning materials. The features supported by a modern, quality LMS are described below.
Most people, when they think of eLearning, imagine a web site akin to an on-line book. A student visits the website and reads the training materials (or “content”) there in order to educate themselves. It is true that "content delivery" is one of the central aspects of eLearning sites.
Training content is typically organized by "course" or learning goal. Within a course, the content may be organized linearly (like the pages of a book) or hierarchically by topic, sub topic, and so on. Learners progress through the content as needed, and the LMS records their place in the content making it unnecessary to find the place where they last left off after a break.
Click here for a sample screenshot of a content module.
Ensuring that there are no errors or omissions in the content is necessary for any training experience. This can be difficult for large data-driven systems. As such some LMSs engage the entire learning community in maintenance of content by providing feedback mechanisms throughout the LMS to be used when a problem is spotted.
Trainees, trainers and training administrators use the feedback mechanisms to identify the error or omission. The LMS records the location of the problem and the identity of the reporter, and collects the problem description. It then forwards the problem report to the curriculum designers for correction.
There is only ever one copy of the learning content in the LMS database. Therefore, when a change is made, trainees always have the latest version when they use the LMS.
Click here for a sample screenshot of a content feedback submission.
Learning management systems generally support the ability to deliver various kinds of tests or assessments. For example, automatically graded self-tests can be taken by trainees at any time in order to validate their perception of how well they have assimilated the required knowledge. Likewise, full on-line or paper-based exams can be delivered in order to provide an objective component of trainee assessment after training is complete. As with the self-tests, the on-line exams are automatically graded and the results are recorded.
Click here for a sample screenshot of an on-line examination.
Support and Communication
LMSs generally provide communication tools such as "learning communities" or bulletin boards. These tools allow trainees to communicate with one another, share ideas, ask questions and get answers. The training facilitators are often also active participants (as they should be) in the discussions in order to motivate and guide students, and to facilitate the learning process. They also use these tools to ensure that accurate information is being shared and trainees get the answers they are looking for. These same tools are also sometimes used to facilitate mentoring relationships. Trainees are paired with more experienced employees who act as a consistent source of information and advice.
Click here for a sample screenshot of an LMS community.
Metrics and Analytics
Learning management systems usually provide tools for reporting on the success of the training program. They provide insight into how the system is being used, how much time trainees are spending performing various tasks, how well they are performing on exams, and so on. These analytics also provide system-wide information to, for example, identify exams or individual questions where trainees are, on average, not performing well. These metrics and analytics are one of the most compelling arguments for the adoption of an LMS, as will be discussed in the next section.
Click here for a sample screenshot of question-based analytics.
Trainee Tracking and Management
Tracking and management of trainees is another feature common to many LMSs. For example, reports can identify the completion state or progress of trainees through a module or course. Likewise, competency tracking systems can identify which trainees possess which competencies such as certifications, job training courses or familiarization courses. These reports can be useful to human resources and crewing departments.
In many industries where training is important (and there are few where this is not the case), LMS vendors often create industry-specific eLearning tools. In the maritime industry, for example, simulation environments have become very popular. As another maritime example, MarineLMS (the company I am involved with) provides a passage planning and training feature as part of its maritime-specific LMS allowing trainees to learn passage information and visually "navigate" passages at any scale. These industry-specific features have the potential to further enhance the general benefits derived from learning management systems.
Conclusion of Part 1
The discussion above briefly covers the more common features of learning management systems. Hopefully it provides some background, albeit at a high level, as to the components that make up an LMS, and provides some idea of what it might be like to use one. It should provide enough background to support the following sections on eLearning strengths and limitations. If you would like to read more on the subject of LMS features, you can visit our company website http://www.MarineLS.com to see an example of a learning management system tailored to maritime training. Now that we have discussed LMS features, the more important discussion lies ahead: what are the strengths and limitations of eLearning - a topic I will cover in part 2 of this article.
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Let me write about your story so we can all learn from it! Is your organization leading the way in job and familiarization training? I’d like to write about it. Or, do you have an example of a poor familiarization experience or practice that we can all take lessons from? I would like to write about that too (without naming you or your company, in this case). Contact me by email at Murray@MarineLS.com. You have a familiarization tale to tell. You can benefit everyone by sharing it.
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.