Does eLearning Work in the Maritime Industry?

Oct 08, 2012, 5:17PM EST
Does eLearning Work in the Maritime Industry?
In this article we provide an answer to the question “does eLearning work” for the maritime industry. We are now able to answer this question based on approximately 15 years of experimentation, research and implementation done in other industries. According to the US Department of Education, the answer is ...

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Does eLearning Work?

I am often asked by maritime training administrators and practitioners whether eLearning works. That is, “is eLearning or blended learning proven to be effective”? This is a natural question because despite being almost ubiquitous in higher education and other industries, eLearning is a relative newcomer to the maritime world. When I was (frequently) asked this same question by other university faculty members back in the late 1990’s, all I could point to at the time was my own research and experimentation. Now, however, we are able to answer this question based on approximately 15 years of experimentation, research and implementation done in other industries.


In this article we provide an answer to the question “does eLearning work” for the maritime industry. It may be useful to tuck it into your back pocket for when you get asked the same question; a question I guarantee you will be asked sooner or later, if you are involved in maritime training.


In the next article I plan to look at the use of Learning Management Systems in the maritime industry and factors to consider in choosing one. If you have not already done so and would like to receive notification of future articles, please sign up here. Now on to eLearning effectiveness.

To Be Clear …

Before covering the evidence about eLearning, we should be clear that eLearning can never be a complete replacement for all maritime training. When we talk about training and competencies in the maritime world, we are talking about two major components: Knowledge and Skills. We may also be talking about other components such as attitude, experience, etc. But I suspect we can all agree that knowledge and skill are the two primary components required for maritime competency.


Aside from the notable example of simulation training, eLearning is primarily focused on knowledge acquisition. Knowledge forms the basis for all skills and competencies. There is very little question about this, but just in case there is any at all, note the following from the STCW Manila Amendments, Chapter II, Section B-II/1, Paragraph 14:


“Scope of knowledge is implicit in the concept of competence. ... This includes relevant knowledge, theory, principles and cognitive skills which, to varying degrees, underpin all levels of competence. It also encompasses proficiency in what to do, how and when to do it, and why it should be done. Properly applied, this will help to ensure that a candidate can:

  1. work competently in different ships and across a range of circumstances;
  2. anticipate, prepare for and deal with contingencies; and
  3. adapt to new and changing requirements.”


So knowledge is critical and therefore worthy of our focus. Yet it is not the full story. Although knowledge is a requirement for competency, it is not sufficient. Hands-on training, experience, attitude, time, etc are all required to complete the picture. So while eLearning (as we will see) can improve knowledge acquisition in many ways, it cannot ever remove the need for hands-on training and experience.

Strength of The Evidence

Before I became involved as an eLearning developer, I was a faculty member of Computer Science at UBC studying eLearning effectiveness. Because of my early research, I became certain early on of the strengths (and limitations) of eLearning. However, since that time, a tremendous amount of research and implementation has been performed, and fortunately we now have a lot of evidence as to eLearning’s effectiveness.


The best evidence I am aware of is a report published in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Education (US DOE). The report (the full text of which can be found here) is entitled “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning, A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies”. The strength of this report comes from the fact that it is a meta-analysis. This means that it is not, in itself, one study or one opinion of the effectiveness of eLearning. Instead, a meta-analysis looks at a large number of independent studies and research projects which all try to answer the same question - does eLearning work? It then draws a conclusion based on the strength of the widest possible breadth of investigations. This is very powerful because any biases or study flaws are quickly filtered out of the collective response.


In the case of the US DOE study, the meta-analysis was formed after looking at roughly 1,000 studies, and then filtering them down to 45 studies which were sufficiently rigorous and covered the desired questions directly. These 45 studies were then carefully reviewed to distill the information for this one report. As far as I am aware, there is no better answer anywhere to the question “does eLearning work”.

The Answer

The US DOE meta-analysis came to several conclusions. I encourage you to read the full report yourself, since there are many useful nuances to the conclusions below - all of which will provide a greater understanding of eLearning effectiveness. Let’s look at some of the most notable conclusions:


Conclusion number 1: Online learning outperforms face-to-face learning:

“Students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning  the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction. Learning outcomes for students who engaged in online learning exceeded those of students receiving face-to-face instruction.”


