'Stressful and frantic for all concerned'. That's how the authors of the latest Maritime Skills Commission report summarise the overnight switch to online learning when classrooms across the country had to close during the Covid-19 pandemic. The most powerful lesson from the report, however, is not that disaster was averted but that there's no going back; Covid-19 has forced training providers everywhere to re-think how they do things, and to see new opportunities. Iain Mackinnon, secretary to the Maritime Skills Alliance and a commissioner with the Maritime Skills Commission, reports
'Digital Learning: Captured Lessons' is the first project report from the Maritime Skills Commission. Training providers whose whole business model was based on having learners in a classroom had to scramble to put learning online pretty much overnight when classrooms were forced to close with the first lockdown in March last year.
The idea behind this project was to capture the lessons learned while they are still fresh, then encourage everyone concerned to think through what could be done better as a result. Online learning has been around for 30 years, yet it is clear that the crisis has led to a seismic shift in perception; as a Commission we wanted to seize the moment and consolidate the gains the sector's made.
Solent University won the Commission's tender and the report was written by Lars Lippuner, head of Warsash Maritime School, and Dr Carole Davis, associate professor, now on secondment to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency as Assistant Director for Modernising Maritime Education. They drew on a survey of other providers across the wider maritime sector and also presented frankly on their own experience at Solent University.
A bit over a year ago at Solent 'the classroom remained the primary place where learning occurred, with online spaces providing opportunity for revision rather than amassing new knowledge'. Very much to the credit of all concerned the university switched learning rapidly to online delivery when they had to, and although there were some problems, by and large it worked.
The real interest though is in what happened next. With the immediate crisis behind them, and an at least satisfactory show still on the road, everyone started looking at how to make online learning – and online assessment – work, and work well.
In a crisis you can get away with taping a classroom lesson and posting it online. It's a lot better than nothing, but lecturers can't tell if 'learners' are actually learning, learners can't question their tutors, and it's pretty de-motivating all round.
Done well though, there's nothing in the least 'remote' about online learning; the best examples mix direct teaching and personal reflection and learning, discussion and feedback, collaboration and engagement, complementing what happens online with in-person learning in a classroom or workshop – and we've known that for many years, thanks in large part to the pioneering work of the Open University.
'Digital natives' vs 'digital poverty'
In their report Solent University tells the story of lecturers exploring the different benefits of synchronous and asynchronous learning; does everyone really have to be present at the same time and go through everything at the same pace?
The discussion shifted the focus away from participation – simply being present – back to core principles. What really matters is not that people turn up for so many hours or weeks or months, but that they actually learn what they should be learning, and that we have some reliable means of assessing that. Online learning challenges our assumption that someone's learning just because they're sitting in a classroom.
Solent's report emphasises how different digital learning is and how it needs to be based on a different pedagogy – a different approach to the practice of teaching and learning and assessment, which lecturers and tutors therefore need to be taught to use properly. They point to some lessons which really don't fit online learning very well, like chartwork and some complex mathematical calculations.
Solent point to the different skills which learners and teachers need to make digital learning work – and to the false assumption that all young people these days worries are 'digital natives', born with the ability to navigate these things with ease. They point to wider worries about 'digital poverty', that some people lack access to good enough equipment, or good enough internet connections.
They also point to some of the other things that change with online learning. Lecturers and fellow students are used to picking-up the signs in and around a classroom if someone's not OK, not just that they're not learning, but that something else isn't right. Signs that might point to some mental health issue, perhaps, a topic which Nautilus rightly now has high on its agenda.
Shifting the balance: recommendations
Solent University offered 23 recommendations, which they address to training providers, to learners, to teachers and support staff, and to the professional, statutory and regulatory bodies which set the framework within which everyone else works.
When the first lockdown came the rapid response of the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) was crucial. Within a week the MCA had published MIN 611, setting out how training providers could work online. Ajit Jacob, Chief Examiner, explained to the Commission's webinar which launched this report that this was much more than a short-term expedient. The MCA plans to amend the relevant MSNs (Merchant Shipping Notices) to give providers flexibility to use online approaches for the long term.
Learning while at sea
The launch webinar also heard an impressive contribution from Matt Gilbert of the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers who pointed to their rapid shift to online learning 'extending our reach and scale' – something he had not expected. I want to see more people improving their prospects through learning, so that's powerful evidence in my eyes that there's a tool here we should use more. For the Institute this has meant online lessons being 'taken up by 900 international learners who didn't have other alternatives [like classroom learning] available to them'. That's very good news.
For many Nautilus members that will translate as learning while at sea – an important reason to see progress with the Maritime 2050 recommendation that 'Government, industry, and academia [should] jointly establish an internet connectivity working group to identify action needed to drive internet connectivity at sea in support of social care and continuous education'.
The webinar also heard from Graeme Clark, Head of Service for Digital Assessment for the Scottish Qualifications Authority, who said that the biggest barriers to digital learning have always been cultural; Covid-19 has now blown those barriers away, and forced us to look again at what we are trying to achieve and the best way to go about it. He urged us to put learners at the heart of that thinking, not the convenience of the existing system.
Does all this mean that we will never again meet in a classroom (or in the pub afterwards), and that we're condemned to learning in isolation at home for ever more? Certainly not. What we're talking about is shifting the balance so that where there has been an assumption in the past that classroom learning was the only way to go, we should look at all the tools available to us, including online learning and – taking the broader definition implicit in the term 'digital' – at simulation too. Done right, digital learning will help more people learn, and learn more effectively.
- read the Commission's full report on digital learning online