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Collision Course: eLearning Meets Maritime Education

Maritime eLearning Symposium at CMES in Easton, MD provides the venue for open and frank discussions on the subject of distance and ‘on line’ education for mariners. What happens next is up to industry itself.

Easton, MD: There I was: enjoying a moment of peace and quiet as our jet streaked westward to our vacation destination last summer. That pleasant interlude was cut short when, moments later, I happened to glance over my eight-year old daughter’s shoulder to see what was keeping her so engrossed. She was playing with her “DS” game unit, texting and occasionally laughing at something. I asked, “What are you doing?” She replied happily, “I’m talking to the other people on the plane.” ME: “WHAT people?” HER: (motioning to her hand held unit) “These people.” ME: "Give me that thing.

It turned out that there were as many as seven other kids on the plane (including my son), all interacting – and each with their own unique signature – with one another through their hand held devices. I swiveled my neck to see who might be invading our little world and, as I did, three heads, six rows aft of us, suddenly popped down and took cover. Looking forward, the same thing occurred. Muffled laughter rippled through the aircraft. My daughter, sensing that she was missing out on all the fun now, reached over and said, “Daddy, you’re embarrassing me. Can I have my DS back?” I held the device out of reach and replied evenly, “Not until you tell me who GRAY DRAGON is.” Eventually, I did give it back to her and then spent the balance of the flight (until the unit ran out of juice) occasionally monitoring the “traffic.” Later, I told my wife that I was unsure as to whether I should have been amazed or horrified; or perhaps, both.

Today’s generation coming up through the education system are being subjected to a totally different experience than that which those of us on the wrong side of fifty remember. The kind of technology contained in my kid’s hand held electronic toy is also permeating the world of education. But, that’s not anything new. Distance learning, on line programs and other similar vehicles have been around for more than ten years and, as I am learning this week, represent a fairly common practice for schools all over the world. The market penetration of this type of education, however, is only now just starting to impact the training of professional mariners. And, that’s what this week’s 2009 International Maritime eLearning Conference at the Calhoon MEBA Engineering School was all about.

Not everyone was here this week, but those who did come got value and the healthy attendance at the individual working sessions was ample testimony to the serious nature of the subject matter being discussed. One individual who recognized the importance of these emerging maritime education tools was Acting Deputy U.S. Maritime Administrator James Caponiti. As keynote speaker on Tuesday, Caponiti is a self-described “technical dinosaur,” but he also stressed that eLearning is destined to have a lasting impact on the maritime industry in coming years. Before yielding the podium to the impressive list of subject matter experts and presenters, he said, “eLearning may well be the most exciting tool to impact the maritime industry since the advent of simulators.”

While the maritime industry in general has lagged behind other business disciplines in terms of utilizing distance learning concepts, there are exceptions to that rule. Jose Femenia, Professor & Master Marine Engineering Program Director at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, gave a presentation describing the Academy's on-line Master of Science in Marine Engineering program. David Hiller of the MARPOL Training Institute, Inc. (MTI) spoke on the concept MARPOL compliance through computer based training, including but not limited to the wisdom of getting this training done before your next environmental incident and not afterwards, as part of the punitive process. And, of course, CMES Program Manager Captain Dan Noonan gave the symposium participants a detailed explanation and discussion on putting together an STCW-Approved Distance Learning System. CMES is the only institution at this time to have developed Coast Guard approved STCW training courses that are taught using a eLearning platform.

Last week, I took my third STCW training course, the CMES-sponsored Crisis Management and Human Behavior, on line and in the comfort of my own office. That interactive course, complete with required forum participation with “live” people located who-knows-where, is an engaging experience, delivered in an entertaining and useful format and fully monitored by the Coast Guard at any time they so desire. This week and in between working sessions at the eLearning Symposium, I took the proctored final examination at CMES and received my STCW certificate. What CMES has pioneered in the maritime disciplines will very soon become commonplace in the face of the changing regulatory schemes that are at this very moment being formulated by the Coast Guard, IMO, EPA and others. It is inevitable.

As satellites, broadband, E-mail and Internet access become more and more common – and affordable – aboard ships, much of the training required by mariners will necessarily revert to eLearning platforms. There are only so many hours in each mariner’s day (especially on vacation) and just so much money in the coffers of shipping companies that are already struggling to make a buck without their training budgets being doubled every time the IMO decides to overhaul the STCW protocols.

Perhaps the most telling part of the symposium came on Thursday morning when the U.S. Coast Guard’s Mayte Medina, a Senior Member of the US Delegation to the IMO, gave a lecture on the future IMO training requirements now looming large in the windshield. Medina told the gathered throng that very little was scheduled to go away in terms of the training requirements already in place and several new initiatives were underway. All of that, she said, will impact the time and expense involved with mariner training. And, for those sitting in the home office thinking that none of this has anything to do with you; think again. Actively being discussed at the highest levels is a proposal to ramp up the requirement for shipping companies to more closely monitor the certifications of their mariners.

Today, at home, I am struggling with the technology “demands” of my eleven-year old son and nine-year old daughter. What they already understand is mind boggling and, of course, disconcerting at the very same time. For those reasons, no amount of whining is going expedite their entry into the world of E-mail, on line gaming (with someone halfway around the globe) or anything else remotely related all that. As for today’s mariners and maritime professionals, the technology probably can’t come soon enough. Not every course is suitable for on line delivery, but where appropriate, the eLearning tool is a powerful and valuable asset for any training facility. Distance and eLearning is coming to the waterfront. How, when and where industry embraces that reality is still to be determined. Eventually, they will have no choice in the matter. – MarEx.

Joseph Keefe is the Editor in Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this editorial at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com. Join the Maritime Executive ‘Linked In’ group at by clicking http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/47685