The effect size here (the size of the difference in effectiveness) between on-line and face-to-face instruction was quite small, but it does exist with the “win” going to on-line learning. However, with the effect being so small, I have always considered the learning effectiveness between on-line and face-to-face to be roughly equivalent. We can say unequivocally that on-line learning most certainly does not produce inferior outcomes when compared to face-to-face instruction, as many incorrectly believe. I should note, however, that until I performed my own studies in the 1990s, I also assumed that eLearning would be inferior. I was wrong.


Conclusion number 2: Blended learning is best:

Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative

to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.“


Blended learning is the technique of combining learning modes - in this case on-line learning and face-to-face learning. The conclusion above indicates that when you use a combination of on-line and face-to-face training, the learning outcomes are better than for either face-to-face or eLearning alone. This makes intuitive sense because each mode of learning has strengths the other one cannot offer. Therefore combining them yields results that either alone cannot offer.


The conclusion here is clear, if your goal is to provide the very best training possible, you should use a combined approach involving both face-to-face training and on-line learning.


Conclusion number 3: Interaction with peers and/or instructors improves learning outcomes:

Effect sizes [i.e. the improvement in learning outcomes] were larger for studies in which the online instruction was collaborative or instructor-directed than in those studies where online learners worked independently.”


This is a very important conclusion which cannot be stressed enough. One of the major advantages to on-line learning is its ability to connect people to one another. It facilitates informal learning by connecting trainees - allowing them to learn from one another in a way that face-to-face training can’t. In addition, despite perceptions to the contrary, on-line learning can be facilitated by an instructor and, as the conclusion above shows, learning outcomes are improved when this is the case. Therefore, while it is indeed possible and effective for trainees to learn on-line independently, the best outcomes are achieved when we use technology to connect people to further facilitate the learning process.


Conclusion number 4: Blending and connecting are the most important considerations:

Most of the variations in the way in which different studies implemented online learning

did not affect student learning outcomes significantly … Of those variables, the two mentioned above (i.e., the use of a blended rather than a purely online approach and instructor-directed or collaborative rather than independent, self-directed instruction) were the only statistically significant influences on effectiveness.”


There are many different ways in which we can facilitate on-line learning. One of the variables we hear about the most is the media type - the choice between text, images, videos, audio, etc. The US DOE study looked at how delivery and media affected the learning outcomes. What they found was that aside from the decision to employ eLearning, the only two variables which created a significant improvement in learning outcomes were blending (combining face-to-face with eLearning) and connecting trainees to an instructor and other trainees - both of which were mentioned above.


Interestingly, however, it was found that substituting one media type for another (for example, video for text) made no significant difference in outcomes. So while there are clearly situations where one media type is preferable over another, this conclusion tells us that aside from these special situations, it is safe to choose media based on what is economical to create and maintain.


Conclusion number 5: eLearning works, regardless of the subject matter:

The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different  content and learner types.”


eLearning has been around long enough and studied long enough that we can safely conclude that it is effective for all kinds of knowledge acquisition. There is nothing special about maritime knowledge or maritime learners that makes the field immune to the benefits of eLearning. That is not to say that there are no hurdles to overcome in maritime eLearning - there are. For example, the availability of internet on-board, and the sophistication of vessel based training both have slowed the adoption of eLearning in the industry. However, those obstacles are being (and have been) largely overcome by maritime-specific learning management systems (LMSs) and the industry is following suit by adopting eLearning methods. This study makes it clear that the benefits of eLearning are not domain-specific.


In the late 1990s, when eLearning was new to the world, there was a tremendous amount of activity around the question of whether eLearning produced good learning outcomes. The maritime industry has been slow to the “eLearning party” and there are some advantages to being the last one in. One of those advantages is the fact that the question of effectiveness has been answered. It works. Although it has taken roughly 15 years to come to that conclusion, the evidence is now overwhelming.


In the next article I plan to look at the use of Learning Management Systems in the maritime industry and factors to consider in choosing one. If you have not already done so and would like to receive notification of future articles, please sign up here.


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About The Author:

Murray Goldberg is the founder and President of Marine Learning Systems (, 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. Murray has won over a dozen University, National and International awards for teaching excellence and his pioneering contributions to the field of educational technology. Now, in Marine Learning Systems, Murray is hoping to play a part in advancing the art and science of learning in the maritime industry.


Blog Notifications: For notifications of new maritime training articles, please Follow this blog.

