Distance learning promises to be a vital tool in helping the industry re-shape in an unpredictable post-COVID-19 world. Better bandwidth and a cutting-edge approach are making it possible. Dennis O’Neill reports.
The marine sector has, out of necessity, tended to be a pioneer in developing and delivering flexible distance learning and training. Marine professionals ‘learning and earning’ while working at sea, often in some of the most remote parts of the world, has become common practice.
Now, though, with the onslaught of COVID-19 restrictions, remote training is being seen as central to the way industry copes when the global lockdown is finally relaxed.
“Maritime education strives to reach the far corners of the world to wherever seafarers are working, and now, more than ever, it needs to be made available to all crews aboard ships,” says James O’Byrne, managing director of GAC Training, which works closely with the National Maritime College of Ireland to provide distance learning in the marine sector.
“Today’s learners are tomorrow’s leaders and every opportunity must be offered to ensure a competent future workforce both at sea and ashore. Flag administrations and accrediting bodies have realised the benefits of distance learning, and operators recognise the need for better connectivity aboard vessels – which will open the doors for improvements in remote education.”
Meeting the challenge
A leading provider of maritime distance learning degrees and academic courses is MLA College, which recently launched a new MSc course in Engineering for the Marine Professional for students looking for a route through to becoming a chartered engineer.
“MLA College was set up to help those, particularly in offshore surveying, who found themselves at sea for extended periods and facing enormous difficulties trying to access learning materials,” explains Jaimie Cross, MLA College’s head of academic operations.
“We packaged our training and learning materials together so they could be downloaded or put onto a USB stick. Compressing entire higher education modules and learning materials into something the size of a USB stick is no mean feat, and we still regard that model, which we developed some years ago now, as still at the cutting edge.
“The way we work means the face-to-face time our students get with our teaching team is light years ahead of a traditional university. People can be in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and still have some sort of online activity. In fact, I’ve had tutorials with students who have been sat aboard a ship bobbing around in the North Sea, and the bandwidth has been sufficient to allow video calls. We were no way near that even five years ago.”
What could the global future look like?
In fact, academic institutions around the world are beginning to recognise the enormous benefits of investing in maritime distance learning courses.
“Trying to read a self-learning book while working on a ship can make life at sea very monotonous – so multi-media digital distance learning is an intelligent solution,” says Dr. Sajid Hussain CEng CMarEng FIMarEST, commandant of the Bangladesh Marine Academy, which offers a range of maritime courses from cadet training to master mariner and chief engineer levels.
“Trying to read a self-learning book while working on a ship can make life at sea very monotonous – so multi-media digital distance learning is an intelligent solution.” Dr Sajid Hussain, Bangladesh Marine Academy
“In the future, distance learning will be embedded in our way of life at sea, with direct communication and collaboration between different groups of seafarers aboard different ships.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has also had a profound impact on the way remote maritime training operates in the commercial sector – even below the surface.
“Coronavirus has accelerated our online offering,” explains Steve Ham, head of commercial services sales at diving specialist JFD, which provides submarine and hyperbaric escape, rescue and support.
“We acted swiftly to ensure continuity of our training programmes, moving some training online and adopting new training courses that were more suitable to remote teaching methods. Although some training can’t take place remotely, some courses do work extremely well online. Our offering enables an increased level of one-to-one training sessions and high levels of instructor involvement.”
Remote mental health support
The Mission to Seafarers charity says it has recognised a need to provide support to seafarers through remote training.
Along with its well-received digital chaplaincy platform, it has now adapted all of its training programmes to offer e-learning capabilities in order to provide assistance and guidance to seafarers dealing with the societal and financial pressures of being at sea.
“The Covid-19 environment is impacting the mental wellbeing of many seafarers,” says Reverend Andrew Wright, secretary general of The Mission to Seafarers. “It’s vital that we provide digital training programmes that will ensure they feel supported, connected, and capable of getting through current and future challenges of life as a seafarer.”
Re-examining the traditional degree
With such rapid adaption underway in the way training and learning is now being delivered, one major consequence of the global lockdown is likely to be a fundamental review of how qualifications are achieved and awarded.
“What might change overall because of COVID-19 is the idea of the traditional ‘degree route’,” says Professor John Chudley, rector of MLA College.
“Why do you have to do a degree in three years rather than in two years or six years? It doesn’t really matter. Training and education should be more outcome-based – and the most important thing about training in the maritime sector is that it needs to be as flexible as possible.”
Professor John Chudley, rector of MLA College
Distance Learning in a Professional Context: IMarEST 2020 Annual Conference
Professor John Chudley PhD CEng FIMarEST, rector of MLA College, will present Distance Learning in a Professional Context: The MLA College Experience at this year’s IMarEST Annual Conference in July.