Let’s Make Learning Social Again

by Murray Goldberg

© metamorworks/AdobeStock

It is an understatement to say that online training is becoming commonplace in the maritime industry. In fact, more and more it is becoming the standard. But at what cost? What are we giving up? And how can we mitigate the downsides? Let’s identify those things we lose when we go online, and discuss simple opportunities to take them back.

It should be noted that Training Tips for Ships is routinely highly “pro” when it comes to online learning. The benefits of efficiency, anywhere / anytime access, reduced travel, and the ability to adapt to differing student needs are difficult to argue against. On balance, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks substantially. However, as both a university researcher and implementer of online and blended learning tools and environments, it is clear to me that there are indeed drawbacks. In fact, both research and experience tell us that one of the key drawbacks to online learning is its lack of interactive and social aspects. That is, when we learn online, we tend to learn in isolation. While that may suit many learners, it does not suit all learners. And even for those well suited to learning alone, there still exists the drawback that they do not have the advantage of a learning “community” in online settings. In a learning community students support one another and teach one another. These are well documented and powerful effects, yet they are often absent from online learning environments.

The most effective way to regain the lost benefits of face-to-face learning is to use face-to-face learning! That is, when we combine (blend) face-to-face learning with online learning, we gain the advantages of both. And indeed, research shows that this blending produces significantly better learning outcomes and learner satisfaction than either face-to-face or online learning alone. But blending is not always an option, especially in resource constrained environments or when learners are geographically remote. Fortunately, there is an alternative.

An effective, cost-efficient and simple method of reintroducing social elements to the learning experience is through the creation of an online learning community. This typically takes the form of online bulletin boards or discussion areas where the learning community can interact, ask questions and generally support one another.

Usually, spaces in the community are organized by topic area; for example, each course could have a space in the community. Likewise, it is often productive to create spaces for groups sharing other interests such as for people holding the same position or rank, and for those operating from the same port or vessel. By organizing the discussion areas by shared interest, users will naturally gravitate to those areas which are relevant and useful, and discussions are most likely to be of interest to all members of that discussion area.

Such a community provides a place for learners to ask questions, discuss examples, pose problems, and generally both provide and receive social support through their learning experience. It is remarkable how important this can be, especially in the face of difficult or complex online topics.

Once the community is set up, this also creates the opportunity to have instructors monitor the discussion and make themselves available to answer questions and contribute their own stories and experiences. In some sense, this constitutes a simple implementation of blended learning which, as indicated above, is proven to provide superior learning outcomes.

Creating spaces for the formation and interaction of learning communities is a very simple yet incredibly powerful addition to online learning programs. It is a first step toward real blended learning and requires only a minimal expenditure of effort and cost to set up and maintain. Yet the benefits are immense.

Until next time, keep well and sail safely.

About the Author:

Murray Goldberg is CEO of Marine Learning Systems, maker of MarineLMS.

October 2021