Maritime Mentoring: International Maritime Mentoring Community - Find a Mentor, Be a Mentor



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Judi Rokos
Isn't this discussion a moot point since in Maritime Training all courses, to be of any use to the licensing process, has to be approved by the US Coast Guard? I was told that there were no on-line courses (read elearning) that has been approved by the Coast Guard. Has something changed?
10/9/2012 11:38:14 AM
Murray Goldberg
Not moot at all because US certification courses are only a (small) subset of all maritime training that exists - much of which eLearning is very applicable to. Look at the Manila amendments - where eLearning and e-assessment are both recognized. It is just a matter of time, I believe, before it will be an alternative for any type of knowledge-acquisition in maritime training. This article is part of helping to make sure people have good information they can work with (and make good decisions with) as maritime training practice evolves.

Thanks for the good comment!

Take care - Murray
10/9/2012 10:26:11 PM
John Fahy
Poplar Tech. in the UK had distance learning courses for seafarers many years ago.
The main snag was snail mail.
Hence, it is not surprising that seafarers do well at eLearning.
No doubt some form of sandwich course will still be required to ensure students are up to speed for exams?
No doubt considerable opposition will come from the various colleges and universities that see a source of income shrinking.
10/11/2012 12:38:51 AM
John Douglas
Hi Murray,
What is eLearning? If we learn on a simulator with embedded quizzes and tests, is it eLearning?
Secondly I note a number of comments on acceptance of eLearning for certification purposes. This is quite a big hurdle as without acceptance that certification assessment can be done online we lose the advantages of it, accepting its limitations you have outlined.
However one of the biggest challenges with eLearning is whether it could be used at sea. This is not a technical question as it is possible now but whether it is appropriate to implement some sort of formal/informal learning programme into the very busy schedules of seafarers. This subject is worthy of one your investigations on its own!
10/11/2012 2:07:55 AM
Murray Goldberg
John F - thanks for the note. Your point about college opposition is an interesting one. When eLearning became prevalent in higher education about 12 years ago, colleges look to it as a way to broaden their reach and increase revenues. It will be interesting to see if the same happens in maritime training - sine some portion must always be conducted in person, regardless of how much is done on-line. This may (or may not) create a different environment for maritime colleges than it did for other disciplines.

Thanks for the note.

Best regards - Murray
10/11/2012 3:40:32 PM
Murray Goldberg
Hey John (D) - thanks also for the great note.

Indeed - the term "eLearning" can be applied to any kind of computer-aided learning. So yes, under that definition simulation training qualifies. However, the majority of the time, when people refer to generalized eLearning, they are either referring to LMS-supported web-based training, or the older style stand-alone CD-based training.

The question about certification training is a huge one, but does not represent a go/no-go choice. I have learned a lot about this (though you will know much more than I do) recently. eLearning, as I understand it, can be used for certification training, but the approval process is arduous - and therefore it is rare. However, there are many other forms of maritime training which fit well for eLearning - including vessel-specific training and in-house job training. BC Ferries is a great example of that.

Finally, I am really interested in your comment about the practical issues of training at sea. I have spoken with many about this and have heard every form of opinion on it. Therefore, I am starting to believe the answer varies depending on the work environment, the vessel operator, the type of ship, the duty cycle, and even the attitude of the master. My personal belief is that there are often (dependent on the above) good opportunities for training and advancement while on-board, and almost certainly good opportunities for just-in-time training for specific job duties or equipment while on-board - all technology-supported.

I always love your questions. They make me think.

Best regards - and good to hear from you.

10/11/2012 3:51:06 PM
Tony Palenzuela
Hi Murray,
Yes, eLearning is working in my previous company with about 4000 seafarers. What they learn are company specific subjects and UPGRADING courses related to loss prevention and K&U for competencies. It needs only improvement in collaboration w/other learners.
10/17/2012 4:19:24 AM
Tony Palenzuela
At this year’s conference, Nov.29, ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN will host a panel discussion on the rise of Massive Open Online Community (MOOCs) and their impact on the future of education as part of a wider examination of the open movement.
11/20/2012 2:25:25 AM
Murray Goldberg
Tony - thanks for your notes (sorry - for some reason I am not getting notifications of new comments - or I would have responded earlier).

To your first note - yes - the current crop of LMSs are much better at supporting "learning community" interactions between learners) than the "old school" LMSs. So we are moving in the right direction there.

And how did the discussion on MOOCs go? I would have liked to hear about this and am very curious what the consensus was. Did you attend?

Best regards -
12/21/2012 3:06:07 PM