Learn online, a growing option for yacht crew

Oct 22, 2014 by Dorie Cox

Wean “Wouks” van der Westhuizen works long days as chief officer on M/Y Kiss The Sky. Upgrading his officer-of-the-watch unlimited ticket presented a challenge not only in time off but also in travel to a school and the financial commitment.

He found a solution that lets him work online.

“A couple of years ago, Fleetwood Nautical College [in the UK] developed a distance-learning course so you can obtain your OOW unlimited and chief mate unlimited,” van der Westhuizen said. “This is suited for the yachting industry. You don’t have to take the nine and six months off work to attend a maritime college.”

Van der Westhuizen is part of a growing trend of electronic learning in yachting. There are some online courses available with many maritime institutes, but not necessarily the specific courses yacht crew require.

But more are becoming available as the industry works through compliance, assessment and technical issues with online learning.

Reality of online, in-person

Online, remote, distance, e- and m-learning (electronic and mobile) are commonly used to describe courses taken outside of a classroom. But for yacht crew, there is more to the story.

For many of these, the knowledge component can be taught by way of the Internet, but testing still must be supervised in person, said Al Stiles, vice president of curriculum development and vice principal academic affairs at Maritime Professional Training (MPT) in Ft. Lauderdale.

“We won’t get away from demonstrating competency,” Stiles said. “Assessments have to be proctored.”

But a combination of online and in-person instruction is beneficial for crew, said Brian Luke, chief operations officer of International Crew Training (ICT) in Ft. Lauderdale.

“In reality, it is blended learning,” Luke said. “A percentage is done at home, which can include video and printed material, then to the training center for the practical and test.

“The sticking points for students who want to take courses are that they may have money, but not time to be off the boat,” Luke said. “We’re making it easier. They [online courses] may be able to cut the time by a third or so.”

Online courses offer that versatility.

“The advantages are convenience and the ability to self-pace in the acquisition of knowledge,” Stiles said. “Students are not in a classroom setting for X number of hours. They can control the when and where.”

Training institutes also benefit from offering online instruction. Instead of reducing enrollment, e-courses can actually boost it, Stiles said.

“For the schools, there is an advantage of increased throughput; they can double the number of students,” Stiles said. “This addresses the physical limitations of the building that most schools face.”

What’s practical

Courses currently available online are primarily pre-study courses and those with no hands-on practicals. Fundamental courses such as navigation and COLREGS will build the foundation, said Wally Schredl, director of training of International Yacht Training Worldwide.

“That way the instructor can move right into the course with real-world applications instead of the basics,” Schredl said. “For example, if a student learns the basics of navigation, the instructor can move right in with the charts.

“Some courses are more appropriate to complete online, like business and law,” he said.

Not so much with others such as the rigid inflatable boat (RIB) course, where the goal is to get students behind the wheel. But online instruction likely won’t replace in-person teaching in yachting.

“It will never be the main part,” Schredl said. “The goal for courses for captains and crew are to get them on the water, to the practicals. A two-week course will still be a two-week course, but the instructor will be able to get to the practicals faster.”

Some basic courses, like STCW’s basic safety training, wouldn’t work online, Stiles said.

“Only Personal Safety and Social Responsibility could be done electronically,” he said, of one of STCW’s four modules. “Fire Prevention and Fire Fighting, Personal Survival Techniques, and First Aid/CPR require demonstrations.”

According to Stiles, online courses currently approved by the USCG include Master 100 Tons (and increase in scope to near coastal), License Renewal (not more than 100 GT), Vessel Personnel with Designated Security Duties (VPDSD), Radar Refresher, Rules of the Road, Able Seaman, Auxiliary Sail, Crowd Management, Crisis Management, Qualified Assessor and upgrade OUPV to Master 100 Ton.

Compliance concerns

The e-learning option seems simple enough: log in, study and pass a test. But there are concerns. In a classroom, instructors can monitor a student; online, away from a watchful eye, presents a weak link, Luke said.

“Part of the problem is that students claim they have knowledge but actually have no real knowledge,” Luke said. “Our experience is that with online courses, we don’t know their weaknesses. When they come in for testing, instructors find students don’t know what they are doing.”

People don’t always criticise themselves, and students may not realize what they don’t understand. As humans we fool ourselves, Luke said.

“We know the level of training when they are here in front of us,” he said. “In the classroom, we can see what they don’t know.”

Testing for online courses follows the same protocols as testing in a classroom in order to be compliant under a variety of governing bodies including the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), Royal Yachting Association (RYA), International Yacht Training (IYT) or another certifications and flag states. For example, to be compliant, the instructor can’t proctor the test, Luke said.

“So students could do the theory course online, then someone else administers the exam at a training center,” he said. “For example, if it is an RYA course, we have an outside examiner come. We can’t examine our own students. That way the system holds up to all scrutiny.

Sometimes students don’t completely understand the process, Luke said.

“There can be an entitlement mentality where students say, ‘I paid and expect to pass,’ but we are not in the business to collect money and print certificates,” Luke said. “It is a tricky business; schools are in for profit, but to just grab the money is short-sighted. We have to prove they are good students.

Future of e-learning

Online courses were discussed at the Large Yacht Qualification Panel meeting this year, according to IYT’s Schredl and ICT’s Luke, two of the MCA-approved training providers that met with the MCA to discuss certification and training issues.

“They are open to the idea, but it is a slow process,” Schredl said. “We first must ensure that the comfort of the governing bodies is there. The progress has taken a leap forward lately.”

To be compliant, e-learning courses have first to be created and submitted for approval, and there are problems to solve. For example, the cost of development is triple that of a classroom course, at a minimum, Stiles said.

“Statistics now are 36 hours of development time for a class,” Stiles said. “For an e-class, it is 100 hours. Plus you have to have the programming and video.”

And before making such an investment, the content has to be stable and there has to be a big demand with a consistent audience, Stiles said.

“When you convert a course to e-learning, you no longer have the instructor to convey information,” Stiles said. “Now you have to teach every aspect, and you have to integrate the possible questions.”

Another challenge for e-learning is to keep pace with constant changes in technology and teaching methods.

Two types of learning are possibilities as course options expand in yachting, Stiles said.

“Synchronous learning basically allows more than one person to engage in the learning with webinars, chat room and other synchronized systems,” Stiles said. “Asynchronous allows a person to work on his own time.

“With synchronous learning you still have bandwidth and time problems, but it is like a class for everyone to engage at the same time,” Stiles said. “I don’t know how useful it is with the different time zones of crew.”

Governing bodies and schools are moving forward with e-learning options, and Stiles, Luke and Schredl are all passionate about that future.

“I firmly believe that the way forward with respect to distance learning for the yacht community is m-learning for mobile devices,” Stiles said. “I expect the future to be m-learning blended.”

Until online learning becomes more mainstream in yachting, students should verify with the appropriate regulatory authority that any course they take electronically will be accepted by the licensing authority.

“We want the highest level of professional we can create,” Luke said. “E-learning is a great idea. We like the idea of reducing the student’s time. We are trying to create avenues to be more helpful for them to achieve their goals.”


Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at dorie@the-triton.com.



About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is a writer with Triton News.

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